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The Cost of Landscape: Looking Back at Some of Southern California’s Lawns

“Thus the new city was formed, and a real official place upon the map, authorized to geographers.
Not very lusty at first but promising and expectant! One circumstance may here be noted regarding the men and events of that time. While men differed – as they always will – even under utopian conditions if such may be found here – in the new town of Pasadena there was one sentiment upon which all were unanimous – the building of a city that would be beautiful and clean morally and materially, composed of a people that might dwell together in amity and with civic patriotism.”[1]

J.W. Wood, 1917

“There must someday be a limit to the water supply in Southern California, if she progresses at her present rate. Many river beds are already dry and bleached white beneath the sun, partly or wholly through man’s influence.”[2]

Arthur T. Johnson, 1913


On April 1, 2015, standing in a dry Sierra Nevada field, California Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order that would impose mandatory water restrictions in the state, declaring that California had become a “different world,” and warning “we have to act differently.”[3] The restrictions—which, due to subsequent revisions, required some districts to reduce water usage by as much as 36%—were almost immediately met with protest. Officials in cities including Beverly Hills criticized the methods used to assess water usage, and the speed at which the city would have to reduce its water consumption. Shortly afterwards, in San Juan Capistrano, an appeals court found tiered water pricing—a billing method used throughout California that charges heavy water users at a higher rate, and that is considered one of the most effective tools in curbing domestic water usage—unconstitutional.[4] Though Beverly Hills eventually acquiesced to the restrictions and imposed limitations on lawn watering and other residential usage, the measures were met with even stauncher resistance by customers in the Santa Fe Irrigation District, an affluent expanse encompassing Rancho Santa Fe that in April of 2015 was the heaviest residential water user in the state.[5]

Prior to the imposition of the mandatory restrictions, the consequences of the drought—though it is entering its fourth year—were barely visible in the wealthy communities of Beverly Hills or Palos Verdes, or in the resorts of the Coachella Valley, where, during the first two weekends of this past April, the Coachella Art and Music Festival, an annual outdoor event with tickets priced between $375 and $899, hosted thousands of visitors on a well-watered, expansive green polo field equipped with misting stations.[6] The valley is partially served by the Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company, the water provider that boasted the highest per capita water usage in May 2015.[7]

Hypothesizing people’s persistent loyalty to lawns despite increasing awareness of their negative environmental impact, popular rhetoric often emphasizes the grassy expanses’ embodiment of the American dream.[8] As Kenneth T. Jackson has observed, the American love affair with lawns concurred with escalating nineteenth-century anxieties about contagions in urban spaces and the adoption of a lyrical view of nature. Lawns created a “private wonderland” that mediated the relationship between properties and civilized the “wild vista” beyond. Dually affording privacy to homeowners and fulfilling fantasies of restorative contact with nature, lawns tethered the personal advancement symbolized by private property to spiritual and physical wellbeing.[9] Such logic remains evident in recent defenses of residential water usage, including Orange County resident and water district employee Brett Barbre’s declaration that watering restrictions are tantamount to a “war on suburbia.”[10]

Opposing attempts to rebuke this mythology and curb lawn cultivation have duly treated lawns as unnatural formations, more likely to harm the environment than extend it. Michael Pollan has called them “anonymous, massified, deprived of any change or development whatsoever” and “nature under culture’s boot,” and warned that we are poisoning ourselves with the pesticide and herbicide used in their maintenance.[11] As evidenced by Pollan’s rhetoric, such critiques cast lawns as forces of monotony and mechanization. Like the gray flannel suit, they have been derided as remnants of the 1950s’ frenzy for conformity. More recently, the justifications espoused by celebrities and socialites in defense of their extravagant water usage have positioned rolling privately owned turf as a symbol of greed and recession-era inequity.[12] However, as Jackson’s history suggests, the lawn’s preeminent position in American culture can be traced back much further, to foundational myths about the American frontier and individualism.

A Typical Bungalow, Postcard, 1910
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

In fact, well-irrigated landscaping played a crucial role in establishing the aesthetic of some of Southern California’s earliest suburbs. More than merely a decorative addendum, the cultivation of well-manicured lawns during the nineteenth century generated ecological continuity between the East and West Coasts, and in doing so naturalized Southern California’s purportedly “American” characteristics. This cultivated similarity between the country’s coasts framed American identity and citizenship as a force moving westward from Europe to New England before finally reaching California, a narrative that conflated the expansion of American identity with the spread of whiteness and white power.

