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Rancho Los Alamitos Offers a View of 1920s Landscape

June 22, 1996|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Strolling through the four-acre gardens at Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens is like stepping back in time to California's 1920s and '30s--considered the area's golden age of gardening because at that time wealthy people's interest was in hiring the highest-paid landscape architects to install elaborate gardens.

It's not hard for visitors to imagine life in that era. These gardens were created as practical outdoor entertaining or strolling spaces, consisting of visually appealing plants, many of which are still popular in modern gardens.

Fortunately, Rancho Los Alamitos, consisting of a 200-year-old adobe house, gardens and surrounding barns and outbuildings, has survived despite encroaching development.

Owned by the city of Long Beach and operated by the nonprofit Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation, the historic site is open to the public free of charge every Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Like most California ranchos, this one originally covered a wide swath of land, extending as far south as parts of Seal Beach and Garden Grove.

The king of Spain deeded the original 167,000-acre land grant to Manuel Nieto in 1784. It had shrunk to 28,500 acres when it was acquired by Abel Stearns in 1840 and included a crude, four-room adobe house used for vaqueros.

In 1878, John Bixby, owner of Rancho Santa Ana, leased 1,000 acres, including the dilapidated adobe. He bought additional acreage and moved his wife, Susan, and children onto the property.

Susan Bixby, a keen gardening enthusiast, began the gardens while the adobe was enlarged to accommodate a growing family.

In 1906, Rancho Los Alamitos was inherited by Fred Bixby and his sister, Suzanna Bixby Bryant--two of John and Susan's children. Suzanna Bixby Bryant is remembered as the founder of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, which is now in Claremont.

It was due to efforts of Fred Bixy's wife, Florence, that the gardens evolved over a 30-year period to become a showplace California garden. Her gardens exemplify restraint and simple beauty in an era when wealthy tycoons spent fortunes re-creating grand, European-styled gardens for their mansions.

"Florence invested her money in hiring talented designers rather than spending large sums on exotic plants," said John Schoustra, chief horticulturist for the rancho.

"Working with prominent plants men and designers, including Florence Yochum and the Olmsted Brothers [landscape architects who designed such notable spaces as New York's Central Park], she developed a series of garden rooms for outdoor living. She made sure that the bones of the garden were in place."

Fortunately for modern visitors, the gardens remained intact although time had affected many of the plantings and hard-scape features, such as foundations and walkways.

Florence Bixby lived at the rancho until her death in 1961. The Bixby family then sold the property to the city, with the provision that it be opened to the public.

A $1-million restoration of the gardens began in 1993 as part of a 10-year, $7-million project to preserve and restore the site to reflect its sweep of California history.

Under the direction of Pamela Seager, executive director of the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation, the process is a meticulous effort to restore the site with historical accuracy.

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There's a sweeping interest in heritage plants and gardens, and the gardens surrounding the Doctor's House at the Fullerton Arboretum exemplify a heritage garden. When completely renovated in the fall, the garden will evoke the turn of the century.

The cottage-style garden will feature old-fashioned roses as well as those that look old-fashioned, as created by modern hybridizer David Austin. There will also be asters, coreopsis, Grandma's flag irises, mallows, Queen Anne's lace and other plants reminiscent of that era.

The gardens at Rancho Los Alamitos are also historically accurate.

"We're very fortunate to have a large number of photographs and home movies made by the Bixbys that show what the gardens looked like," Seager said.

Florence Bixby created gardens that served as green buffers against the dry, dusty land surrounding the working ranch. She also used the ocean view that the mesa had (housing developments now block the ocean and Catalina Island view that the Bixby family once enjoyed).

Bixby and her designers created 11 garden "rooms" surrounding the adobe house. Each has a distinct character and planting design, yet all flow into one another. The walled Secret Garden was one of Bixby's favorite spaces for looking after her grandchildren or for quiet contemplation.

She also added several long walks--the 80-foot Geranium Walk, lined with terra-cotta pots containing geraniums of that era; the 80-foot Oleander Walk, planted with double-flowered pink oleander and, along the banks, blue plumbago capensis; and the 100-foot Jacaranda Walk adjacent to the tennis courts, built so her teenage daughters could enjoy the company of suitable young men.

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