Ruth Patricia Shellhorn

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Ruth Patricia Shellhorn passed away on November 3, 2006 at the age of 97 from complications of a stroke a few days earlier. She was born Sept. 21, 1909, in Los Angeles, and her family moved to South Pasadena two years later.

In 1955, she was a landscape architect working in South Pasadena when just three months before the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney personally asked her to contribute her talents to his new theme park. She served as liaison between the Disney Studios and the hired designers and was responsible for Town Square, Main Street, the Plaza, and eventually other areas of the park including Frontierland.

As a child, she tended a garden, climbed trees, read fairy tales and swam in the ocean on family trips to Laguna Beach. By the time she was a teenager she knew she wanted a career that allowed her to work outdoors.

She studied landscape architecture at Oregon State University and then Cornell, leaving during the Depression a few units shy of graduation. Last year Cornell reviewed its records and belatedly awarded her two degrees: a bachelor's in landscape architecture and a bachelor's in architecture.

Kelly Comras met Shellhorn in 1978 while pursuing a graduate degree in landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and is currently writing a biography of Shellhorn.

"She was a landscape architect's landscape architect," said Comras. "She was a terrific site planner, she had exquisite planting skills, she wrote well... When she designed something, she had complete command of construction details. She didn't just rely on employees and contractors to fill in the gaps."

Shellhorn was hired by Bullock's department store chain in 1945 as consulting landscape architect for the Pasadena store, designed by prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket. It was one of the first department stores to offer a relaxing, enjoyable experience to the sophisticated shopper who arrived by car.

"She was very actively involved in creating the whole setting and ambience of modern shopping," said Kathryn Gleason, associate professor and chairwoman of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cornell. "That transition that one made from getting out of the car and into the mood for the shopping experience was very different."

Shellhorn's design was characterized by a combination of plants, textures, and colors with a minimum of fussy details that matched the architecture.

Bullock's was so pleased with her work that the company hired her to design the landscaping at most of its future stores and manage the maintenance of the chain's landscaping, which she did through 1978. She was also responsible for landscaping the Fashion Square shopping centers, anchored by Bullock's stores, at Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, La Habra, and Del Amo in Torrance. (Macy's took over Bullock's in the late 1980s and eventually renamed all of the stores.) She officially retired in 1990.

Welton Becket was a good friend of Walt Disney. In fact, Walt sought Becket's input about the design of Disneyland. Welton, who worked with Shellhorn on several projects, recommended her to Walt, only a few months before Disneyland was to open in Anaheim. Disney was looking for a liaison between chief landscape architects Jack and Bill Evans and the other designers.

Walt had five different art directors, and he was concerned that the five "lands" wouldn't blend together. Disney wanted Shellhorn to help integrate those disparate parts into a cohesive whole. However, Shellhorn had some concerns.

"I was sort of thinking it was going to be some honky-tonk like Venice (California) or something, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to do it," Shellhorn said.

But the famous Disney charm soon had her working non-stop on what was supposed to be a part-time consulting job in order to make the deadline for the park opening.

The art directors quickly approved her landscaping plan for Main Street, so she continued sketching landscaping designs for the Town Square just inside the main gate, the Plaza Hub at the center of the park, and finally the pedestrian traffic plan for the park.

By using screens and plants compatible with differing styles of architecture, Shellhorn was able to ease the transition from the Victorian look of the plaza to Western-themed Frontierland, as one example.

It was unusual for a woman to have the responsibilities she did in that era. "If you go at it as a person, you're not a woman or a man. It doesn't make any difference. You have a problem to solve. So you cooperate and you work on that problem," said Shellhorn in 2001.

She did have the support of her husband, Harry Kueser, a St. Louis native who left his banking career in 1945, when her landscape architecture work was taking off. He handled the business side of her practice, allowing her to concentrate on design. They married in 1940—when he was 42 and she 31—only when she was certain she would not have to give up her career.

The work poured in to her office, first in South Pasadena and then in Redondo Beach, where she had lived since 1961. In 1956, Shellhorn was chosen to be the landscape architect at a new University of California campus in Riverside. For the next eight years she designed and oversaw the university's landscaping plans.

Other campus projects followed, including the elite Marlborough School in Hancock Park and the Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake School) in North Hollywood. Shellhorn designed the landscaping for many commercial sites across the Southland, including Becket's Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, as well as hundreds of residential gardens. She won numerous awards, most notably fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1971.

Shellhorn's husband died in 1991, and she leaves no survivors. And because landscapes naturally change with time and developers alter plans, few of her designs remain intact. However, her contribution to early Disneyland (and by example, the other Disney theme parks worldwide) changed how amusement enterprises were landscaped. The story of her brief involvement with early Disneyland is fascinating.