Given California’s comparatively late admission into the Union, the settlers of the American West were particularly invested in reframing the state’s recent history to cast Anglo-Saxon power as the region’s longstanding destiny instead of a recent development.[13] This project required the production of whiteness as a racial category and the naturalization of white privilege, an effort aided by the proliferation of Manifest Destiny and the so-called “garden myth,” a biblically informed fantasy that celebrated Anglo-American mastery over nature, evinced by agriculture and landscaping, as the fulfillment of divine will.[14] These ideals appeared throughout period writings and manifestos, providing a consistent justification for the colonization of California. In one such text, published in 1917, Southern California historian and booster J.W. Wood’s description of the transition from the Mexican rancho period to the American period reverberated with religious overtones:

The last don had lazed here in indolent improvidence and arcadian unthrift, but the metamorphosis was at hand; for the gringo had come to usurp his dominance, to create a splendid city from neglected areas, to lay the foundations for a new civilization.[15]

According to Wood, “gringos” salvaged the country from indolence, improvidence and unthrift, a trifecta of adjectives clearly intended to convey Mexicans’ and Californios’ lack of godliness and work ethic, and to vindicate the subsequent acquisition of their land.

Pasadena Orange Grove, 1876, by Carlton E. Watkins
from the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History

In the effort to remake California’s past and future, landscape was an evidentiary force capable of naturalizing social and power relations.[16] In describing the state as lush, bountiful, and Edenic, transplanted boosters and naturalists leveraged the environment to prove Anglo-Saxon dominance as the result of destiny and progress.

Recent photographs of the state tell a distinctly different story about California’s propensity for growth and abundance. On April 5, 2015, the New York Times ran a feature entitled “California Drought Tests Endless History of Growth” that pictured dry expanses of desert butting up against well-watered squares of lawn. Other articles have similarly pictured fallow fields and dried lakebeds alongside lush Beverly Hills gardens.[17] In addition to occasionally showing homeowners amongst their lavish spreads, these articles and their accompanying illustrations also allude to (and occasionally document) the expansive workforce that cultivates and maintains such pristine greenscaping. Frequently residing in neighborhoods apart from the lush enclaves where they work, many of Los Angeles’ gardeners and landscapers have been affected by drought restrictions in the form of lost jobs and reduced income.[18]

As the state of California stretches its water reserves to the limit, the infrastructure and ideologies that have shaped residential water usage for over a century bear revisiting. Framing his history of race in Los Angeles, William Deverell warns that in order to change the city’s future, we must first “[dig] into the soil” of its past—a process that reveals “a city that, even in its expressions of institutional and infrastructural growth, adhered to patterns of racial privilege and ethnocentrism.”[19]

While encouraging a journey into the depths of the archives, Deverell’s advisement to “dig” also directs us to delve into the landscape itself in order to unsettle the seemingly natural forces that continue to inform access to land, resources, and power. Though the amount of water used residentially pales in comparison to the total amount used for agricultural, commercial, and industrial projects (including fracking), it is notable that in 2013, 54% of single-family residential (SFR) water consumption in Los Angeles was for outdoor use, primarily landscape irrigation.[20] Unsurprisingly, given the rising cost of water and the connection between lot size and the amount of landscaping, research indicates a strong correlation between income level and residential water use. However, it is too easy to dismiss this correlation as obvious and therefore unworthy of investigation. Though the immediate cause of high levels of residential water usage is apparent (extravagant landscaping), its historical precedent and impending consequences remain relatively obscure.

As Laura Pulido has observed in her scholarship on environmental justice, contemporary access to healthful environments and natural resources is inextricable from a long history of development, suburbanization, and decentralization.[21] Within this history, the white supremacist ideals of the nineteenth-century colonization of Southern California laid the foundation for subsequent development, speculation, and policies that consistently and disproportionately favored Southern Californians deemed white by the state’s shifting racial politics. Once leveraged as evidence of Los Angeles’ Anglo-Saxon destiny, cultivated landscape emerged as a symbol of luxury and reward for the region’s expanding white elite during the second half of the nineteenth century.

As suggested by Wood’s description of a “new civilization,” 1880s Southern California intertwined a new infrastructure equipped with the amenities of eastern cities with changing ideals about what qualified as “civilized” and socially beneficial. Like many boosters of the region, Wood was particularly infatuated with Pasadena, a proto-suburban and increasingly affluent enclave located to the northeast of Los Angeles. Initially divided into small farms, the city eventually evolved into a combination of citrus fields, luxurious travel accommodations, and businesses and residential subdivisions, all of which relied on a steady supply of water.

