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Ruth Shellhorn, 97; landscape architect for Bullock's, Disneyland

November 12, 2006|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

After studying landscape architecture at Cornell University in the 1930s, Ruth Shellhorn traveled home to South Pasadena on a mail boat through the Panama Canal. On her journey, she kept a meticulous diary of the exotic plants she encountered in Central and South America: bougainvillea, palm trees, birds of paradise.

With her rigorous training and new data on tropical plants, combined with the gardening experiences of her youth in the mild, Mediterranean-like climate of the San Gabriel Valley, Shellhorn embarked on a 57-year career as a landscape architect.

By the time she retired in 1990, she was recognized for helping define the Southern California look of midcentury modern architecture for the now-defunct Bullock's department store chain and planning some of the central landscaping elements of the Disneyland theme park.

Shellhorn, 97, died Nov. 3 at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. No cause of death was announced, but her friend and fellow landscape architect Kelly Comras said Shellhorn had suffered a stroke a few days earlier.

"She was a landscape architect's landscape architect," said Comras, who is writing a biography of Shellhorn. "She was a terrific site planner, she had exquisite planting skills, she wrote well.... When she designed something, she had complete command of construction details. She didn't just rely on employees and contractors to fill in the gaps."

A modest, unassuming woman, Shellhorn enjoyed collaborating with architects and engineers and adapted her designs to fit the particular needs of her clients and their sites. Besides Bullock's and Walt Disney Co., they included UC Riverside and individual homeowners.

Shellhorn was hired by Bullock's in 1945 as consulting landscape architect for the Pasadena store, designed by prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket. Housed in a sleek, modernist structure, it was one of the first department stores to offer a relaxing, enjoyable experience to the sophisticated shopper who arrived by car.

"She was very actively involved in creating the whole setting and ambience of modern shopping," said Kathryn Gleason, associate professor and chairwoman of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cornell. "That transition that one made from getting out of the car and into the mood for the shopping experience was very different."

Shellhorn's design encompassed a bold combination of plants, textures and colors with a minimum of fussy details that matched the architecture, Comras said. "The minute you crossed the property line, you entered a Shellhorn landscape."

Bullock's was so pleased with her work that the company hired her to design the landscaping at most of its future stores and manage the maintenance of the chain's landscaping, which she did through 1978. She also was responsible for landscaping the Fashion Square shopping centers, anchored by Bullock's stores, at Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, La Habra and Del Amo in Torrance. (Macy's took over Bullock's in the late 1980s and eventually renamed all of the stores.)

Becket, who worked with Shellhorn on several of those projects, recommended her to Walt Disney in 1955, only a few months before his new amusement park was to open in Anaheim. Disney was looking for a liaison between chief landscape architects Jack and Bill Evans and the other designers.

"He had five different art directors, and he was concerned that the five 'lands' wouldn't hang together," Comras said, referring to the five themed areas that made up much of the original park.

Disney wanted Shellhorn to help integrate those disparate parts into a cohesive whole, but she recalled her uncertainty about the project last year in an interview for a Times feature.

"I was sort of thinking it was going to be some honky-tonk like Venice or something, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to do it," Shellhorn said.

But Disney charmed her, and she joined the design group's pressure-filled sprint to opening day.

The art directors quickly approved her landscaping plan for Main Street, so she continued sketching landscaping designs for the Town Square just inside the main gate, the Plaza Hub at the center of the park and finally the pedestrian traffic plan for the park.

By using screens and plants compatible with differing styles of architecture, Shellhorn was able to ease the transition from the Victorian look of the plaza to western-themed Frontierland, for instance.

In looking back at the era, Comras noted, "It was unusual for a woman to have the responsibilities she did.... She was not a feminist, she was just extremely competent."

Gleason, from Cornell, called Shellhorn a "modern professional woman" who maintained that she experienced no discrimination.

"I think a lot of it's in your own attitude," Shellhorn told an interviewer in 2001 for the Pasadena Heritage Oral History Project. "If you go at it as a person, you're not a woman or a man. It doesn't make any difference. You have a problem to solve. So you cooperate and you work on that problem."

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