The engineering firm of J.S. Hamel was engaged by W.E.D. to work with the Disneyland designers in solving the many engineering problems of Disneyland. In July 1954, Evans and Reeves Nurseries Inc. were commissioned to handle landscape development. Jack Evans, a prominent landscape architect who with his brother Morgan "Bill" Evans had landscaped Walt Disney's backyard for his home railroad, was in charge of this phase of the work.

This phase included the making of planting plans, and the development of the planting from designs, sketches and models made at W.E.D. It also included the design and supervision of the installation of the sprinkler system for the park. Assisting him were Bill Evans and Ray Miller. Evans and Reeves also engaged as consultants Jesse D. Skoss, an agronomist, and Eric Armstrong, another landscape architect.

No steel framing was started at Disneyland until December 1954 and no facade work until January 1955, so it was difficult to introduce landscaping in the midst of all the ever-changing construction.

And now, in her own words from a brief excerpt from an article in the April 1956 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine, Ruth Shellhorn herself continues the story:

"Even at the time of my introduction to the project in March, there were no buildings started in Tomorrowland, just one in Frontierland, and only parts of the Main Street section and the Castle were in evidence. After the master plan was finally set, the tempo of the project was increased. The pressure of work at the site and the selection of plant material left little time for Jack Evans to spend in conferences with the Art Directors at the Studio. W.E.D. designers were tackling the problems of developing site plans for the various areas involving circulation, organization, tree placement, and planting. The Plaza especially was presenting many problems, as from it radiated all five sections of the park. Many schemes had been advanced, but none had been selected, and time was growing short.

"It was at this stage of progress that I was engaged by W.E.D. to work with the Art Directors as Consulting Landscape Architect until the opening of the park, and to act as liaison officer between the Studio and the Evans organization at the site. I was asked to restudy and design the Plaza area. From this, the site planning of one section led to another until every part of the five Lands involving pedestrian traffic was studied-as to circulation, paved and planted areas, tree placement, and in some cases as in the Plaza, the outline of the water courses.

"In some instances, as pressure increased, grades were even 'eyeballed' in, on the ground. Changes were being made, even up until opening day, as new ideas were formed or new equipment for the park acquired. The ideas of Walt Disney himself continually bubbled as he spent more and more time at the site, and one had to be ready at a moment's notice to adjust, change, add or subtract some element. I doubt if this procedure could have been followed successfully on any other project on earth, but this was Disneyland and Walt's belief that the impossible was a simple order of the day so instilled this spirit in everyone that they never stopped to think that it couldn't be done-they just did it, and with amazing speed.

"Walt Disney wanted a 'green' park, everything evergreen, for he recalled the cold winters of his childhood when he used to look up at the bare branches of the trees and shiver. Disneyland must be Eternal Spring. He also wanted size in trees, the larger the better, so that the park would look cool and inviting. This was no small order, for there are relatively few evergreen trees of size which can be boxed successfully. After talks with him about the necessity for some deciduous or partially deciduous materials for color and contrasts in foliage texture, we were permitted to introduce a few such trees as flowering peaches, crapemyrtles, jacarandas, and coral trees into the areas where they were most needed, providing they were 'backed up' properly.

"There was an alligator left over, for which Walt Disney wanted a special pond. This necessitated a change in one end of the Adventureland compound. There was a last-minute provision of a nesting place for the swans of the moat, which had been recently acquired. The difficulty of creating a setting for the Pirate Ship in Fantasyland was one of the special problems encountered. As every available square foot was needed for paving in this concentrated area of activity, little could be spared for planting. Casey Jr. was prominent in the background, and the Tea Cup Ride in the foreground. Therefore a Desert Island was suggested by the simple expedient of using beach sand, with clumps of reeds and Senegal palms placed strategically around the edge of the water.

"A change in Frontierland was necessitated when the acquisition of some wonderful old Conestoga wagons made the loading area more important. Shade from an overhead pole trellis and trees was desired in order to make watching more inviting. As this change occurred during the last weeks before opening, and since it involved utilities, paving, construction, and planting, there was no time to waste. Plans had to be drawn almost overnight. The trees had to go in first, for among other things the overhead trellis was to be built around one of them. Finding tired, twisted, old frontier-type trees on a moment's notice wasn't easy, but Morgan Evans found them, and they were planted by working far into the night so as not to interfere with the other work that had to be done.

"As the last days approached, and some 2500 workmen were working in ten-hour shifts, there were the camera and television towers to work around. In one case, a tree could not be planted for months due to the constant 'progress shots' being taken of the Castle. There were the orientation classes for some 950 employees of Disneyland and the other 950 employees of the lessees. The shady areas of the Plaza, planting operations notwithstanding, were wonderful places to hold them.

"It was all a bit disconcerting. But again, this was Disneyland; and as Disneyland, such things seemed perfectly in order. Disneyland will never be finished as long as there is a Walt Disney to dream up new ideas. Even though the park will undergo many changes as the years go on and new ideas are developed, Disneyland will always be a place where the whole family will find a wealth of enjoyment."