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Ralph Cornell's Influence on California's Native Landscapes

Ralph Cornell's plan for a central Quadrangle within Pomona College. | Photo: Special Collections, Claremont Colleges Library

Ralph Cornell (1890-1972) spent a lifetime figuring out how things grow. How plants, indigenous and exotic, respond to Southern California's soils, light, and moisture, to its heat and drought. How best to design plazas, parks, and campuses, neighborhoods, and gardens such that their vegetation would nourish those strolling through these restful landscapes. Delights to the eye and soul: those were some of the responses Cornell built into his many civic, collegiate, and communal projects across the Southland.

Consulting arborist Cy Carlberg taught me how to read these key elements in one particular Cornell-inflected space. We were standing on the west end of Marston Quad, Pomona College's iconic greensward, and she had me focus not on the sweep of green, not of the large buildings anchoring its cardinal points, but on the scattered clustering of sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). Their soaring height lifts our eyes, she observed, and gives volume to what could seem but flat ground; their mottled, flaking bark counters the monochromatic grass. But more important, the copse of trees function as shady dens, cubbies where students can sprawl on the lawn or prop themselves up against the trunks -- to sleep, perhaps to dream.

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Ralph Cornell's graduation photo. | Photo: Courtesy Pomona College
Ralph Cornell's graduation photo. | Photo: Courtesy Pomona College

Although this particular site owes much of its impetus to the framing device that Thomas Jefferson deployed at the University of Virginia, its arboreal coziness and domestic feel -- what writer (and Pomona alum) Verlyn Klinkenborg calls its "laconic beauty" -- draws as well on Cornell's undergraduate experience at Pomona, from which he graduated in 1914. He made his alma mater homier.

Planting sycamores was not by happenstance, either: Cornell studied botany in college, had tramped all over the region, from desert to mountain, canyon to coast, and became an aficionado of native flora (no wonder that Theodore Payne, the brilliant promoter of endemic biota, would take Cornell under his wing and in time form a working partnership with the younger man). Cornell's eager heralding of indigenous vegetation was also reflected in an article he published in the Journal of Economic Botany, while yet a sophomore. In it, this precocious student proposed a radical re-thinking of landscape design in Southern California that remains on the cutting edge, now more than a century later.

That is in part because the concept he advocated in "Wanted: A Genuine Southern California Park," was simple in its re-orientation. Cornell urged designers and their clients in the region to stop importing plant material from wetter climes that were ill-suited and ill-adapted to Southern California's more arid, sun-drenched, and oft-drought-wracked environment. Instead, he championed the planting of "native trees, plants, and flowers." What grew along inland foothills, valley floors, and coastal plains would be ideal for residential backyards as well as in city and county parks.

"What could be more interesting and educational," he allowed, "than a public park devoted to plants indigenous to our dry and semi-arid lands, and representative of the many forms of plant life that are found along our coast slopes? A dry ground park, planted only to native trees, shrubs and flowers, would be one of the greatest possible assets to Southern California." Adopting such materials as juniper and yucca, Spanish bayonet, madrono, and fuschias, oaks, and sycamores, as well as the color palette they embodied, would also distinguish the Southland from other parts of the country. Why recreate the East when the West had so much to offer?

Embedded in his query was the profound realization that to live sustainably in Southern California's hot, desiccated environment required adapting to its rigorous climate. "A city very often purchases dry hillsides or rugged slopes for park purposes," he noted, but having done so it feels compelled to install an "elaborate water system...at enormous expense, and plants entirely foreign to such an environment are grotesquely perched where they must serve a life-long sentence of struggle for existence under conditions entirely adverse to their best development." Native plants would survive better and there was no need for irrigation and thus no pressure for imported water.

This latter issue was of intense concern and daily conversation in the region. Even as Cornell wrote his manifesto, Los Angeles was building its controversial aqueduct from Owens Valley, a structure that ushered in an era of cheap water and the offered possibility of a lush, hyper-green landscape in this sere-brown terrain.

As Cornell challenged some of the aesthetic presumptions and political calculations of his time, his insights also identify the choices that planners, designers, and citizens now face in early 21st-century. In an age of climate disruption, intense drought, and escalating cost of water funneled into the region from the northern and Eastern Sierra, and from as far away as the upper watershed of the Colorado River, Cornell's notion of the advantages of constructing dry ground parks as emblematic of the Southern California landscape's ecological indigeneity is as compelling as it essential.

