Walking in her footpaths

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."

Fans of Shellhorn's work highlight her shopping mall projects, which date to 1945, when the now-defunct Bullock's chain hired her to create "a California look" at its department stores. The work grew to include the Fashion Squares built in Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, Torrance (Del Amo) and La Habra plus a host of imitators.

"I think it's the look we almost take for granted today," says Kathryn Gleason, associate professor and chairwoman of the landscape architecture department at Cornell. "The look she defined is so much a part of our thinking of shopping as a leisure activity."

Landscaping around the stores sent the message that shopping could be an escape rather than an errand, something to be enjoyed rather than endured. "She really introduced the first waves of that" concept, Gleason says.

Shellhorn's designs helped major city-based stores move into the suburbs, where a new style of shopping emerged with the burgeoning car culture, says Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit foundation in Washington, D.C., dedicated to raising awareness of significant landscape architects and their work.

"Ruth's work at the Fashion Squares and the Bullock's are just part of the greater story of how Southern Californians shop," Birnbaum says.

For Shellhorn, this new middle-class shopping experience demanded something more than the usual palm trees.

"What I wanted to project was a more subtropical look," Shellhorn says. "I wanted it park-like and people-friendly."

So she gave them parking lots dotted with olive trees and low planters filled with rosemary and bird of paradise. Wide, airy walkways wrapped around low planters filled with natal plum and broad-leafed, shiny subtropicals that, when viewed from one end of the mall, tricked the eye into seeing a calming ribbon of green rather than concrete sidewalks.

Espaliers of ornamental pear and kangaroo treebine, a graceful Australian vine, softened the sides of department store walls, affixed by trellising techniques developed by Shellhorn's husband, the late Harry Keuser.

At Santa Ana Fashion Square (now Westfield MainPlace), she included eucalyptus trees, whose images were incorporated into the tearoom flatware.

At La Habra, she created a landscape that managed to connect a colonial-style Buffums at one end to a modern, boxy Bullock's at the other. That design won her honors from the American Assn. of Nurserymen, the award Nixon was handing to her in that old photo. She also has been named a fellow by the American Society of Landscape Architects, one of that organization's highest honors.

Most of Shellhorn's public projects have been changed or destroyed, as development pressures pushed new owners to use every patch of ground for retail space, food courts or parking.

"It's all about money now," she says.

She came out of retirement briefly to refurbish a Florence Yoch-designed garden at the Pasadena home of novelist Harriet Doerr, a friend of Shellhorn's, not long before Doerr died in 2002.

But perhaps her most lasting work is a project she almost refused. Disney landscapers Jack and Bill Evans called Shellhorn to help with the final landscaping of Disneyland just four months before its opening.

"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," she says.

Upon seeing what Walt Disney envisioned, she signed onto the team and was soon devoting herself to the details that would make strolling from a Midwestern main street to a tropical jungle to a princess' castle seem like the most natural thing in the world. She was at the park all day, principally planning the flow of pedestrian traffic. At night she drove home to Pasadena and drew plans until midnight. The pace was hectic, but exciting.

"Roy Disney said, 'Don't ever go to him [Walt] with any problems. Let him float and dream, and we'll handle the problems,' " Shellhorn recalls.

They kept to the rule. At one point, as a tractor driver stood ready to begin grading the area around Sleeping Beauty's castle, Shellhorn says, the construction engineer "threw up his hands and said, 'I don't have time for this. I don't have time to make grading plans.' "

So Shellhorn stood by the tractor and guided the driver, step by step, putting the soil in its proper place, until it looked just right.

Asked if there was a favorite nook within Disneyland, she shakes her head. She rarely thought of her projects that way, she says. In every job her goal was to create a cohesive, coordinated look.

That's the hallmark of good design, says Cornell's Gleason.

"That's often the most invisible work of landscape architects," she says. "If you get the context right, the landscape architecture is the least visible part. It creates an environment, rather than a series of things." It doesn't call attention to itself, but makes everything around it better -- much like Shellhorn herself.

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Lecture

A free lecture, "The Landscape Legacy of Ruth Patricia Shellhorn," will be presented by landscape architect Kelly Comras on Oct. 21 in the Charles E. Young Grand Salon of Kerckhoff Hall at UCLA. A reception starts at 6 p.m.; the lecture is at 7:30. The event is sponsored by the UCLA Extension landscape architecture program in conjunction with UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, to which Shellhorn is donating her archives. Information: (310) 825-9414. Comras also is collecting information on Shellhorn's work, including noteworthy residential projects; she can be e-mailed at k_comras@hotmail.com.

Dawn Bonker can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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