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Shellhorn: Groundbreaking Woman For Disneyland

Landscape architect Ruth Shellhorn confers with Walt Disney during Disneyland's construction at Anaheim, Calif. The picture was taken on July 2, 1955, just two weeks before the park opened (note the state of construction). The tower in the background was used to document construction progress and was removed later.
Photo by Harry Kueser

Landscape architect Ruth Shellhorn died Nov. 3 at Torrance, Calif. She was 97. The Southern California native broke ground for women and helped pioneer the tree-rich, lushly-landscaped look that came to define the region's commercial spaces.

Her friend and fellow landscape architect Kelly Comras said Shellhorn had suffered a stroke a few days earlier.

"She was a landscape architect's landscape architect," said Comras, who is writing a biography of Shellhorn. "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's collection of drawings and plans has been donated to UCLA's Special Collections department.

From left: Cornell Professor Kathryn Gleason, Ruth Shellhorn and Cornell alumna and College of Architecture, Art and Planning Alumni Council member Margo Hebald Heymann, on June 4, 2005 in Los Angeles, where Shellhorn was presented with a 1933 Cornell landscape architecture degree.
Photo: Cornell University

Shellhorn was hired by Bullock's in 1945 as consulting landscape architect for the Pasadena store, designed by prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket. Collaborating with Beckett, a succession of Bullock's department stores followed, including Bullock's Wilshire, Bullock's Palm Springs, Bullock's Lakewood, a remodel of Bullock's Westwood and the Fashion Square Malls in Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, Del Amo, and La Habra.

These were modernist landscape designs, evoking a sun-soaked, leisurely lifestyle, and came to epitomize the "Southern California Look." Company executives, anxious to lure post-World War II, middle-class disposable income to the stores, allowed Shellhorn to work directly with site planners and architects from the beginning of each project. She recognized that the shopping experience began the moment a customer pulled into the parking lot and she designed those areas with a generous number of trees and bursts of exuberant color. Especially on the Fashion Square projects, where different architects designed each of the stores, Shellhorn's goal was to create a harmonious transition between buildings with various architectural styles. She composed beautiful, courtyard-like settings, designed to attract customers who were, or wished to be, well-educated, traveled, cultured. In these park-like settings, Shellhorn's designs redefined shopping as a relaxing and enjoyable activity.

Becket, who worked with Shellhorn on several of those projects, recommended her to Walt Disney in 1955, only a few months before his new amusement park was to open in Anaheim. Disney was looking for a liaison between chief landscape architects Jack and Bill Evans and the other designers.

"He had five different art directors, and he was concerned that the five 'lands' wouldn't hang together," Comras said, referring to the five themed areas that made up much of the original 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, for instance.

In looking back at the era, Comras said, "It was unusual for a woman to have the responsibilities she did.... She was not a feminist, she was just extremely competent."

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 what is now 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.

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.

Comras, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., is seeking information for her book about Shellhorn's work, particularly her residential designs. Anecdotes are welcome too. She can be reached at

Sources: L.A. Times, Kelly Comras, RLA.

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April 20, 2019, 3:52 pm PDT

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