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Donnell Garden stands among the most significant projects of modern landscape architecture in the United States. Located in Sonoma County at the top of San Francisco Bay—what is officially termed San Pablo Bay—the garden achieved celebrity status through photographs by Rondal Partridge even before its initial completion in 1947. To be sure, the images of this very photogenic design were and remain captivating, with free forms that spoke of all things contemporary: a kidney-shaped pool anchored the garden’s center, while a softly contoured abstract sculpture anchored the center of the pool.
The story began, as far as the client was concerned, with Dewey Donnell’s purchase in 1941 of some 4,000 acres of ranchland, augmented two years later with an additional parcel of 1,500 acres. A scion of the Marathon Oil Company in Ohio, Donnell came to California to study at Stanford University and decided to stay. He had no desire to continue in the oil business and family lore tells that he detested multi-floor living. His wife, Jean, whom he met during his studies in Palo Aalto, shared his values and tastes. Several structures including a barn and an old dwelling existed at the north end of the ranch, but these were neither in good condition nor practically located. While the Donnells planned to live on the ranch, which they named El Novillero—one who raises bulls for fighting, or a young bull fighter—they actively participated in San Francisco social life among the well-to-do. The family frequently picnicked at the south end of the ranch on a hillside overlooking the bay. The site was climatically appropriate, drained well, provided sources of water, and possessed a magnificent view. Here they would build their house; but their pool garden would precede the residence by several years.
When the project began in the late 1940s, after World War II, selected building materials were still restricted or unavailable, and the construction of the house was postponed. A swimming pool, however, could serve as a reservoir against potential grass fires, and they secured a building permit. To design the landscape, early in 1947 the Donnells approached Thomas Church, the best-known Californian landscape architect at the time, and arguably among the handful of landscape architects in the United States then consciously seeking a modern idiom for landscape design.
Church had studied landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by graduate study at Harvard University. After completing his coursework in 1924, and funded by a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, he spent 1926–1927 in Europe researching materials for his thesis. Like his professional contemporary and future collaborator, architect William Wurster, Church looked to the vernacular landscape as well as the monumental classical gardens that figured so highly in the lore of the times. His thesis, “A Study of Mediterranean Gardens and Their Adaptability to California Conditions,” revealed his interest in adapting historical works in similar climates to produce sensible new landscapes in California. That would take time, however. His first gardens, executed during a brief teaching stay at the Ohio State University, were in a traditional model. Less formal than those typical for estate gardens, they supported multiple uses beyond visual pleasure, a trait that, for Church, would become the norm. As he noted himself in the title of one of his designs, while hardly earth shattering, his designs were “swell.”
Church’s early collaborations with Wurster at the golf-side residential development of Pasatiempo near Santa Cruz continued in this direction, and only with two demonstration gardens at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco did the first inklings of a new mode appear—less in the garden’s spatial structure than in its vocabulary, however. The meandering curve and the employ of materials such as end-grain wood signaled a new direction for Church. The war ended such explorations and it was only with the return of peace that the landscape architect’s evolution was renewed.
The Donnell commission was the first major opportunity to apply ideas that had lain dormant for almost a decade, and in this project Church was supported by the entry of Lawrence Halprin and the architect George Rockrise into his office. Halprin served as project designer for the Donnell garden; Rockrise designed the bathhouses and the lanai. The project developed quickly—from start to finish it required less than a year—although the lanai would be built a year or so after the pool and bathhouse. The Donnell’s house was constructed almost five years later, long after the pool garden had become an icon of modern landscape architecture.
In all photos, as on site, the swimming pool dominates the view. The development of economical and more reliable pumping technologies and sprayed concrete applications had brought the costs of pool construction to a more affordable level in the immediate postwar period, at least for those with sufficient means. If not for everyone, the appeal of private swimming was broad based. In Gardens are for People, published in 1955, Church devoted an entire chapter to the swimming pool and its freedom to assume any profile or shape in response to the particular conditions of the site and program. The bicuspid Donnell pool appears more freely shaped than it actually was—in fact, it was plotted with compass and straightedge. It is less the actual shape, in fact, than the relation of the pool to the neighboring structures that creates the impression of a space more loosely configured. Whether the inspiration was paintings by artists such as Joan Miró or Yves Tanguy, or sculptures by Jean Arp or Isamu Noguchi, or even glassware or architecture by Church’s friends Aino and Alvar Aalto, the shape of the pool was au courante. Capping the composition as its central object and compositional pivot was the Hans Arp–like sculpture by Adaline Kent, which, like an iceberg, remained two-thirds below the water line.
In the opening half of the twentieth century, emerging landscape architects, even while students, chided against both the formality of the French and Italian traditions and the feigned naturalism of the English school. They argued for a new sense of space—modernist space—in which movement of eye and body produced sets of discovered experiences, always new. The approaches to Donnell Garden embody this aspiration. From the upper parking area for example, one glimpses the pool through the transparent horizontal slot of the lanai’s clerestory. A curving hedge of Monterey cypress—today replaced with yew—led to a framed view of the pool and the Kent sculpture, but when entering the space, direction evaporated. Paired with this spatial freedom was the support of outdoor living and the near-seamless connection between indoors and out. The large glass walls of the lanai slide to less than a third their extent, while the long bench at the base of the retaining wall physically joins inside and out. One panel of the concrete paving in this area contained radiant heating that allowed the owners and their guests to stay outside just a bit longer, even after the fog entered the grounds from the west.
The goal of this environmental management was social: to provide a modern setting for outdoor living and to maximize the amount of time the family could spend outdoors. On a daily basis, the pool garden was a place for the kids to play and swim and the parents to relax; but it also supported grand events each Independence Day, as well as social causes such as benefits for the San Francisco Opera and other worthy organizations. Its facilities supported the functional needs; its forms and spaces induced investigation, revelation, and no small degree of delight. It still does.
There is no doubt that the elements of Donnell Garden were contemporary and photogenic. It is perhaps the most reproduced garden in the world, certainly the most reproduced modern garden. But there is an essence to the garden, one based on an opening of spatial possibility and the support of outdoor living that eludes the photograph. Ultimately, it is those aspects, as well as its formal delight, that combine to make Donnell Garden a milestone and monument in the history of landscape design.
Church, Thomas. Gardens Are For People. New York: Reinhold, 1955.
Treib, Marc. The Donnell and Eckbo Gardens: Modern Californian Masterworks. San Francisco: William Stout, 2005.
Treib, Marc, ed. Thomas Church, Landscape Architect: Designing a Modern Californian Landscape. San Francisco: William Stout, 2003.
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