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From the very beginning California has been seen as a place of great, almost mythical possibilities. The name California first appears in The Exploits of Esplandian, a novel written by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo and published in Seville, Spain, in 1510. It recounts the fictional adventures of Esplandian, who visits a place "on the right hand of the Indies... an island called California, very near to the Terrestrial Paradise, which was peopled with black women... accustomed to live after the fashion of the Amazons.... Their arms were full of gold." This fanciful description introduced themes that have been associated with California ever since, particularly the proximity to paradise.
The drama of California's landscape, the pleasures of its climate, and the plenitude of its resources encouraged early explorers to believe that an arcadian society could be created in this benign and beautiful place. During the two and one-third centuries covered in this book this pastoral haven has become the premier industrial state in the United States of America, with an economy that is the largest in the country and with a plethora of contemporary problems. Its gardens provide important clues to the transformation of the landscape from its edenic to its current state. Garden designers have responded to the remarkable opportunities presented by California's landscape with boldness, inventiveness, modesty, arrogance, ignorance, rowdiness, humor, integrity, poetic introspection, and virtually every other human attitude. In that sense, California gardens can be seen as a microcosm of universal attributes, yet understanding their regional meaning has perhaps even more importance.Stimulating a greater awareness of how regional garden design has evolved from a mixture of universal and local traditions is one of the purposes of this book.
California's architectural traditions have been analyzed with considerable insight and thoroughness, but its garden traditions remain largely unknown even within the state, having been studied only in Victoria Padilla's excellent book, Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History (1961). More recently the literature has increased with the publication of isolated articles in scholarly journals and of monographs on the landscape architects A. E. Hanson and Florence Yoch.
California Gardens: Creating a New Eden documents and analyzes notable gardens made from 1769 (when Alta California, or Upper California--the territory that became the state of California in 1850--became the last component of the immense Spanish empire on the North American continent) to the present. Most of these gardens were created by professional designers for affluent owners--the conspicuous exception being the gardens of the Spanish missions. The fact that this book concentrates on gardens professionally designed for the well-to-do does not in any way imply that vernacular gardens are inherently less interesting. Popular gardens (those created by individuals whose principal occupation is not the design of gardens) such as the Underground Garden in Fresno, Romano Gabriel's Wooden Garden in Eureka, and the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, as well as less ambitious examples, merit their own detailed treatment.
The profession of landscape architecture was introduced to this country during the second half of the nineteenth century, and it is probable that between 1856 and 1900 no more than eleven landscape architects were working nationwide. William Hammond Hall, the first superintendent and designer of Golden Gate Park, was the only member of this initial group to practice in California. Consequently, until this century most gardens in the state were designed and planted by nurserymen, who also provided the plants for gardens designed and supervised by landscape architects. The differences between the two professions can be demonstrated in a comparison between Hall and James R. Lowe. In 1864 Lowe, an Englishman who had a large nursery in San Jose, charged David Belden, also of San Jose, $1,302 for 434 "forest trees"; the cost of the design was only $25. Ten years later Hall proposed to provide a design for James Flood's estate in Menlo Park "to improve your grounds just for the sake of showing Californians how such things should be done." Unfortunately, he was not more explicit about his innovative ideas, but he did describe the services he would provide:
"The subject of improving grounds is so little understood here that I hope you will excuse my offering a brief explanation.
"The practice of this art of creating landscapes--improving grounds necessitates a knowledge of engineering, construction, architectural design, and gardening manipulation, as well as with the peculiarities of the soil, climate, etc. of the particular locality where each work is to be executed, the whole to be brought together by and under the rules of artistic design and good taste."
Hall agreed to provide two drawings and a report for $200. Working drawings would cost another $200; supervision and staking, $150. It would be necessary for him to be on site for an entire day four to six times a month during the grading and construction. Once the heavy work was finished, this would be reduced to three days a month.
Nurserymen still provide design services, even though landscape architects have deplored that practice ever since the formal foundation of their profession in 1899. They believe that the design of a landscape should be entrusted only to a professionally trained designer.
After 1900 most landscape architects were trained at schools of landscape architecture such as Harvard and the University of Illinois; the first department in California was founded at Berkeley in 1913. Their training included instruction in soil science, geology, ecology, and botany, as well as landscape construction and planting design. This combination was intended to produce designers who were artists but also knowledgeable about the practical aspects of construction and horticulture.
Several successful California designers in the 1920s, such as Paul Howard and A. E. Hanson, acquired their expertise in nurseries. There were a few gifted gentlemen amateurs, including Francis T. Underhill and Lockwood de Forest in Santa Barbara. And before the advent of professionally trained landscape architects, many architects designed their own gardens, since they had no respect either for garden designers or for nurserymen. For example, Myron Hunt, Robert Farquhar, Mark Daniels, Willis Polk, and others designed the gardens for houses they had created. In order to satisfy their clients' desires for gardens in a number of different styles, most garden designers maintained extensive libraries of books about architectural and garden history. Some designers traveled extensively in Europe. Florence Yoch and her partner, Lucille Council, went to Europe every other year, making copious photographic records of the gardens they visited. These photographs were mounted in albums and frequently used as the inspiration for designs of fountains, urns, gates, and other decorative features. Yoch and Council also purchased pots on their trips, which they used in gardens and sometimes had duplicated by ceramic manufacturers.
