On this day in 1909, Disneyland landscape architect Ruth Shellhorn was born in Los Angeles. Ruth was a pioneer in her field and, as one of the few women involved with the design of the Disneyland, made a significant contribution to the landscape and pedestrian pathway designs of the park in 1955.
After studying at Oregon State and Cornell, Ruth returned to begin what would become an illustrious career shaping the appearance of the LA area. She designed landscaping for a number of Bullock’s stores and shopping centers. On some of those projects Ruth worked with prominent architect Welton Becket, who was a friend of Walt Disney. When Walt needed a landscape architect for Disneyland, Becket recommended Ruth.
When she was first approached about working on the park project, Ruth was resistant because at that time most amusement parks were seedy operations. She later said “I was sort of thinking it was going to be some honky-tonk like Venice or something, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do it.” Ultimately, Walt himself persuaded her his park was going to be different.
Ruth joined the Disneyland project in early 1955, a few months before its planned opening. While Jack and Bill Evans had been working to secure plant materials and landscape portions of the park, the design team was struggling with detailed site plans for the different sections of the park, including in the central hub or Plaza. Ruth was brought in as a consulting landscape architect and to act as a liaison between the Imagineers working at the Studio and the Evans brothers at the construction site. She quickly learned this would be much more than a consulting role and was asked to restudy and design the Plaza. Ruth subsequently performed site planning for every other area of the park. As she later explained, her plans provided details on “circulation, paved and planted areas, tree placement, and, in some cases as in the Plaza, the outline of the water courses.” Incredibly, these site plans were not started until April of 1955.
In an article she authored for Landscape Architecture magazine in April of 1956 titled “Disneyland: Dream Built In One Year Through Teamwork Of Many Artists,” Ruth described what it was like working on the project: “Remembering the wind-blown dust, the heat, the terrific fatigue of walking miles during the day and working far into the night on plans as the pressure increased, the tremendous activity of the many trades all working at breakneck speed, the dashing carryalls, the whistling cranes, the constant hammering, sawing, and digging, it seems like a dream, a dream in which everyone operated to the utmost to build the park for family entertainment which had been in Walt Disney’s mind for twenty years.”
One of the biggest challenges Ruth needed to overcome was how to connect the different themed areas in the park in a way that would provide a subtle transition for guests from one area to the next. Large evergreen trees would be a common, connecting feature throughout the park. Elements that would partially screen out different architecture styles and carefully selected plantings would also help avoid clashing themes.
Looking back on the chaotic nature of building Disneyland, Ruth said “I doubt this process could have been followed successfully on any other project on earth; but this was Disneyland, a sort of Fairyland, and Walt’s belief that the impossible was a simple order of the day so instilled this spirit in everyone that they never stopped to think that it couldn’t be done — they just did it, and with amazing speed.”
It’s worth noting Ruth performed her role on a team dominated by men. While some may not have given her the respect she deserved, Walt clearly valued her input and contributions. According to her biographer, Kelly Comras, “It was unusual for a woman to have the responsibilities she did…. She was not a feminist, she was just extremely competent.” Ruth was inspired working beside Walt and proclaimed “Disneyland will never be finished as long as there is a Walt Disney to dream up new ideas.”
Ruth did not join the Disney company after her work was completed and Disneyland opened to the public. She continued to work as a landscape architect on projects throughout the LA area, including additional Bullocks shopping centers, as well as the plans for the University of California, Riverside. Ruth also designed a number of private gardens and landscapes for the rich and famous, including Spencer Tracy, Gene Aurty, Barbara Stanwyck and Ben Goetz.
Ruth passed away on Friday, November 3, 2006 in Torrance, California. Throughout her life she received numerous awards, including being honored as the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year 1955 and receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2005.