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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

California: A Modern Eden

The famous Adeline Kent sculpture in the 
middle of the pool at El Novillero, 
Sonoma, California. 
Photographer: Marion Bottomley, 1994.
To me, postwar California conjures up images of verdant orange groves, movie stars, swimming pools, and barbecues on the patio.  Many men and women who served in World War II passed through California on their way to deployments in the Pacific Theater, and after the war California was booming in both business and housing starts. Suddenly returning to snow in Ohio may not have seemed so appealing to young families in search of the good life. As Americans turned away from the bungalow and the front porch and embraced the ranch house, they looked to private gardens and backyards as retreats for family leisure and entertaining. Relaxation seemed hard-won after war and shelter magazines responded to the demand with articles about the California way of life and advertisements for everything from aluminum patio furniture to tiki torches. 

Soon the people back home in Ohio and the eastern part of the country were living as if they, too, were in California. The outdoor lifestyle was cultivated much earlier in twentieth-century California--lanais, ranch houses, and swimming pools had been popular since the 1930s if not before--but it was not until the confluence of postwar prosperity and widespread acceptance of modern design that outdoor living truly took off on a national level. 

View of the kidney-shaped pool looking towards the San Francisco Bay at El Novillero. 
Photographer: Marion Bottomley, 1994.

Two of my favorite mid-century gardens in Archives of American Gardens (AAG) are located in California. The Donnell Garden is an icon of modern design. Along with George Rockrise and Lawrence Halprin, landscape architect Thomas Church designed the garden in 1948 for the Donnell family in Sonoma. For over sixty years the family has enjoyed and preserved the garden; the pool house walls are still clad in the original mid-century wallpaper, and the garden plan has remained true to Church’s design. The focal point of the garden is the famous swimming pool surrounding an abstract sculpture by Adeline Kent. The pool, writes historian Wade Graham, “was the amoeba that launched tens of thousands of kidney pools.” Sprawling lawns, curving pathways, oak trees, and a patio complete the picture of a landscape for true outdoor living.

A modern, Japanese-inspired garden surrounds 
the tea house at Shangri-La in Carmel, California. 
Photographers: John and Mary Alice Roche, circa 1960.
Shangri-La, a less-known modern California garden,  with a different vision of relaxation, was photographed by John and Mary Alice Roche and is part of the Roche Collection at the AAG. We know little about the garden itself, except that was designed by George Hoy and an associate by the name of Solomone (most likely Joseph Solomone, a Monterey-area nurseryman). The cement patio adjacent to the teahouse echoes the sinuous curves of the Donnell pool. Designed by architect Walter Burde of the architectural firm Burde, Shaw, & Kearns in the mid- to late-1950s, the tea house was constructed to be a retreat for owner Dana Rood, Jr. 

View of the gate to the Shangri-La garden. Designed by George 
Hoy, the entrance is planted with Pfitzer junipers pruned in a 
pompon style planted in a bed of crushed stone. 
Photographers: John and Mary Alice Roche, circa 1960.
With views of the Carmel River and the rolling landscape, Rood could entertain friends in a peaceful manner. Shoji-style screen windows provided views of the Japanese-inspired garden design. According to one article about the tea house, Rood banned radio, television, and telephones from his quiet retreat. Hoy also designed another garden with Japanese elements for the famous actress Jean Arthur. Both El Novillero and Shangri-La take full advantage of the “borrowed” scenery of California mountains and water to create private, relaxing gardens.

Search for more images of California and mid-century gardens in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, SIRIS

-Kate Fox

Kate Fox is a guest blogger who is currently working on an upcoming SITES exhibition for the Archives of American Gardens at Smithsonian Gardens

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