The lack of landscape contractors in California meant that most landscape architects kept their own construction crews--an atypical practice elsewhere in the country. One advantage of this system was that the members of these crews became thoroughly familiar with their employers' preferences; that experience reduced the need for elaborate specifications and guaranteed a more reliable level of craftsmanship.
Skilled gardeners were essential to the survival of estate gardens. From the 1850s until the Depression, head gardeners invariably came from England, Scotland, France, Belgium, or Germany, where they had been very well trained. To ensure that their designs were properly maintained, many garden designers were retained by the owners either to make annual maintenance reports or to provide maintenance manuals for the garden staff. The close involvement by landscape architects in not only the design but also the long-term maintenance of California gardens is unusual in the history of American gardens, and it accounts to a considerable extent for the remarkable quality of the gardens created in the state during the first three decades of this century. By the end of World War II, gardens were still being designed either by landscape architects or by nurseries, but landscape contracting firms assumed responsibility for grading and for installing structural features and plants. Long-term supervision of maintenance was done only by the few older designers still in practice.
As a result of the social and economic changes in this century California gardens have diminished from estates of several hundred acres to plots of three or four acres, and in denser cities such as San Francisco, to very small backyard gardens. This ongoing reduction in size has established a tradition of villeggiature (small rural retreats) rather than one of great estates.
Whether designed by nurserymen or professional designers, and whatever their size or cost, gardens are artificial places. In them, nature is transformed through a process that reflects the values of the client, the designer, and their society. The history of gardens in California reveals the successes and failures of a heterogeneous society in settling into one of the most memorably beautiful, and varied, landscapes on the North American continent. Except in the Hispanic period these developments cannot be ordered into a simple linear pattern, and since 1850 the contradictory elements of a pluralistic society have been clearly revealed in California's gardens.
The bewildering complexities of California's garden history can be understood as having evolved through three stages--colonial re-creation, imported eclecticism, and regional appropriateness--and this cultural model might also be used to interpret garden history in other parts of the world. Ever since the Spanish conquered California in 1769, the residents of California have generally come from elsewhere and have brought with them previously developed ideals about the landscape.
During the first stage of this model, discussed in chapter 1, the Spanish settlers developed architectural and garden traditions that re-created patterns familiar to them from back home. They established their presence in the landscape by laying down boundaries for public and private territories and military, religious, and civilian settlements. In first Spanish and then Mexican California, Spain's Laws of the Indies provided a set of planning principles that had already been used successfully in transforming the landscape of Central and South America. Gardens in California were remarkably similar to those of Spain and Mexico, albeit on the simplest, humblest scale. Their simplicity reflected the fact that Spanish and Mexican California remained a colonial frontier.
The second stage of the model--discussed in chapters 2, 4, and 5--occurred with the displacement of Hispanic gardens by new, eclectic approaches to garden design that had originated in the eastern states and in Europe, where the climate was temperate and water plentiful. Re-creating gardens from back home was possible, but only with the lavish use of imported water. Even in Southern California, where most of the settled regions do not have particularly rich soils, the addition of water yielded almost ideal conditions for cultivating a vast range of plants from the temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions of the world. (The widespread importation of semitropical and tropical plants into Southern California is an extreme example of the European penchant for the exotic.)
This tradition of plant introduction has continued to the present decade, and the technologies for supplying unseasonal water have become ever more sophisticated, making it possible for Californians to create virtually any kind of garden imaginable. Despite the dominance of modernist ideas that began in the state during the 1930s, eclecticism continued with varying levels of popularity through the 1960s. The exuberant response to the multitude of choices has been central to garden design in California, and it will undoubtedly continue as long as imported water remains a cheap commodity.
The third stage of the model--described in chapters 3, 6, 7, and 8--evolved as attempts were made to fashion garden traditions that would be responsive to the local landscape rather than to the vagaries of national or international taste. This first occurred at the turn of this century in reaction to the disappearance of some natural landscapes and to the excesses of Victorian gardening. Initially, garden traditions were adapted from other cultures that had landscapes and climates similar to those of California, with the gardens of Italy and Spain invoked as especially suitable models. Later, the careful selection of native and drought-tolerant plants was used to create regionally appropriate gardens. The rise of modernism in California during the 1930s (one of the earliest manifestations of the style in this country) led to the use of gardens as outdoor rooms for a variety of social functions, including entertaining, dining, and recreation. This intensive use of garden space was a clear recognition of the potential pleasures of outdoor living in California.
Running parallel to the second stage rather than replacing it, this alternative tradition has been advocated by some of the same designers who have created gardens using imported plants and water. Such apparent inconsistency may reflect the practical necessities of satisfying clients rather than any philosophical ambivalence.