He Changed the Landscape

Thomas D. Church Collection, University of California, Berkeley

His hats first drew the eye. Squashed, stiff-brimmed or floppy, they all shared one feature: practicality. Then the high-laced boots, scratched by tree roots, scuffed by rocks, speckled with tar and invariably layered in dust. If you attended Stanford anytime from the late ’40s to the ’70s, you might have seen Thomas Dolliver Church in one of those trademark hats, sporting an old tan corduroy jacket with shears poking out of the pockets, striding across campus or just standing, looking up at the trees.

Tommy, as he was affectionately known, was a nationally recognized landscape designer, California’s gardening guru and the University’s consultant for 30 years. As a member of the architectural advisory council from its inception in 1960 until his death in 1978, he literally shaped the Farm, plotting the look, feel and use of the spaces between and around buildings. By 1977, Harry Sanders, former director of planning, credited him with having “more influence in creating the Stanford campus as it is today than any other single person next to Frederick Law Olmsted.” (Leland Stanford himself had engaged landscape architect Olmsted in 1888.)

Subsequent waves of construction projects have obliterated much of Church’s work, but a vibrant legacy remains. Walk into the middle of White Plaza and you’re at the center of Church-inspired Stanford. From the Bookstore steps to Tresidder’s tiered courtyards, from the Claw to the curving slope at Dinkelspiel, Church created a meeting place on a very human scale. The sunken fountain court, his signature curvilinear seating, the paths for ambling academics that weave between and under clusters of trees—all amount to an invitation to walk and talk or sit and ponder.

Church inherited a cluttered campus of car-filled streets and a proliferation of parking spaces. He left a bequest of malls, promenades and pathways filled with bikes and pedestrians—the heart of Stanford as we know it.

Born in 1902, Church grew up in the Ojai Valley, north of Los Angeles. When his parents separated, he and his sister, Margaret, moved to Oakland with their mother, Wilda Church, a pioneer producer of NBC West Coast radio dramas. As a UC-Berkeley undergraduate, Church switched from law to landscape architecture after taking a notorious Mickey Mouse course, History of Landscaping. He went on to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, receiving his master’s in city planning and landscape architecture in 1923.

Church worked in a city planning office for a couple of years on the East Coast, then developed Pasatiempo Estates near Santa Cruz, Calif., with architect William Wurster. In 1930, he started his own practice in San Francisco.

It was an exciting time for the new profession, as landscape specialists were beginning to assert their place as partners with architects in the design process. Until the ’30s, most had been regarded as glorified gardeners. “If you were to arrive on the job and say, ‘I think the driveway is in the wrong place,’” Church later recalled, “you could get fired, right then.” But he and his peers set a new standard for dialogue between client and landscaper.

“Tommy represented freedom from ‘decorating’ a house,” said former Sunset editor Walter Doty, shortly before Church’s death. “Landscaping had meant gussying up structures that weren’t worth it. Tommy was a ‘behavioral’ landscaper . . . gardens to live in were more important.”

An extended visit to Europe in 1937 with his wife, Betsy—she later called the trip “his investment in himself”—proved pivotal to Church’s career. In Finland, he met Alvar Aalto, whose architecture and glassware inspired Church to adopt more relaxed, informal and natural garden plans. Church’s scrapbook of travel photos glories in the delights of Aalto’s new designs, from lopsided cubist-inspired topiaries to modernist spool-shaped tea kiosks. According to Betsy, “Tommy was also fascinated by [Aalto’s] setting, his site planning . . . it was so perfect in connection with the proposed buildings and also with the environment.” Siting became central to Church—whether he was dreaming up a deck to compensate for San Francisco’s steep, crowded slopes or designing a sweeping Sonoma terrace to complement a property’s expansive vistas.

Returning home, Church entered into the most creative and influential period of his career, designing more than 2,000 private gardens in California and 24 other states. He replaced the landscaper’s orthodox formalism of a central axis with an emphasis on multiple vantage points. “A garden should have no beginning and no end,” he wrote in Gardens Are for People (Reinhold, 1955), “and should be pleasing when seen from any angle, not only from the house.”

He also replaced the inherited East Coast separation of house and garden with a free flow between the two. Church was a longtime contributor to House Beautiful and Sunset magazines, and starting in 1937, Sunset featured many of his creations, including the magazine’s Menlo Park garden.

