Landscapes Below the Surface
Interpreting the past at Pio Pico State Historic Park.
By Kim Sorvig
When landscape architecture meets historic preservation and archaeology,
mysteries emerge. A prime example is Pio Pico State Historic Park,
Los Angeles, where specialists in all three disciplines collaborated
to re-create the ranch and residence of the last governor of Mexican
Landscapes carry the freight of memory; it is often said that history
is written in the soil. But landscapes and soils are living things,
and the writing upon them changes. Landscapes, unlike structures,
can seldom be completely “restored.” Cultural landscape interpretation
is neither for the faint of heart nor for those who demand total
For the California State Parks (CSP) project team, Pio Pico’s landscapes
were puzzles requiring unusual skills and attitudes. The resulting
project suggests ideas of “landscape” that go deeper, quite literally,
than the surface.
Pio Pico State Park (PPSP) today looks deceptively simple. Set
on four acres in urban Whittier (part of greater Los Angeles), it
is separated from ranch-style homes, gas stations, and busy streets
by a low stucco wall. Pio Pico’s historic house, low and rambling,
stands under a towering native ash tree, surrounded by vineyards,
oranges in neat rows, and an unruly garden that mixes fruits, vegetables,
and ornamental plants. Expanses of open dirt or clover, corrals,
barley fields, and other agricultural elements have been re-created.
Near the main street, things look more conventionally parklike:
picnic tables on a shady lawn, a massive grape arbor along one side.
What kind of landscape is this, anyhow?
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