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Ruth Shellhorn: Mid-Century in Southern California
SAH/SCC Film Screening, Lecture,& Book Signing
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

SAH/SCC presents an evening of film and talk focusing on Ruth Patricia Shellhorn (1909-2006), a landscape architect who helped define the distinctive mid-century regional aesthetic of Southern California. Author and landscape architect Kelly Comras, ASLA, will discuss and sign her newly released book, Ruth Shellhorn (University of Georgia Press, 2016). The book is part of the new Masters of Modern Landscape Design series published in association with the Library of American Landscape History, which produced the short film “Ruth Shellhorn: Mid-Century Design in Southern California,” which is also part of the program to take place at the Pasadena Central Library (Myron Hunt and H.C. Chambers, 1927).

Most well known for her work on the Bullock’s department stores and Fashion Square shopping centers—projects that redefined the commercial experience as a relaxing and entertaining activity—and for her work with Walt Disney on the original design of Disneyland, Shellhorn also designed a landscape master plan for the University of California at Riverside and other campuses. Her work also included a number of private gardens and estates for movie stars and the business and financial leaders of the Los Angeles region, including newspaper magnates Norman and Buffy Chandler, label tycoon R. Stanton Avery, and actors Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Autry.

She created landscape designs that refined the indoor-outdoor living concept, and she developed a palette of plant materials that perfectly expressed the exuberance and optimism of the post-war era, which became known as “the Southern California look.” Among her palette are such flora as star jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, agave, creeping thyme, olive trees, and myriad species of palm.

While working on Disneyland, according to Comras: “Designing in the field without plans, she helped lay out watercourses with stakes and string and supervised grading around the moat to dramatize the park’s centerpiece, the majestic [Sleeping Beauty] castle. Under Disney’s direction, she worked alongside the art directors as part of an elite leadership team of otherwise male designers who oversaw design of the park. Her engineering skills became apparent when she discovered discrepancies in grades and dimensions that were appreciatively acknowledged by surprised road crews.”

Shellhorn's superb educational training from Oregon State College and Cornell University distinguished her from most practitioners of the time and prepared her to practice at the top of her profession, in spite of early obstacles because of her gender. Her work bridged the Beaux-Arts and the Modern and she experimented with many elements of Modernist landscape design, but she never identified with any particular camp. She placed a high value on how people would use the spaces she designed. Her professional peers considered much of her work to be elegant and timeless. Shellhorn collaborated with some of the finest architects of the era, including Welton Becket, A. Quincy Jones, Pereira & Luckman, and Wallace Neff.

Author Comras is principal of Kelly Comras Landscape Architecture and is an attorney, practicing in Pacific Palisades. Her work focuses on the study or use of land, and bringing people together to achieve a common goal related to such use. Comras also conducts research, publishes, and lectures on topics relating to mid-century landscape design. She has lectured at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, California Preservation Foundation, and UCLA. Comras presently serves as President of the California Garden & Landscape History Society.

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