“All the gardens we now create in California are based on the concepts and philosophies of Thomas Church; we just don’t know it,” says Richard McPherson, a landscape architect who teaches a class on Church at UC-Berkeley Extension. “Before Church, gardens were mainly just a collection of plants. Church changed how the house related to the garden, combining what he learned in Europe with the possibilities of the almost perfect Californian climate.”

Church also designed many public spaces (see sidebar). His style varied with the demands of each project, from the formal lines of Memorial Courtyard beside the Opera House in downtown San Francisco, with its allées of pollarded sycamore, planted in 1936, to Valencia Gardens, a 1940s public housing project in San Francisco. Valencia was very much a matter of design in service to function, with practical service courts featuring drying yards and sandboxes, alternating with leisure areas accenting raised islands of trees girdled with seats. “In every case,” Church wrote in Your Private World (Chronicle Books, 1969), landscapes “should please and serve the people who live in them.”

He designed his first Stanford landscapes at the Linear Accelerator building in 1948. It was a period of fast but random growth, when the student population doubled to 8,000. Stanford had to accommodate a flood of returning GIs and house many new researchers and their labs, borne in on a wave of government grants. The University adapted temporary housing in Menlo Park and used a ramshackle collection of Quonset huts and other makeshift classrooms and laboratories that mushroomed around the library and in what is now Lomita Mall, running along the west side of the Quad. The outer fringes of three sides of the Quad were, in the words of Harry Sanders, “really backyard junk. . . . It was a mish-mash. There was a wall behind the Geology Corner; it must have been 18 feet high—it was a Chinese wall. It just kept the quadrangle from being a part of an expanding campus.”

Within a decade, those eyesores were about to be washed away in a torrent of fund raising. The “Red Book” (a long-range study of Stanford’s academic and financial goals) secured a $25 million Ford Foundation grant in 1959, at the time the largest award ever given a university. President J.E. Wallace Sterling, PhD ’38, used the funds as seed money for the PACE campaign (Plan of Action for a Challenging Era). Wally “Wallet” Sterling, as he was known to students, raised $114 million in three years. The money fueled an aggressive faculty recruitment drive that propelled Stanford into the top rank of world universities.

Sterling also began a new building program and focused on refurbishing the University’s infrastructure. He created the architectural advisory council in 1960 to monitor “every plan of every building, every landscape plan, every parking lot, every road layout.” Since Sterling was an ardent gardener and an admirer of Church’s work, he paid particular attention to Church’s advice.

The 1888 campus master plan of Olmsted and Charles Coolidge called for seven quads, three extending east and three west from the Main Quad. This blueprint had been disregarded almost from the start and all but abandoned by the 1960s—replaced, according to Wattis Professor of Art Paul Turner in the preface to Stanford University: The Campus Guide (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), “by a more traditional pattern of individual buildings fronting streets.” Stuttering periods of growth in the interim had created a kind of pentimento, the artistic process by which one work is overpainted with another on the same canvas.

The first overlay was Jane Stanford’s “stone age,” a surge of construction begun in the 1890s. This included the museum, the chemistry building and Memorial Church. From 1917 through the ’30s, the art gallery, library, education building, Memorial Auditorium and Hoover Tower were added. The rush of science and engineering expansion around World War II produced a clutter of uninspired multilevel flat-topped structures. And the modernism of the ’60s and ’70s resulted in a set of individualistic structures, like the Business School, that clouded the clarity of Olmsted’s axial plan.

Much of Church’s work at Stanford was therefore remedial. With so many periods and styles, he faced the problem of rationalizing a clash of seeming opposites. “Church was trying to put a layer of continuity around the original buildings and the new,” says Cathy Blake, assistant director of Stanford’s planning office. “They were not building quads; they were building buildings. Church was working on a landscape that was meant to tie all this together.”

University architect and vice provost for planning David Neuman says that in addition, Church “had to navigate the politics of campus planning” and negotiate the various “edifice complexes” of modernist architecture. His designs had to take into account competing issues of scale.

Lomita Mall was a prime example of this tying-together. The Mitchell earth sciences building, the Durand building, the Varian physics laboratory (now demolished) all anchored the putative science quad to the west of the Quad. Lomita, between the buildings and the Quad, was an ordinary street open to automobile traffic. Church turned it into a pedestrian area. He wove asphalt paths between irregularly shaped expanses of grass, creating multiple viewpoints. He built signature walls at the Mitchell end of Lomita and installed low sitting-walls around mature trees, providing contemplative islets throughout the mall.

