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El Novillero Revisited

Articles: El Novillero Revisited
The pool at El Novillero, with sculpture by Adeline Kent. A recent photograph by the author.
The pool at El Novillero, with sculpture by Adeline Kent. A recent photograph by the author.

Thomas Church was revising his first book, Gardens Are For People, when he died in 1978. The work was completed by his secretary, Grace Hall, and Michael Laurie, and the revised and enlarged edition will be published later this year by McGraw-Hill. Ms. Messenger, a landscape architect, discussed several Church gardens in Pacific Horticulture for Spring 1979.

When Mr. and Mrs. Dewey Donnell hired Thomas Church to design the garden of their ranch home in the Valley of the Moon, George Rockrise and Lawrence Halprin were draftsmen in the San Francisco landscape architect’s office. In 1947, when construction was under way, Rockrise recalls; “We knew it was something special.” El Novillero, as the ranch is called, was indeed special and Church’s work there remains a significant contribution to the art of garden design. Probably not since the time of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., had there been as much public interest in landscape design as there was in the nineteen forties and fifties on the West Coast. The leader in this revival of interest and the most accomplished person in his profession was Thomas Dolliver Church.

Church was widely acclaimed for his work but few of his gardens have had the impact of the Donnell garden. For three decades this garden has been an example of exceptional design and exemplary execution. It showed that landscape architecture was something more than pretty horticulture, and became the inspiration for roof gardens, plazas and residential designs for a generation.

The Donnell garden, like others designed by Church, was made expressly for the people who would live in it, play in it, grow with it, and whose lives would be influenced by it. It was not created as a monument to the designer, but it is a credit to him that it is maintained at a level that would surely meet with his approval.

Plan of El Novillero drawn by Michael Laurie for the second and revised edition of Gardens are for People, by Thomas Church, to be published by McGraw-Hill.
Plan of El Novillero drawn by Michael Laurie for the second and revised edition of Gardens are for People, by Thomas Church, to be published by McGraw-Hill.


The Donnells had selected a site on their ranch, but during World War II permits were not issued to build houses in the Sonoma Valley. However, swimming pools could be built because their water might be used for extinguishing fires. Church chose as a site for the pool, a hill some distance from where the Donnells had decided to build their house. The preliminary design was completed in September of 1947 and details for the construction were carried out with the assistance of Lawrence Halprin. Within two months Church set to work clearing the wooded hilltop and selecting oaks to frame the vast view towards San Francisco over the valley and marshes.

Church’s plan of the herb garden.
Church’s plan of the herb garden.

George Rockrise was a designer for Ed Stone when he met Church during the construction of the El Panama Hotel pool garden in Panama City. He moved to San Francisco to work for him and designed a lanai for entertaining and a pool house with guest quarters in the Donnell garden.

Before the garden was completed, the sixty foot long swimming pool was pictured on the cover of House Beautiful although color was added in the photograph because the lawn had not been installed at the time. Photographs of the pool terrace were featured in many other magazines and in books and professional journals in the United States, Europe and Canada. As recently as 1979, the British Broadcasting Corporation filmed the garden for a television documentary on international design, considering it one of the finest in the world.

The winding salt marshes of San Pablo Bay and the soft undulating hills of the Sonoma Valley were the main inspiration for the pool and paving. The serpentine forms of the distant sloughs are found again in the outlines of the pool and lawn. Trees, sculpture, walls, lawn and paving advance and retreat, overlap and separate in a series of ever changing patterns as one moves around the pool, reminding the viewer of Church’s interest in the work of artists and designers in other fields — especially that of Cubists. Church’s affinity for other designers also influenced by Cubism especially Alvar Aalto and Roberto Burle Marx — is unmistakable in the free flowing forms of the plan. The brilliance of this design, however, lies in the fact that the line of the pool’s edge when seen in perspective reflects the form of the abstract sculpture emerging from the water while at the same time seeming to be drawn from the broader landscape beyond. Church’s characteristic restraint and simplicity in handling free forms prevents this design from degenerating into a cliché of the fifties. Where other designers may have entertained a whimsical idea, he achieved an elegant result.

Looking towards the hills over Church’s pool and Kent’s sculpture. Photograph by Rondal Partridge.
Looking towards the hills over Church’s pool and Kent’s sculpture. Photograph by Rondal Partridge.

The original idea was to place a large boulder in the pool, but Church realized that a smoother surface would be more appropriate and recommended commissioning Adeline Kent to do a piece for the project. Kent’s abstract sculpture, emulative of the work of the Swiss artist, Jean Arp, reinforces the forms delineated in Church’s landscape, but it is functional as well: one can swim through an opening in it, dive from the top or lie on it for sunbathing.

Rockrise’s lanai wasn’t built until about 1950. Its glass walls open on the sides facing the pool terrace, and flooring and paving, benches, spaces for plants and stone walls continue from interior to exterior, accomplishing the often desired but seldom achieved marriage of the two spaces. An appropriate main entry to the garden is pro­vided by a landing of asphalt encircling one of the large oaks on the hillside. Beyond this elegantly simple space, which commands a grand vista across the valley, stone steps in a generous curve lead into the pool area.

