Lessons From Thomas Church, Father of the California Garden

California is the most populous state in the United States for a number of reasons: the weather is great, there are plenty of jobs in the wake of the startup boom, and you can run into celebrities on the streets in most of its cities. But there’s a deeper motivation behind many Americans’ Californian exodus, especially East Coasters.’ The Golden State affords freedom from all the constrictive aspects of living anywhere else – there’s no need to worry about cramped cities, houses with too many rooms and not enough relaxation, and in many parts of the state, rain is an event, rather than an occurrence. The Californian lifestyle breaks down the barriers separating man and nature; in the home, this means floor plans that readily incorporate the garden into the main dwelling, and vice versa.

None of this would have been possible had it not been for Thomas Church, a Golden State native who pioneered the aesthetics of what’s known today as the “California Style.” Church reportedly designed over 2,000 private gardens across California and other states; while he was primarily a residential landscape architect, he also played an instrumental role in planning college campuses across California, including noble institutions like Stanford and UC Berkeley.

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Church (or “Tommy,” as he was known to his clients,) started a trend away from the Neoclassical styles of the 1950’s (which were rooted in the strict mores of Europe) and moved towards Modernism, breaking down the often suffocating barriers between home and garden. Although he was familiar with these techniques via his design education at UC Berkeley and Harvard, Church soon became enamored with Modernist design and its emphasis on freedom, fluidity, and movement. He believed that a garden should have no beginning and no end, offering an array of pleasing views regardless of the gardener’s position or perspective. His masterpieces were meant to be dynamic, living components of the home, as compared to the traditional French garden, which was intended as a static, unchanging tableau of flowers and trees that were separated from the main property.

Church’s 1955 book, appropriately titled, Gardens Are For People, conveys the designer’s vision of the garden as being akin to a room in a house, rather than something that’s just pretty to look at. Before coming up with a single sketch, he would talk at length with his clients, posing questions outside the typical consolatory purview. What was their favorite part of the backyard? How old were the children, and what did they like to do for fun? How large was the extended family? What sort of parties would be held in the finished space? These details may seem innocuous, but Church’s ability to combine Modernist innovation with functional structures (a winding path for kids’ lazy tricycle rides, spaces to burn rubbish for compost, a patch for the dog to run around in) was key to his genius. His gardens had to have character. They had to be part of the family.

Once he’d gotten the feel of his canvas and his client, Church constructed a garden according to four broad principles: unity, function, simplicity, and scale. Apart from laying out the broad framework of the California Style, these tenets remain relevant design principles today. Get out your pens and jot these down – these are lessons from a master.

  • UnityYou can’t plan a garden without considering the house. Ease of access and a feeling of intimacy between house and garden was essential to Church, as it ensured the garden’s use and, by extension, greater incorporation into a property at large. Patios, pools, gazebos, and other structures can be added to create further fluidity, and connect the separate elements of a vast backyard.” The design [of the garden] is influenced directly by the house,” he wrote.
  • Function – A garden’s job isn’t simply to look nice: it has to play a role in everyday life. “You cannot have all the gardens you have clipped from the pages of House Beautiful and Arts and Architecture,” Page chided. “First we must get the service requirements into as small an area as they need to function properly”. Such functions include: garbage disposal and mulch collection, producing vegetables, and spaces for children and pets to roam free. Every aspect of a garden, as with every room in a house, should serve a purpose.
  • Simplicity – Page considered over-ambition one of the biggest pitfalls in garden design. “Too many things going on in a small area produces a restless quality which will leave the onlooker dissatisfied,” he wrote. Instead, he recommended going for one or two big structures – a pool for fluidity and geometric diversity, a terrace to carry the line of the house out into the garden – and planting carefully around them. At the same time, Church cautioned against making the terrace act as a border, as the natural lines of the house and property often do the job more effectively.
  • Scale – According to Church, scale can make or break the success of a garden’s design. In defining a garden’s scale, planners must keep in mind multiple relations: the relationship of one part of the garden to the entire property, as well as the size of the individuals who will occupy the garden (an important consideration when selecting the width of a path). By utilizing water, Church could trick the viewer’s eye into perceiving depth and perspective in different ways; another winning strategy was to opt for a larger scale from the get-go. “The best rule to follow is: when in doubt, make it larger,” notes Church, “[because] the eye detects a meager dimension more easily than it does a too-generous one”.

Thomas Church passed away in 1978, but his imprint endures across California and America at large. You see it in Berkeley’s academic buildings, with their smooth facades; we also have Church to thank for the rise in popularity of oblong, circular swimming pools in green spaces (check out some beautiful examples in the photos). Consider him the Frank Lloyd Wright of gardening: a legend who made the California dream a reality for homeowners and gardening enthusiasts alike.

Cover photos by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2007, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

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