Documenting Modernist Landscapes

One of Sunset Magazine's temporary demonstration gardens image: Chris Pattillo
One of Sunset Magazine’s temporary demonstration gardens
image: Chris Pattillo

The theme of the 6th annual Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Challenge is to document a Modernist Landscape—preferably a site that reflects the unique landscape from the region you live in. Luckily for us Californians, we have much to choose from. Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo, Lawrence Halprin, Robert Royston and Theodore Osmundson all lived and practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area and created memorable modernist designs. When an email went out announcing the theme of this year’s challenge, one of our HALS Northern California Chapter members responded promptly to alert us that one of Church’s most well known and most visited landscapes is potentially threatened.

If one posed the question, “what one thing has influenced California gardens more than anything?” myriad responses would result. Our varied and generally temperate climate would be one good answer. But upon reflection, I’m certain many would agree that Sunset Magazine has done more to influence how our gardens look, what plants we try, and how creatively we imagine our outdoor living spaces than anything else. Just to prove my point, try Googling Sunset Magazine—78 million hits pop up instantly.

In 1951, magazine owner Larry Lane commissioned local architect Cliff May to design the headquarters building for Sunset Magazine. At the same time, he looked to Thomas Church, the premier local Landscape Architect, to partner with May to design the setting. The result of their collaboration is a powerful representation of idealized California living. Visiting the property, one enters through oversized, wooden double doors into a high-ceilinged and spacious lobby and at the same time into Church’s landscape. Opposite the doors is a glass wall the full length of the lobby, so that upon entering the building one feels they are instantly in the garden.

But I am getting ahead of myself with my story. In 2014, the HALS Northern California Chapter marked our 10th anniversary. For ten years we have hosted quarterly meetings. Our group of members have planned and executed over 100 HALS projects. We initiated the idea for this challenge and also created the HALS Heroes program. We are proud of our accomplishments, but there is more to do, and like many pro-bono organizations we are facing the challenge of sustaining interest and active participation.

So, Sunset Magazine (possibly threatened) + Thomas Church seemed to = the ideal HALS project for this year’s Challenge, and a good way to spark interest among our members. Janet Gracyk, ASLA, and I agreed to take on the short form narrative and architect Jill Johnson volunteered to help. I then approached Gordon Osmundson (son of Theodore) to do the photography, and we’ve got a HALS Challenge project.

I wasn’t confident how Sunset would respond to our interest in documenting their private property, so I reached out to other HALS chapter members to get names of individuals to approach. Much to my delight, when I first contacted Johanna Silver, Associate Garden Editor, to gauge interest she was instantly effusive and grateful to learn of our interest. She immediately offered access to their archives and whatever other assistance they might be able to provide. Her response sparked an idea to host one of our quarterly meetings at Sunset and when I dared to ask about that, she not only said yes but offered to provide a custom tour of the property for our group.

HALS Northern California Chapter members touring the Sunset Magazine gardens image: Chris Pattillo
HALS Northern California Chapter members touring the Sunset Magazine gardens
image: Chris Pattillo

The meeting took place on February 10, 2015 in the middle of winter—not the time to see a garden at its best, but the response was heartwarming. 30 of our members and their guests came, which was a new attendance record. Some came for the garden tour and left but most stayed for the meeting. Sunset offered us the use of the southwest wing for our meeting and even contributed several bottles of wine for our members to enjoy.

Lawn, native oaks, and path with plants found in the west from Canada to Mexico image: Chris Pattillo
Lawn, native oaks, and path with plants found in the west from Canada to Mexico
image: Chris Pattillo

Our pre-meeting tour was led by Kathy Brenzel, Garden Editor, and Lauren Dunec Hoang, who walked us through the demonstration gardens. Both tailored their remarks to our interest in the history and evolution of the garden design and Church’s role in creating it. The centerpiece of the garden is an expansive lawn defined by a path laid out in a classic modernist curving alignment. The 7-acre property is also defined by a deep bend in the San Francisquito Creek. Church’s idea for the plantings along this path was to demonstrate the spectrum of plant species that grow in the west from our Canadian border to Mexico. He selected trees and shrubs from each palette so as one walks through the garden you move through conifers that thrive in the Pacific Northwest to the cactus in our southwest deserts.

In another area, accessible but somewhat hidden, we saw Sunset’s 3,000 square foot demonstration gardens. It is here where every year their in-house garden designers create ephemeral gardens that are used to take photographs needed for future editions of the magazine. These mini plots are the source of over 50% of the photographs that are ultimately captured in the magazine. Once the photographers are finished, these demonstration gardens are torn down and replaced by what will be needed for the next issue. Our guide also told us that Sunset is given new plant hybrids by local growers one year before they will be ready for the market in order to test and promote them in their magazine.

HALS meeting after the tour image: Chris Pattillo
HALS meeting after the tour
image: Chris Pattillo

To participate in this year’s HALS Challenge, short format histories should be submitted to HALS at the National Park Service no later than July 31, 2015. For more information, contact Chris Stevens, ASLA. Participating might just be what’s needed to engage your membership in a fun and productive HALS project.

by Chris Pattillo, FASLA, HALS Subcommittee Member and HALS Chapter Liaison for Northern California

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