Where grading could not provide the area required to balance the expanse of the terrace and frame the main entry, a wood deck over a retaining wall was added. The decking, in a pattern of squares, is penetrated by six oaks whose canopies shade and frame the composition.

The planting near the pool is dominated by oaks with broad lawns running under them and wrapping around the hillside. At the edge, informal combinations of native and introduced plants — annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs — provide seasonal color and satisfy the owners’ love of gardening. More emphatic shapes from plants like bird of paradise and Japanese aralia, chosen by the owners, complete the furnishing of the lanai and pool house.

Beyond the pool, but seldom mentioned in accounts of the garden, lies the completion of Church’s design — the surround to the house. To save the finest of the oaks and achieve the best view Church worked closely with architect Austin Pierpont in siting the house. One of Church’s main concerns throughout his career was the entrance to the house, and his books and articles emphasized the importance of the design of entryways. Taking advantage of the ample site, Church designed a generous automobile approach and parking area to reinforce the feeling of arriving, while accommodating a view of the house and front door. An ample walk alongside the parking area is bordered by three trees which mark the way to the front door. A circle of lawn around the third tree, and a screen of lush jungle-like plants, provide a comfortable space in which to await someone from the house.

The small herb garden designed by Church at El Novillero. Author’s photograph.
The small herb garden designed by Church at El Novillero. Author’s photograph.

Whether one elects the outdoor route — a path meandering around the house or the more usual way through the house, the special relationship of the architecture to the outdoors is immediately evident. Along the eastern side of the house for most of its length, glass walls yield views of the gardens. One of these is a miniature herb garden with rose standards, which Church has sited outside the kitchen where it is easily tended, and where it provides a pleasing foreground to the picture from the breakfast room.

In the “gathering room,” as the family terms it, where a friendly cockatoo carries on a persistent monologue and orchids adorn tabletops, a large sunken planter is almost imperceptibly divided by a glass wall which opens onto the terrace and unites the entire space. In addition to the terrace off the gathering room, two other outdoor rooms are provided to take advantage of the mild climate and to capitalize on the spaces defined by oaks. One is a simple circle about thirty feet across whose shape echoes that of the tree’s canopy, and whose level is left more than a foot below that of the house to avoid grading and filling which would endanger the oak. It is paved with brick in herringbone pattern, which seems to reduce the size of the area and provide a more personal scale, and is reached by two steps around the entire circumference.

The outdoor room under an oak at El Novillero Author’s photograph.
The outdoor room under an oak at El Novillero Author’s photograph.

Beyond the circle, the third room, built around a planted mound where another oak grows, is a terrace by the southeastern bedrooms. It appears to be rectangular but is a trapezoid with its long side near the house and its short side farthest from it. By thus exaggerating the effect of perspective the terrace appears to be much larger than it is. This technique — called surwari by Japanese designers and tromp l’oeil by Europeans — was employed by Church several times during his career and is artfully executed here.

A juniper hedge runs from the entry road around the lawns, to the pool terrace, uniting the two areas, framing the design, and providing a clear distinction between the frankly man-made landscape and the grassland below. The muted coloring and coarse texture of the juniper blends with the native vegetation, softening the division between the two.

The gardens surrounding the main house are connected to the pool garden by a path which follows the contours of the land. Hiding surprises beyond turns in the path, Church offers a series of vistas through the trees and glimpses into the gardens, luring the viewer along.

The path divides at the crest of the hill — one arm leads to the main entry of the pool terrace, while the other follows a route determined in characteristic Church manner: Mrs. Donnell walked across the land using the easiest route, while Church followed, walking backwards, carving the centerline of the path with his heel. Planting areas were marked out on the slopes in a similar manner, with Church drawing lines directly on the ground, following the lay of the land. For much of the garden, therefore, there are no construction drawings or grading plans. Church’s preliminary sketches served as guides for construction, with his careful supervision and expert decision-making on site. The placement of boulders, alignment of paths, location of walls were determined on site according to his directions.

This approach has been all but abandoned by a profession which has become dependent on paper work and elaborately detailed drawing practices so that even its best designers may have lost sight of the critical and unpredictable elements of nature with which they are dealing. Church, however, never gave up field supervision and his designs have a quality of inevitability and continuity that can be achieved only by care and involvement.

More than thirty years have elapsed since the garden first made headlines. The trees and the children have grown and the paving has mellowed, but the design has always accommodated the activities of those whose home it was. There has been no wish to alter it.

In his fifty years of practice, Tommy, as everyone knew him, designed and saw the construction of nearly 4,000 gardens and other projects. As impressive as this number, is the consistent high quality of his designs. He has been called one of the last dynamic Classicists and he was known for his rare under­standing of, and feeling for, the land, and for his intuitively simple, natural and enduring designs. Through the creation of gardens like the Donnells’, Tommy Church revived interest in landscape architecture and redirected the course of the profession.




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