View of Pasadena, 1885
from the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History

The burgeoning municipality proved particularly attractive to city-dwellers from the eastern United States seeking a restorative climate and time outdoors. By 1885, the city was connected to the metropolis of Los Angeles by railroad, and the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad lines were offering unusually low fares, making Pasadena accessible and appealing to those with the means to travel. Beginning in 1886, visitors could stay in one of the luxurious Raymond Hotel’s guest rooms. Advertised as serving “particular people with means,” the Raymond was not intended for Californians at all, instead reserving its various amenities including croquet and tennis courts for white, elite, vacationing easterners.[22]

View of Pasadena, 1885
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

Transplanted New Englanders, including prolific writer and naturalist Charles Frederick Holder, arrived in the small city with ideas about luxury and landscaping inspired by their time back east. Intent on constructing an outpost of urban American civility, men like Holder gravitated towards landscaping and gardening as important methods to recreate attributes of the culture they had left behind. As historian Kevin Starr has written, “Horticulture—gardens, lawns, rosebushes—was the special glory of Pasadena.”[23] Speaking at the city’s 1886 Citrus Fair, George H. Bonebrake of the Los Angeles Board of Trade declared Pasadena the original Garden of Eden, arguing that the city enjoyed flora, fruits, and women in all manners of loveliness.[24]

By the 1880s, lawns were already a well-established fixture of luxurious estates and public spaces in the American east. In 1841, horticulturist and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing published his highly popular Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, a text that combined advisements for gardening and lifestyle. Downing believed that “the love of country is inseparably connected with love of home,” and advanced the lawn, which buffered between wild and domesticated, public and private, as a means to balance pastoral fantasy with domestic bliss.[25] He was heavily influenced by English gardening techniques, and in the mid nineteenth century lawns visually recalled both English estates and lawn games like tennis and croquet. Grassy frontage also created uniformity amongst residences, generating the clean line that would become highly valued by suburbanization projects.

The relationship between fine landscaping and residential luxury was not lost on T.P. Lukens, Pasadena’s first realtor.[26] Published in 1886, his Pasadena: California Illustrated and Described, Showing Its Advantages as a Place for Desirable Homes bolstered descriptions of the area’s residences with illustrations depicting abundant orange groves, lush gardens, tidily trimmed shrubbery, and broad vistas. Eager to prove the city’s civil parity and superior healthfulness in comparison to crowded eastern metropolises, Lukens applauds the city’s “pure air,” “healthful sea breezes,” and boasts about “our abundant tree growth, [the] extensive green of our vineyards, our numerous flower gardens, and our many lawns.”[27] These rapturous descriptions foreshadowed a lifelong belief in the mutually beneficial relationship between nature and development. Occasionally known by the nickname “Johnny Pineseed,” Lukens would eventually become a vocal advocate for afforestation and experiment with the cultivation and sale of wooded real estate.[28]

Proudly featured amongst the book’s illustrations were large homes located on Marengo Ave and Orange Grove Avenue, the street that would eventually earn the moniker “Millionaire’s Row.” Amongst the extravagantly landscaped homes pictured were those of G.T. Stamm, a founding director of the Pasadena Lake Vineyard Land and Water Co; railroad man M.W. McGee; and Lukens himself.[29] Set behind arching shrubbery and boughs of roses, these images illustrated the prominent role of lush landscaping in signaling high-end living. Writing years later in The Pacific Monthly, city booster D.W. Coolidge recalled: “It was a wise provision of the founders of Pasadena in laying all lots a depth of one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet, which permits of the building being set well back from the street, admitting a pleasing stretch of greensward which is frequently bordered by rose, geranium or calla lily hedges. The strict adherence to a uniform building line has added much to the attractiveness of Pasadena.”[30]

Frank. H. Emery’s Home on Orange Grove Avenue, 1889, by C.J. Crandall & Co.
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

Colorado Street looking east from Marengo, Pasadena, 1889
from the collections of the Huntington Library
However, the embrace of greensward did not mitigate fantasies of the West as an exotic paradise. Writing about the region in All About Pasadena and Its Vicinity (1889), Charles Frederick Holder, who shortly thereafter founded the Tournament of Roses Parade, alternated between hailing Pasadena as a “New England city of beautiful homes” and lusciously describing its “palms, bananas and guavas, and pomegranates”—plants that, though figuring prominently into Holder’s praise for the region’s natural attributes, were the result of deliberate cultivation. Despite his background as a naturalist, Holder’s writings clearly privileged the cultivation of an ideal landscape, intertwining established signs of exoticism and civility, over the preservation of native flora.[31] Intent on leveraging his descriptions of landscape towards his racial project, Holder assured readers that Pasadena was no “Sonora Town,” and promised that: “Mexican inhabitants can almost be counted on the fingers.”[32] Holder’s preference for tidy landscaping infused with exotic flourish was representative of a broader commitment to promoting Pasadena as both sophisticated city and semi-tropical resort, goals embodied by the frequent pairing of tidy rows of palm trees with sprawling lawns.

