by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After twenty-nine years at the Homestead, especially when caught up in daily activities cooped up in an office, it can be easy to forget what an amazing place the historic site really is. Sometimes a walk through our beautiful well-tended grounds is a tonic that rejuvenates and revives just when it is needed.
Today being the first day of spring, and before the rain arrived, it seemed a good time to take that tour through the site and enjoy the transforming landscape. After several years of a punishing drought, plentiful rainfall has certainly given an impetus to the growth of bushes, shrubs and trees throughout the property.
Around La Casa Nueva, for example, rose bushes, which were pruned a few months ago, are primed for large and beautiful blooms. The same is largely true for irises that are just outside the house’s breakfast room and next to the unusual Tepee. A profusion of lavender by the side of the front porch has come into bloom. The late 1920s sycamores towering over the Tepee, several cypress trees and a few dozen pomegranate trees planted when La Casa Nueva was built are among the surviving original trees around the property. In the courtyard, we sought to emulate behind the fountain the look found in late 1920s photos, including banana palms and other plantings.
Over at the Workman House, the trellised grapevine that runs south from the structure towards the late 19th century water tower is just starting to show its early leaves after a long period of fall and winter dormancy. By the late summer, there and along the Mission Walkway that surrounds La Casa Nueva on three sides, bunches of grapes will be hanging from the trellis work.
In the Workman House Courtyard and just outside of it near the Water Tower and Pump House are a number of majestic oaks with branches outstretched and providing a striking appearance. At the side of the house are the recently planted native garden and demonstration vineyard, with the latter also now revealing its recent regrowth. Both are our latest efforts at remaking portions of our landscape for particular educational benefit.
Perhaps the most striking element of our landscape right now is the brief flowering of the massive Lady Banks rose with its bright yellow flowers at the front of the Workman House. Easily the museum’s oldest planting, the Lady Banks is said to have been planted in 1860 for Lucinda Amada Temple, the first granddaughter of William and Nicolasa Workman, through their daughter, Antonia Margarita and her husband, F.P.F. Temple.
The plant can be documented as far back as a circa 1870 photograph of the Workman House and has managed to survive over 150 years. Perhaps fifteen or so years back, it had an infestation of termites and its condition was poor, but consultation from specialists at Rose Hills Memorial Park led to a treatment plan that revived the bush, which looks very healthy today. If you want to see its profuse and showy yellow blooms, though, get over to the museum quickly, because the spectacular showing doesn’t last long!
Leaving the historic site, there is a nice walk down the Chinese elm-shaded Pío Pico Memorial Walkway. The elms were planted in the late 1970s restoration of the museum and provide a nice canopy for the stroll down what was once Evergreen Lane, where deodar and other evergreen trees lined the road which extended west to Turnbull Canyon Road.
At the end of the walkway is the fishpond, also added during the site’s restoration and which is flanked on the north end by a stand of tall pine trees. I was told by the museum’s restoration supervisor, Mel Gooch, in an oral history interview some twenty years ago that the pond and trees were installed as a decorative “screen” for a proposed seven-story hospital once planned in the adjacent field that remains undeveloped. As Mel put it (and this is a paraphrase), who would want to be in recovery in a hospital room and have to look out the window at a cemetery?
Well, El Campo Santo, established by the Workman family in the 1850s, has its own landscaping charm. In front is a cement heart-shaped planter created by Walter P. Temple about 1920 when he engaged in a significant renovation of the burying ground, which was nearly destroyed by a previous owner of the Homestead. Temple had a large palm tree in the center of the planter, but it vanished during the restoration years of the late 1970s. So, about fifteen years ago, a replacement was brought in and it makes for a striking sight.
In the cemetery, there are a number of arbor vitae bushes that have, after nearly a century, become trees with narrow bases and wide-spreading tops. To recreate what Temple did in his work, the museum, some years ago, had palm trees replanted in the approximate locations of ones he had planted. At the front just beyond the original wall and cast-iron gates, Temple planted gingko trees that are still with us, though they haven’t yet brought out new shoots and leaves. Incidentally, the flesh pulp of the nuts produced by the tree have what are generally considered “powerfully pungent” odors to them!
The perambulation (now there’s a word that’s been waiting for use) around the site took about a half-hour and it was a reminder of just how interesting, special and, in many cases, historic, the museum’s landscape is. Visitors to the museum can enjoy much the same experience by walking the grounds along the Pío Pico Memorial Walkway, around the pond, and through the cemetery, as well as on guided tours of the Workman House and La Casa Nueva from Wednesday to Sunday at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00. and 4:00.
Naturally, spring is one of the finest times to visit and enjoy our bounteous landscape!