Comras Authors Book on Landscape Artist

22-Comras, KellyBy LIBBY MOTIKA

Palisades News Contributor
While the name Ruth Shellhorn (1909-2006) may not register with many people, the footprint she left on the Southern California landscape brings her reputation into focus.

Shellhorn’s art is ephemeral by its very nature—plants grow old and die, but what remains are design concepts and her appreciation of the whole landscape from small alcove to master plan as seen both in her concepts for Bullock’s department stores to her core landscape designs for Disneyland.

Palisadian Kelly Comras, a landscape architect herself, will survey Shellhorn’s career and her extraordinary achievements by presenting a short documentary and lecture based on her book, Ruth Shellhorn (University of Georgia Press) for Pacific Palisades Historical Society members and guests on Monday, May 23, 7 to 9 p.m. at Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Rd.

After studying landscape architecture at Cornell University, Shellhorn embarked on her career in the summer of 1933 facing bleak employment prospects. With little hope of joining an established firm, Shellhorn instead sought out practitioners, expanding her contacts and slowly building a small residential practice. She eventually ran the practice with her husband Harry Kueser, whom she married in 1940.

Ironically, Shellhorn landed her first large-scale project during the lean years of World War II. In 1943, she began a design for a shoreline development study for the 11-mile stretch of coast between Playa del Rey and Palos Verdes.

The study became a blueprint for later management of the coast, defining restrictions on oil drilling, sewage treatment and public funding for park acquisition, Comras says. “It lay the foundation for the California Coastal Act of 1976.”

The plan also spelled a turning point in Shellhorn’s career. In 1945, she was hired to design a site plan for Bullock’s Pasadena, the first suburban store in the region and one of the first to accommodate the automobile.

In designing the Bullock’s campus, Shellhorn emphasized the pleasure of the whole experience. Not only did she create a pleasing environment for shopping, but she also provided settings where shoppers (and their patient husbands) could sit and relax.

“Shellhorn’s Bullock’s Pasadena set the standard for the shopping mall of future generations,” Comras says. “In the process, her Bullock’s designs became icons of the Southern California landscape.”

Bullock’s Pasadena also brought Shellhorn and Welton Becket together in the first of many collaborations. The architect, who was already well known in Los Angeles, first met her in 1945 and immediately shared the idea of “total design,” which assigned one firm to manage an entire project, from design and engineering to interiors and landscape.

Their collaboration on projects increased as the architect relied on Shellhorn unreservedly, to the point that in 1955 Becket recommended her to his friend Walt Disney, who just four months before Disneyland was to open was struggling to unify the different sections of the park. How do you link tropical Adventureland to dusty, dry Frontierland and into the future in Tomorrowland, while making Fantasyland fairy-like? That was just one of Shellhorn’s challenges. She also designed a circulation path through the park, plus the landscaping for the Town Square, Plaza Hub and Main Street.

Comras first became aware of Ruth Shellhorn while a graduate student in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Assigned to profile a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, she picked Shellhorn, because she was the sole woman member.

Thirty years later in 2004, Comras decided to revisit Shellhorn as a subject for an online writing course.

Worried that Shellhorn’s legacy was in danger of being tossed, Comras worked with Shellhorn to place her archive at UCLA, whose open-door policy makes her material easily accessible to the public.

The lecture is free to the public with a reception to follow.
Kelly Comras, ASLA, principal landscape architect of KCLA in Pacific Palisades, serves on the Pacific Palisades Design Review Board. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

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