The landscaping at the luxurious Green Hotel exemplified this style. Completed between 1891 and 1894, the massive Moorish structure sported lush grounds in which trees ranging from palms to evergreens were ensconced in circular lawns.[33] Frequently the site of parties and host to high society, the hotel was at the heart of Pasadena’s growing reputation as a millionaire’s retreat and hub for socialites. Both a city of homes and a luxury resort, turn-of-the-century Pasadena was an important antecedent to cities like Beverly Hills and Palos Verdes, a place where well-irrigated landscaping enhanced private interests and real estate.

Hotel Green, Pasadena, 1890-1910
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

H.H Markham’s Home at 703 S. Pasadena Ave, 1890
from the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History

As the city’s luxury economy grew, so did its lawns and need for water, which, in addition to irrigating private property, was used to sprinkle unpaved streets in order to minimize dustiness.[34] In 1892, one year before the opening of the Mount Lowe Incline Railroad, a tourist attraction that allowed the public to gaze down on the expanse of Altadena and Pasadena, the Los Angeles Times proudly reported on the completion of the “elegant mansion” of the incline railroad’s founder, T.S.C. Lowe:

The building stands on a commanding eminence, the grounds fronting 300 feet on that famous thoroughfare, Orange Grove avenue, and extending back over a varied surface of hill and dale artistically laid out in terraces, lawns, fields, grassy slopes, romantic declivities, trim orchards, cement walks and asphalt driveways, and present the aspect of a landscape garden covering twelve acres of the ground.[35]

Though singled out in the newspaper, Lowe’s mansion was completed amidst an increasingly unsustainable frenzy for luxurious landscape gardening. That summer the Pasadena Land and Water Company issued a notice requesting that patrons “not let water run to waste,” and limit themselves to sprinkling their lawns in the morning and early evenings.[36]

T.S.C.’s Lowe’s Home at Orange Grove Ave, 1899
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

However, by January of 1896 the Los Angeles Times was reporting that due to recent improvements to the city’s water system, the water supply had become “never-failing,” promising that “even in the dryest season [Pasadena] has no dearth of water.” Clearly intended to celebrate the growing city, the article describes the “abundance of pure water” for residences, businesses, and agriculture in great detail and applauds the recent completion of homes embodying “the memory of the most romantic period of the history of the Great Southwest,” homes that, like wealthy Ohio transplant G.J. Hopkins’ residence on South Orange Grove Avenue, blended the Mission style with a “modern dwelling.” Hopkins’ sizable residence featured an enclosed court “set in the midst of lawns green the whole year round, surrounded by palms and semi-tropical shrubbery.”[37]

Despite the optimism of the winter months, by summer the city’s water supply was once again being stretched to its limit. Under the headline “Pasadena Water Supply: Many complaints from Citizens. More water needed for lawns,” the Los Angeles Times reported that an inability to meet customer need had driven the Lake Vineyard Land and Water Company to consider either charging an extra fee to customers maintaining lawns larger than 60 by 20 feet, or placing meters to track each resident’s usage—two solutions still commonly considered effective in mitigating excessive lawn watering. In coverage that could have been be ripped from recent reporting, the Times warned that any extra fees would be met with disdain: “citizens object to any restrictions as to the laws they keep about their premises…”[38]

743 Orange Grove Avenue, 1899
from the collections of the Pasadena Public Library

Home of P.T. Barnum, 345 South Orange Grove Avenue, 1899-1905
from the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History

1083 North Los Robles Avenue, circa 1900
from the collections of the Pasadena Museum of History

However, despite these early signs of distress, Pasadena as well as its lawns, gardens, and need for water continued to grow. Tennis matches and lawn parties had become staples of society living, and the newspaper regularly reported on the ritzy affairs.  Anticipating over a century of water providers preferring the meeting of consumers’ needs to the changing of their habits, the Lake Vineyard Land and Water Company partnered with the Pasadena Land and Water Company to build a storage basin and dam.[39] With improved infrastructure, the city continued to grow. In 1902, another high-end hotel, the Maryland, opened to the public, offering expansive grounds dotted with bungalows.