Sunset at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Sunset at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve | Photo: slworking2/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

It does not reduce Cornell's powerful claims to know that he himself never fully developed the native landscapes he had proposed. Perhaps closest to the ideal he had promoted was his design for what today is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Its eponymous and signature tree (Pinus torreyana) is a rare, endangered species found only in the sandy bluffs and canyons of San Diego County (and in a small grove on Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands). Once the home ground of the Kumeyaay people, who the Spanish missionized, and who the Mexicans and later Americans pushed out of San Diego coastline, the windswept terrain and its sentinel-like trees (Soledad pines, the Spanish had called them) came under development pressure in the late 19th-Century as San Diego sprawled outward.

Such threats sparked protests. Dr. C.C. Parry, who is credited with identifying the species as a species, encouraged the San Diego Society of Natural History to take up this flag-waving opportunity: "Why should not San Diego, within whose corporate limits this straggling remnant of a past age finds a last, lingering resting place," dedicate this landscape "forever to the cause of scientific instruction and recreation"? Botanist J.G. Lemmon of the California State Board of Forestry seconded the notion, noting the "mournful interest" the Torrey pine was generating, given that "there are but few trees of it left." He and others pressed for the tree's preservation, but it was not until developers began to plat the land, clearcut the pines, and build homes there that philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps stepped in.

Purchasing land to stop the axe, she tapped Ralph Cornell to draw up a long-term plan for its protection. He had returned to California in 1919 after earning his masters in landscape architecture from Harvard and serving on the frontlines in World War I. In 1922, he inspected the site, and enthused to his partner, Theodore Payne: "It is picturesque, unique, colorful, and beautiful, with a combination of nearby sea and distant mountains that delights the eye and soothes the soul."

Convinced that it was sui generis, "un-imitated," Cornell argued that it should be "so kept, -- true to itself, typical of nothing, for it requires many more than one of a thing to establish a type." He did not want the reserve turned into a botanical garden, strongly counseled against planting any oaks ("they do not belong here"), urged the maintenance of the "chaparral covered floor of the canyon," proposed trails that would keep people out of the most fragile habitat, suggested the planting of cacti in spots where they existed already (yet, "as always, employ RESTRAINT") and as for the whole grounds, he emphasized, they must be "ZEALOUSLY GUARDED."

Marston Quad, looking west to Carnegie Building, Pomona College.
Marston Quad, looking west to Carnegie Building, Pomona College. | Photo: Nostalgicwisdom/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License
 

Cornell felt no such managerial restraint when given the opportunity to work for the college from which he graduated, a space whose development he would oversee for four decades. Hired in the early 1920s to refashion Pomona's campus into a garden, a physical evocation of those highbrow eastern campuses its curriculum also mimicked, Cornell created some beautiful open spaces like Marston Quad. But in deference to the college's ambition to sharply distinguish its domesticated landscape from the rough alluvial fan spreading down from the San Gabriel Mountains to its north, Cornell planted material that was considerably more water dependent than drought tolerant. His impress remains evident in the college's emerald isle-feel. Yet the gap between Cornell's idealized vision of a native landscape and the lush reality that he constructed at Pomona simply reinforces just how transformational his original idea was.

That's a gap student activists at Pomona are working hard to close, and to do so one plant at a time. The Ralph Cornell Native Plant & Wildlife Society is working in close collaboration with college's grounds department to replace turf grass with flora consistent with the coastal sagebrush and oak savannah habitats that once dominated the Pomona Valley. As they pull up lawn (and where it cannot be torn up, it is being replaced with a much hardier variety) and dig in manzanita, buckwheat, and ceanothus, the look and feel of walkways and beds, once framed in green, now offer a more complex palette.

Illustrative of this ethic is the reintroduction of the Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmannii). Logged out of the region by the late 19th-Century, it remains rare in its former range. But not on Pomona's campus: as the college moves away from exotics such as Eucalyptus it is shoveling the Englemann back into the stony soil. The oak's hardy presence signals the college's emerging commitment to reduce the demand for irrigated water and assert a new (and old) aesthetic. Surely Ralph Cornell would be thrilled to know that his alma mater is cultivating the very principles that launched his distinguished career.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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