Rigorous training, beautiful yet utilitarian designs and a respect for nature set the landscape architect’s work apart from her contemporaries.
From small gardens and business parks to expansive campuses and a legendary amusement park, Ruth Shellhorn’s illustrious landscape architecture career spanned from 1933-1990, and her distinctive style became what is now known as the “Southern California look.”
Born September 21, 1909, Shellhorn spent her childhood in South Pasadena, California. With the encouragement of her parents and neighbor—renowned landscape architect Florence Yoch—Shellhorn attended the School of Landscape Architecture at Oregon Agricultural State College and then obtained degrees in Architecture and Landscape Architecture from Cornell University. But upon her return to Southern California in 1933, during the height of the Depression, the jobs that were available were mainly given to her male colleagues.
Nonetheless, Shellhorn opened a private practice. For 10 years, she established connections throughout Southern California, taking on jobs designing small private gardens and writing for magazines. Her designs were exotic, colorful and holistic, meeting the needs of her clients while focusing on respecting the land.
In 1943, Shellhorn got her first chance to work on a major design project for the Shoreline Development Study to design parks, trails and parking lots along an 11-mile stretch of the California coast. From 1948 to 1978, she designed and maintained landscapes for Bullock’s department stores. She treated parking lots like gardens and storefronts like nurseries, creating beautiful, sophisticated and modern landscaping for shoppers who now arrived by car.
In 1955, Shellhorn was hired to help design aspects of the soon-to-be-open Disneyland. In just three months, she developed the landscaping for three major parts of the theme park (Main Street, Town Square and the Plaza Hub) and created the entire pedestrian traffic plan. Her unique skills for site planning and knowledge of horticulture were crucial to blend all the different types of architecture and themes inside “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
For the next 41 years, Shellhorn designed campuses around Southern California, including UC Riverside, and dozens of residential gardens for famed architects such as Welton Becket, A. Quincy Jones and Wallace Neff. Some of her celebrity clients included Spencer Tracy, Gene Autry and Barbara Stanwyck.
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