Maryland Gardens Court, 191?
from the collections of the Arthur Krieger Collection, Pasadena Digital History Collaboration

Arriving a decade later in 1913, while the city was in the midst of establishing a municipal water system, British tourist Arthur T. Johnson was aghast at Pasadena’s extravagant landscaping. “Beautiful as these trees and flowers undoubtedly are,” he wrote, “it will be noticed by any observant visitor that most of them are exotics, which thrive not only on account of the comparatively high temperatures in which they, as settlers, live, but that their existence is equally dependent on supplied moisture and a gardener’s care,” continuing, “[i]t is the liberal use of the hose-pipe and garden sprinkler, which are turned on with such lavish generosity in the gardens and parks, that has been the main factor in making the wilderness blossom as the rose.” He ended his description of Pasadena’s landscape with a warning: “There must someday be a limit to the water supply in Southern California, if she progresses at her present rate. Many river beds are already dry and bleached white beneath the sun, partly or wholly through man’s influence.”[40]

Aerial Photograph of residential area of Pasadena, November 10, 1913
by Harold A. Parker

from the Harold A. Parker Studio Collection of Negatives, Huntington Library

The views of an anxious tourist like Johnson remained in the minority. By contrast, J.W. Wood’s laudatory 1917 history observed that in Pasadena, “lawns are velvet robes.” Between 1910 and 1915, architect Myron Hunt completed work on the redesigned Maryland Hotel which Wood noted sported “eight acres of lawn and flower garden,” and the Huntington Hotel, which offered “broad sloping lawn where guests could indulge in recreational pastimes.”[41]

A hugely popular architect known for his landscaping prowess, Hunt also designed the Valley Hunt Club (1907), Huntington Library (1920), the Los Palos Verdes Country Club (1914), and high-end residences such as the Palos Verdes (1927), home of Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.[42] Like Pasadena before it, Palos Verdes was premised on a combination of natural splendor and extraordinary luxury. Palos Verdes Estates, established in 1923, and fellow luxury subdivision Beverly Hills, established in 1907 and incorporated in 1914, had stricter and more explicit housing covenants than Pasadena, and prohibited property owners from renting to anyone “not of the white or Caucasian race.”  These restrictions dictated that though the heavily landscaped communities enjoyed the appearance of public parks and squares, the public they served was actually narrowly defined. Like Pasadena’s segregated Brookside Plunge, which was the subject of civil rights litigation throughout the 1930s, Palos Verdes Estates’ green spaces presented the illusion of public space within a political and regulatory culture intent on maintaining private and restrictive control. One of Palos Verdes’ developers, E.G. Lewis, made his objectives clear in stating that the community was intended for “the cream of the manhood and womanhood of the greatest nation that has ever lived, the Caucasian race and the American Nation.”[43]

Designed by the Olmsted Brothers’ architectural firm and sporting country clubs and golf courses, the Palos Verdes Peninsula remains one of the heaviest residential water users in Los Angeles County.  Palos Verde Estate’s website boasts that “After 75 years, the city remains true to its founder’s vision and is as desirable as it was in 1939.”

As many Californians seriously reconsider their relationship to landscaping and water, it is tempting to dismiss lawns as outdated and visually redundant. But simply severing them from suburban fantasies allows those fantasies and the associated cultural preeminence of property ownership to remain intact, as illustrated by the coincidence of the rise of drought-tolerant landscaping with the approval of stringent ordinances intended to regulate the city’s homeless population.[44] If California is to become more sustainable, it is not merely the lawn’s connection to the American dream that must be undermined, but the long-standing rhetoric of the dream itself. For over a century, the veneer of public access, discourses of authenticity, and descriptions of natural progress have propelled excess, profit-driven development and environmental injustice, culminating in unaffordable housing, rural poverty, and inequitable access to water.[45] In a recent report, the California Center for Sustainable Communities identified a “cultural shift” towards perceiving water as a “common property resource,” as crucial to encouraging conservation. This goal, which relies upon changes to perspective as well as behavior demands that Californian’s reckon with the state’s past and future. While conservation may merely necessitate turning off one’s sprinklers, accepting water as a shared resource requires looking squarely at the relationship between lush lawns and emptied wells—between luxury and scarcity, abundance and depletion.

Alison Kozberg 
is a writer, researcher, programmer and second generation Angeleno who specializes in avant-garde film, independent arts organizations, and the history of Southern California. She is currently a Project Director and Board Member for Los Angeles Filmforum—the city’s longest running exhibitor of experimental film—and a doctoral candidate at USC. Her essay “Bergman in ‘68: Envisioning Disaster in Shame” appeared in our winter2014 issue.

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