Ruth Patricia Shellhorn, a notable American landscape architect, shaped southern California‘s layout. In the post-war period, no architect was more pivotal here than her. For over sixty years, she guided more than 400 projects. She aimed to create outdoor spaces that were attractive, functional, and harmonious, blending seamlessly with local architecture and nature.
Shellhorn prioritized integrating indoor and outdoor living in her designs. She skilfully wove typography and nature into urban environments. With an impressive portfolio that includes residences, retail, city and regional parks, universities, and colleges. She left a significant mark on design. In recognition of her work, she was declared Women of the Year in 1955.
Her efforts to improve the beach set a standard for coastal development in California. She was the designer of the Bullocks department store as well as the Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, La Habra, and Del Amo shopping areas in Torrance. She was employed by Walt Disney in 1955 to design the park’s major landscaping features and develop a thorough pedestrian circulation system for Disneyland. (Ruth Shellhorn Midcentury Landscape Design in Southern California, n.d.)
Early Life and Education
Born on September 21, 1909, Shellhorn was raised in Pasadena. Her mother served in several civic and local beautifying organizations, and her father worked as a dentist. Her parents supported her decision to work in a field that made use of both her creative and quantitative abilities. She was encouraged and advised to pursue landscape architecture studies by her neighbours, Florence Yoch, a landscape architect.
Following high school, Shellhorn studied landscape architecture from 1927 to 1930 at Oregon Agricultural State College’s School of Landscape Architecture. She became the first female recipient of the Alpha Zeta Scholarship Cup during her tenure there. In a national Beaux-Arts design competition, she also took home a prize.
She transferred to Cornell University in 1930, where she studied architecture and engineering. at her class of six students at the Department of Landscape Architecture, she was the sole female. She was initially deemed to be four units short of a degree and did not obtain one. However, once Cornell examined Shellhorn’s records in 2005, she was granted degrees in both landscape architecture and architecture. (Ruth Shellhorn, n.d.)
Returning to southern California during the Depression, job prospects for luxury services such as landscape architecture were bleak and Shellhorn lived at home while she sought professional opportunities. A local home furnishings store gave her the chance to display some landscape drawings and she collaborated with a local architect and interior designer to offer a full array of design services for nine residences in Whittier, California. Shellhorn earned $25 for her first landscape design.
On November 21, 1940, she married Harry A. Kueser. Shellhorn credits her unusually prolific career to the special business partnership she and her husband created after he retired from banking in 1945 to join her firm. He took care of the financial aspects of the business, worked with her in the field surveying smaller properties, and helped supervise job installations, thereby liberating Shellhorn to dedicate herself to the creative aspects of her work. Childless, they were constant companions until he died in 1991.
Career and Major Works
Shellhorn worked for the Greater Los Angeles Citizens Committee on the Shoreline Development Study during World War II, when private landscape projects were hard to come by. Due to its significant environmental impact, this project affected the California Coastal Act and resulted in limitations on oil drilling in Santa Monica Bay. It also helped to create the first sewage treatment plant in Los Angeles. Being involved in this initiative, which is usually the domain of men, was a significant career accomplishment for Shellhorn.
Her work on this study also brought her a great opportunity: working with architect Welton Beckett, she designed the Pasadena landscape for Bullock’s department store in 1945. As a result of this endeavor, Bullock received other requests for her modernist designs, which perfectly captured the “Southern California Look.” Her ideas started with the parking lot, incorporating colorful elements and plants to create a smooth transition between structures with different architectural styles. (Ruth Patricia Shellhorn, 2006)
Shellhorn was meticulous enough to monitor the development of plants cultivated for particular tasks and to push for regular upkeep. Her employment at Disneyland began barely three months before the park opened in 1955. Her responsibilities included creating a thorough plan for pedestrian circulation and helping to design the park’s many landscape regions. She was also heavily involved in the University of California at Riverside’s planning and design.
Shellhorn created many commercial projects and residential gardens during her 57-year career. Prominent businesspeople and celebrities were among her clientele. Shellhorn won numerous accolades and prizes in recognition of her commitment to landscape architecture and her leadership qualities. Before she died in 2006, she gave her papers and drawings to the Special Collections of the UCLA Library. (Ruth Patricia Shellhorn, 2006)
With more than 400 projects in her career, Ruth Shellhorn was brilliant at blending architecture and nature. This gave birth to an amazing indoor-outdoor living style. Oregon State and Cornell were where she studied. It was these places that equipped her for a breakthrough role in an industry typically ruled by men. Some of her major work includes the well-known Bullock’s department stores and Disneyland. Working alongside her husband, Harry Kueser, was a key part of her success. It let her focus purely on crafting creative designs. People remember Shellhorn for more than just her designs. They admire her dedication to protecting nature and her design ethos that seamlessly combines usefulness, beauty, and environmental concern.
Ruth Patricia Shellhorn. (2006). Retrieved from The Culture Landscape Foundation: https://www.tclf.org/pioneer/ruth-shellhorn
Ruth Shellhorn. (n.d.). Retrieved from SheBuldsPodcast: https://www.shebuildspodcast.com/episodes/ruthshellhorn
Ruth Shellhorn Midcentury Landscape Design in Southern California. (n.d.). Retrieved from Library of American Landscape History: https://lalh.org/films/ruth-shellhorn-midcentury-landscape-design-in-southern-california/
Image 1 Ruth Shellhorn _© Los Angeles Times 2
Image 2 Aerial View of Disneyland 1963 _© https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Shellhorn#/media/File:6308-AnaheimDisneyLand-NW_to_SE_View.jpg 3
Image 3 UC Riverside _© https://www.shebuildspodcast.com/episodes/ruthshellhorn 4