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Walking in her footpaths

Landscape designer Ruth Shellhorn helped shape two essential symbols of the state -- the shopping mall and Disneyland.

September 15, 2005|Dawn Bonker | Special to The Times

JUST try to coax Ruth Shellhorn into talking about that photograph of her at the White House more than 30 years ago, accepting an award from Pat Nixon. What was the award?

"I don't know," Shellhorn says.

At 95, it's understandable that a few details from a career spanning seven decades might grow fuzzy. But spend more time with Shellhorn -- one of the designers credited with shaping two quintessentially Californian places, the shopping mall and Disneyland -- and it's clear that modesty, not failed memory, is at play.

She really just wants to talk about the work. Shellhorn ushers visitors to the drawing board in her Redondo Beach home office and is soon awash in blueprints. As she unrolls yellowing, 50-year-old plans for a new amusement park called Disneyland, she remembers choosing elm trees for Main Street USA because they're vertical and space saving. She flips through old photographs and describes how she softened the look of blocky department store buildings with lacy espaliers.

"I miss it a lot," says Shellhorn. "It was my recreation."

It also was a legendary career, says Los Angeles landscape architect Kelly Comras, who co-wrote a profile of Shellhorn for the second volume of "Pioneers of American Landscape Design," to be published next year by McGraw-Hill. Comras also will deliver a public lecture on Shellhorn's work in October at UCLA.

Despite such renewed attention to her work, these days Shellhorn employs her eye only to design altar arrangements at Christ Episcopal Church in Redondo Beach, where she takes her turn picking up wholesale flowers and arranging bouquets for Sunday services. In her day, her supporters say, Shellhorn was a leader in landscape architecture, someone who shaped modern landscapes for a generation that no longer donned hats and gloves for shopping trips downtown, but rather had a suburban sensibility -- stylish but relaxed.

"This is the landscape architect's landscape architect," Comras says. "She was ahead of her time."

Even Shellhorn's alma mater, Cornell, only recently caught up with her. This summer the university awarded her a belated 1933 degree in landscape architecture.

"I was just floored. I've been retired for 15 years," says Shellhorn, who left Cornell four credits shy of graduating under circumstances complicated by the Great Depression and a dean's notions about women's academic frailty.

Because of the period's financial hardships, male students were allowed to finish a five-year landscape program in four years by loading up on extra courses their senior year. Shellhorn was denied that option because the dean of the day believed women couldn't shoulder such a heavy burden. She was told to return for another year to complete the four units. Her family in South Pasadena couldn't afford such an expense, so she headed home.

Not that the lack of a degree ever slowed her down. Even in the depths of the Depression, Shellhorn managed to get a local store to display her landscape drawings, and she began working with an architect building homes in Whittier. For a time, she even worked with noted landscape architects Ralph Cornell, UCLA's first landscape architect, and Florence Yoch, a Shellhorn family neighbor who created the film landscape of Tara in "Gone With the Wind" and other sets of the era.

"I learned a lot from Ralph Cornell," Shellhorn says. "He taught me simplification. He said the basic things should be permanent and not get overgrown all of a sudden."

Although few Southern Californians know her name, most have seen Shellhorn's work, or at least its remnants. Besides Disneyland, there was the grand old Bullock's on Wilshire Boulevard (now the Southwestern University law library), plus sister stores in Westwood (now the Westwood Marketplace) and Pasadena (now a Macy's). Southern Californians of a certain age also will recall the relaxed elegance of the Fashion Square shopping centers that sprung up in Los Angeles and Orange counties in the 1960s and 1970s.

Other projects included UC Riverside, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the John Tracy Clinic in L.A. and the Western home office for Prudential Insurance Co., as well as hundreds of residential gardens for the well-heeled from Pasadena to Bel-Air. Some of these private designs graced homes built by Cliff May and other notable Southern California architects.

The beauty of the work was its subtlety, Comras says, citing Shellhorn's strength in planning a garden's architectural structure and her deft, restrained use of color. "It's not just about planting pretty flowers," she says, though she does cite a long pathway at UC Riverside that Shellhorn lined with roses -- white leading to soft yellow, then apricot, then bright orange, "building excitement as you walked along."

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