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ASLA’s 125th: Our Story – The Southern California Chapter

Ruth Shellhorn, FASLA, with Walt Disney, Disneyland, 1955 / Photograph by Harry Kueser, courtesy of Kelly Comras, FASLA

By Victoria Phillipy, Hon. ASLA

Katherine Bashford and Fred Barlow, Jr. were both involved in founding the Southern California Chapter in 1937, organized partly from the defunct Pacific Coast Chapter. Ralph Cornell was elected Chapter President by a handful of members at a time when the American economy was experiencing the third worst downturn of the 20th century.

As partners in their firm, Bashford and Barlow, Katherine and Fred designed numerous residential gardens and the landscape design for Pepperdine College. Katherine’s desire was to make gardens and home settings align with the California spirit. Katherine Bashford was elected Fellow of ASLA in 1936. She then became the first female Chapter President of the Chapter in 1939. By 1940, the Chapter had 10 ASLA members.

Disneyland Plaza PlanPlaza Hub Site Plan, Disneyland, 1955 / Courtesy Ruth Shellhorn Papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Ruth Shellhorn was among the most important Southern California landscape architects of the post-war era. Members elected Ruth Shellhorn as Chapter President, serving from 1946 until the end of 1948. She was a fierce champion of the profession and helped push National ASLA efforts in the fight for state registration and licensure. Her focus on planning meetings and letter writing campaigns led to successful legislation in California, the first state to take this step.

During World War II, Ruth Shellhorn worked on the Shoreline Development Study, which established restrictions on oil drilling in Santa Monica Bay and became a precedent for the goals of the California Coastal Act. Over her 60-year career, Ruth designed landscapes and site plans, creating modernistic designs that evoked a sun-soaked leisurely lifestyle.

In 1956, she was hired by Walt Disney, and was responsible for Disneyland’s comprehensive pedestrian circulation system, entrance, main street, and plaza hub. She created the small-town American feeling envisioned by Walt Disney. Ruth Shellhorn was elected Fellow of ASLA in 1971.

Disneyland Town SquareTown Square, Disneyland, 1955 / Courtesy Ruth Shellhorn Papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

In the early 70’s, sections were formed for regions within the Southern California Chapter, which included sections for the Desert; City of Los Angeles, Ventura/Santa Barbara, and the Central Coast. Las Vegas, a part of the Southern California chapter territory in the beginning, became a section in 1990. In 1998, southern Nevada met the member threshold and gained full chapter status. San Diego, also a part of the chapter’s territory, formed a new chapter in 1976.

With a new century came an awareness of a generational shift in the professional membership. This prompted the chapter to disband the sections due to lack of interest and mindset from the younger professionals in maintaining any section status.

In the early years of the organization, when there were hardly any female landscape architects, it is particularly notable for the chapter to have had two accomplished women landscape architects who were committed to service in the organization as Chapter Presidents. They also left their mark as champions of the profession and in their landscape designs of many iconic landmark projects.

A final footnote to our chapter story: In 1954, after the appointment of the State Registration of California Landscape Architects Board by California Governor Goodwin Knight, the American Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) was formed. It had begun as the Southern California Landscape Architects (SCLA). Perceived as a rival of ASLA, AILA’s objective was to provide the “middle ground” bringing together landscape designers, practitioners, and other green industry professionals to discuss common problems and experiences. In 1982, AILA merged with ASLA resulting in increased membership for the Southern California Chapter.

Victoria Phillipy, Hon. ASLA, is Executive Director of ASLA Southern California Chapter. 

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