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Denis Kurutz, 61; Was Landscape Architect for Original Getty Museum

February 17, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Denis Lawrence Kurutz, landscape architect who re-created for the original J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu the fountains and plantings of a Herculaneum estate destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, has died. He was 61.

Kurutz, who also worked on initial landscaping for the newer Getty Museum in Brentwood, died Wednesday at USC University Hospital of complications after a lung transplant. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis.

Now known as Getty Villa, the former Malibu Getty complex has been closed for renovation for the past few years. Kurutz was working on restoration of the grounds.

When the villa opened in 1974, Kurutz and the firm for which he worked at the time, Emmet L. Wemple and Associates of Los Angeles, received a national landscape award for their work.

In order to re-create the destroyed gardens of the Roman Villa of the Papyri, built more than two millenniums ago, Kurutz traveled to Italy to search for likely plant life, fountain designs and tiles. He also delved into ancient history and art.

For a visual concept of Italian gardens of that period, he examined a fresco from the garden room of the villa of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus, housed in the National Museum of Rome. The fresco, he told The Times in 1987, helped show him what to plant -- colorful flowers such as daffodils, iris, flax, anemones, sweet peas, stocks and calendulas, and boxwood shrubs. Because Malibu has more fog than the old Herculaneum, he said, he had to make certain adaptations, such as planting Japanese rather than European boxwood.

Kurutz, in recreating the villa courtyard and gardens, also relied, he told The Times, on writings of historian Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the volcanic eruption from across the Bay of Naples, and of the Greek physician and pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides. Pliny, Kurutz found, had kept a detailed record of his work with his gardener in maintaining his own garden of the period, and Dioscorides had completed a massive treatise on about 600 plants prevalent around the Mediterranean shortly before the volcano erupted.

Until the Getty Villa closed, Kurutz made an annual tour of its grounds to monitor the historic integrity of the vegetation.

When one misinformed gardener introduced Japanese azaleas to add color, for example, Kurutz had them quickly removed.

In 1987, Kurutz, then vice president of the Wemple firm, served as landscape manager for the Brentwood Getty as thousands of native California trees and plants were strengthened or planted at the site before construction. Careful use of native sycamores, oaks, pine trees, limited chaparral and other ground cover, he said at the time, not only be would aesthetic and educational to visitors from around the world, but also would minimize fire hazards and erosion.

Among his tasks was landscaping above and around the Brentwood site's underground 1,000-vehicle parking facility. "We are," he joked to The Times, "putting the park back into parking."

A native of Cleveland, Kurutz moved to Southern California with his family when he was a toddler. He served in the Army in Germany before completing his studies in landscape architecture at USC, where he was a protege of professor Emmet L. Wemple.

When Wemple formed his own landscape design firm in 1968, Kurutz became a founding partner. Two decades later, Kurutz formed his own firm, Denis L. Kurutz and Associates based in Pasadena.

During Kurutz's 35-year career, he worked on landscaping projects for the U.S. Embassy in Japan, the King Fahad National Park in Saudi Arabia, the 450-acre Frank G. Bonelli Park in San Dimas, the native garden at Rancho Los Alamitos, the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and Joshua Tree National Park.

He also landscaped theme parks and private estates, serving as a longtime consultant to Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm. Kurutz earned awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects for his work on three projects -- restoration of the historic Workman-Temple Homestead in the City of Industry; the Einstein estate in Brentwood; and Camp Snoopy for the Mall of America in Minnesota.

Kurutz is survived by his fiancee, Denise Wampler; two sons, Josh and Sam; a daughter, Katrina; a sister, Kristin Thomas; a brother Gary; and one grandchild.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, either blood or money be donated to the USC University Hospital Cardio-Thoracic Lung unit, 1510 San Pablo, Suite 415, Los Angeles, CA 90033; or that donations be made to the Society of American Forests.

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