The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.
Allensworth, HALS CA-68
In 2015 while returning home from a vacation in Tucson, Arizona, I decided to visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in Tulare County, California. I learned about this unique historic park from the database of cultural landscapes that the Northern California HALS Chapter maintains. It is a resource I check regularly when traveling to find interesting places to explore.
We arrived at the state park campground late, so I waited until morning to explore the site, when everything was shrouded in fog. Allensworth State Park is what remains of what was once a thriving town built by and for African Americans. It was founded by five men—Allen Allensworth, a former slave, Union Army nurse, Baptist Minister, lecturer, and politician; William Payne, a school teacher; William Peck, an American Methodist Episcopal Church minister; J.W. Palmer, a Nevada miner; and Harvey Mitchel, a realtor from Los Angeles. They filed plans for a new township on August 3, 1908.
Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Documents to Be Used to Restore Garden
The 2017 fire season in drought-stressed California ravaged whole residential neighborhoods in Napa and Sonoma Counties in Northern California and devastated Santa Barbara County in Southern California. A few months later the damage was compounded in Southern California when heavy rains triggered massive mudslides, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country—Montecito. As I watched the news on the evening broadcast I feared what might be happening at the Lovelace estate where my firm, PGAdesign, had recently completed HALS documentation of Isabelle Greene’s landscape masterpiece. As it turned out I had to wait several days even to find out, as the area of devastation and evacuees was policed and firmly cordoned off. Finally, crews were allowed in to begin mud and debris clearing there, and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In 2011, the ASLA Northern California Chapter’s Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) subcommittee started the HALS Heroes initiative. Their objective was to encourage more members to create HALS drawings of culturally significant landscapes in Northern California.
The HALS program was created in 2000 through a tripartite agreement between ASLA, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress. The program is modeled on the Historic American Buildings Survey, which began in 1933, and the Historic American Engineering Record, which began in 1969. Northern California has had an active HALS group since November 2004 and since that time they have held quarterly meetings, given talks to educate people about the program, organized numerous tours to historic landscape sites, and directly or indirectly been responsible for creating documentation for at least 65 California sites.
The HALS Heroes program offers a $1,000 stipend to anyone who produces a minimum one sheet drawing of a cultural landscape in California. The selected site must be approved by the chapter leadership and the drawing must conform to the HALS Measured Drawings Guidelines. Fred Rachman, a HALS chapter member who is trained as an architect, was the first recipient of a HALS Heroes stipend for completing a measured drawing of Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach.
In June 2015, I was asked to give an annual report of the committee’s activities at a chapter board meeting. I brought prints of the HALS drawings that the committee members had created the previous year to the meeting. After my short presentation, I was taken aback when then-chapter president David Nelson, ASLA, proposed that the chapter provide up to five $1,000 stipends to support the program. The board members were enthusiastic and asked me to submit a formal proposal outlining how the program would work. David also stressed that the program seemed ideal for students and encouraged me to seek opportunities to engage students to participate.
I left the meeting both elated and anxious. While thrilled by the unexpected exuberant response to my report, I felt daunted by this new challenge. How would I find a group of students to engage in the program and how much effort would it take on my part to oversee their work?
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.
At first I was stumped when this year’s Historic American Landscapes (HALS) Survey Challenge to “document historic landscapes that reflect the heritage of women” was announced. The purpose of this year’s challenge is to increase awareness of the role of women in shaping the American landscape. My first thought was to record the Berkeley City Women’s Club, designed by the first woman Architect, Julia Morgan for the women of Berkeley – but our Northern California chapter of HALS had already done that site. I thought of noteworthy women landscape architects who have practiced in California – Mai Arbegast and Gerri Knight Scott. Both had done work at the Oakland Museum but that site had already been done as well. Each had a role in the development of UC Berkeley’s Blake Estate in Kensington, where I’d worked as a student gardener. Blake felt like too much to tackle and deserves more than a short form HALS. I wanted a site that was nearby, had integrity, and was not too large for a one-person volunteer to take on.