Church’s Lomita has all but disappeared, relegated to the memory of pre-2000 alums, as the new Science and Engineering Quad is the focal point for the area west of the Main Quad. “We’ve moved from a very rural character. We’re in-filling and lessening the open space that we have. So everything we have has to be very functional,” says campus planner Debbie Canino. “Less ornamental, with more need for the landscapes to really match the buildings’ character, and campus character.”

Nonetheless, there are other, smaller spaces where Church’s designs (Neuman and his office affectionately refer to them as “Churchskis”) survive. Canino cites the courtyard at Geology Corner, set for restoration this summer. “Other spaces may need to be sensitively redesigned to accommodate newly established needs,” she says.

Church’s reconfiguration of Lomita as a peripatetic’s paradise was part of a larger plan to turn the center of campus into a pedestrian zone, and that principle remains central to Stanford’s long-term strategy. Church was notorious for his “envelope sketches,” dashing them off when the inspiration seized him. “Tommy told me that initially he was talking to Dr. Wallace Sterling just on the back of envelopes,” Proctor Mellquist, former editor of Sunset, said in a 1977 interview. “Out of Tommy’s envelope sketches came a new circulation plan. Private cars don’t go very far in the middle. Parking is tucked under trees.”

With cars exiled, the center of Stanford became something of a cyclist’s other-Eden—although a pedestrian caught on a bike path between classes might liken it more to a warm-up for the Tour de France. But it did change the Stanford ethos. Church gave pedestrians the upper hand in other campus sites, such as the complex of science buildings that included Herrin and the Stauffers. In the early ’60s, he created a small pedestrian mall there where vehicles were limited to peripheral parking. With its meandering paths, curvilinear forms and shaded seating, the area is one of a shrinking number of virtually untouched Church gardens on campus. Mirroring the Geology Corner courtyard is a reconstruction of a Church garden on the other side of the Quad, off Lasuen. Each of these spots is worth a visit and a few snatched moments of contemplation.

Church’s greatest and most enduring creations at Stanford are, however, White Plaza and Kennedy Grove, the informal wooded area located between Bowman and the Faculty Club. White Plaza is one of the social hearts of campus, where students gather at lunch, listen to music, hold fairs or simply meet. According to Sanders, “Church created a beautiful informal plaza out of a 5-acre area full of absolute junk and trash, old streets, old telephone poles, old parking lots, old temporary buildings.”

The result is quintessential Church, from the sweep of pathways to the functional areas of asphalt to the ring of built-in benches facing Aristides Demetrios’s sculpture with its 80 jets of water. The large areas of informally shaped lawn ease the circulation of foot and cycle traffic, and the trees provide shade and focus.

Behind Tresidder, changes in ground levels, defined by stone and concrete walls, create the feeling of an enclosed patio. (The dry-stack stone walls with no mortar visible in the joints are also classic Church.) Berkeley lecturer McPherson observes that “the oak tree with surrounding wall are defining elements of that dining courtyard. The building seems to be built around the oak tree, in the same way many of his houses were. In the late 1930s, when Church was exploring the international style, he observed that when you put a wall around a mature oak tree, the tree becomes more important than the axis.”

As a result, Tresidder has that feeling of indoor-outdoor flow that is found in so many Church—and California—gardens. It is a fitting environment in which to nurture a sense of community.

Although Stanford’s present-day planners admire much of Church’s work, they have gone in a different direction, returning to what Neuman calls “Olmsted’s strong axial arrangement.”

“We’ve tried to revive the Olmsted plan,” says Blake. “A lot of that is counter to what Church did.” As Blake says rather tellingly of White Plaza, “I had Bill Johnson, a prominent landscape architect and former dean at the University of Michigan, out here once, and he thought it was as if you entered a different world. . . . something that had no relationship to what was happening on the Quad.”

Church’s innovative work may belong to another period of Stanford, but he has left many legacies, from a central campus dedicated to bikes and pedestrians to lovely pocket gardens scattered throughout. If the arcaded cloisters of the Olmsted Quad bequeath an aura of meditative intellectuality, then White Plaza exudes a sense of physicality, of light and space and the endless possibilities of California. It is a marriage of opposites that seems to work.

Perhaps that is the essence of Stanford. When we un-layer that magnificent pentimento, we reveal a synthesis that makes the University great. And Church is very much a part of that.

Raymond Hardie is a writer based in San Diego and a former Stanford editor.