The Naturals: Elizabeth and Lockwood de Forest

Landscape architects who designed with genius, and lived with style, this fondly remembered couple made a lasting impression on Santa Barbara.

From the 1920s onward, the professional endeavors of landscape architects Elizabeth and Lockwood de Forest contributed substantially to the evolving character of Santa Barbara. Their visionary creations can still be enjoyed at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, La Purisima Mission in the Santa Ynez Valley, and Thacher School in Ojai, as well as at stately residences like Casa del Herrero, Constantia, Hesperides, and the couple's former home in Mission Canyon.

Bronze letters reiterate their names on a corner wall outside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Santa Barbara Gardener, the magazine they founded and published for nearly two decades, is lovingly preserved in libraries and private collections. And in historical archives, faded newspaper clippings recount their devoted efforts for innumerable community organizations.

But perhaps in an even more fundamental way, it was their personal style that captured the evolving character of this favored community. With their love of art and nature, their maverick spirit, their can-do attitude and boundless energy, their insatiable thirst for knowledge, and their exquisite multicultural taste, the de Forests present a portrait of a quintessential Santa Barbara couple. To understand how and why they thrived here is to comprehend something timeless about the city they loved.

The de Forests were a striking presence in the Santa Barbara social world between the wars. Elizabeth liked to wear classically tailored dresses and a strand of pearls, topping her understated ensembles with a funky jeans jacket and sometimes a wide-brimmed straw hat. She often wore blue, some say because it complemented her sapphire eyes. She preferred action over talk; when she did talk, she spoke her mind. Personifying grace coupled with strength, she was deeply devoted to her husband.

Lockwood, tall, dapper, and handsome, with a shock of dark curly hair, had a penchant for houndstooth-check sport coats and smoking jackets. He was fond of Bermuda shorts, but his attempt to introduce them into Santa Barbara chic in the 1930s proved way ahead of the times. He wore a Stetson when it rained and refused to wear ties. He relished leisurely lunches and fast open cars, claiming he could drive from Solvang to Mission Canyon in half an hour. He championed the talents of his friends with abandon.

...In 1920, at the age of 24, Lockwood opened his own landscape architecture office in Santa Barbara, where wealthy Easterners, lured by the mild climate, were building grand estates with gardens in the European and Mediterranean styles. From the start, he enjoyed a variety of commissions and clients, including (Wright) Ludington's family estate, Val Verde. Five years later, he and Elizabeth married.

The de Forests had just settled into their first house, on Olive Street, when the 1925 earthquake hit, destroying, among other things, many of their wedding presents. It could have been an inauspicious start for the newleyweds, but Elizabeth's parents were thinking of moving to Santa Barbara too. Lockwood found a desirable piece of property on Todos Santos Lane in Mission Canyon, the Kellams bought it, and gave the young de Forests a new house as a wedding present. Another house nearby was completed for the Kellams in 1929.

The 1925 earthquake turned out to be a key event in the evolution of Santa Barbara, destroying much of the Victorian downtown and creating a priceless opportunity for redefinition. "Everybody was in place when the quake hit," says landscape architect Sydney Baumgartner, a close friend and protégé of Elizabeth's. "There were enough people here with enough clout -Pearl Chase, George Washington Smith, Ralph Stevens, Lockwood de Forest, lots of great minds-who said, 'As we rebuild, let's do it right.'"

Committees including the Architectural Board of Review were formed to oversee the rebuilding. At the bidding of the influential Plans and Planting Committee of the Community Arts Association, the de Forests began publishing The Santa Barbara Gardener. Founded on a budget of $25, the magazine - today regarded as the precursor to Sunset Magazine- covered gardening techniques, native and new plants, and horticultural developments. Contributors included acclaimed horticulturists E.O. Orpet, Peter Reidel, and Lester Rowntree, and Lockwood regularly presented the results of his explorations with plants. The de Forests edited the magazine, sold ad space, and hand-addressed the mailing labels, publishing it continuously until 1942, when Lockwood again joined the military.

With their East Coast family origins, Lockwood and Elizabeth were old money on a new tangent. Rather than breaking with traditions, they made new ones in this new environment. Their dining room was a spirited setting for hospitality, with walls coated in silver radiator paint and drapes of shimmering silks, where the table might hold steaming bowls of curry and, as an artful centerpiece, a quirky arrangement of batiks and toys. They delighted in serving an all-liquor punch.

Warm-weather dinners were held in their "outdoor room" dubbed the Horse Corral. They picnicked at Hendry's Beach and Figueroa Mountain. They had a big mutt named Foch. They read Willa Cather and Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. They wallpapered their hallway with massive maps of London. They made their own light fixtures out of old car parts and lampshades out of old maps or parchment. They had a kitchen fireplace big enough to stand in.

Each room in their house had a view of a garden it was decorated to complement. From their silver-ceilinged dining room, one gazed upon black Irish yews. The library, with its dark wood furniture, looked out on a light-hearted flower garden of brilliant whites, blues and yellows. At the center of the house was a classically simple courtyard, with a fountain in the center, a sink for flower arranging made of marble and Damascus tiles, a carved teak cabinet to hold their collection of urns and vases, a few clivia, and a single almond tree.

By the time Lockwood came back from World War II, a distinctive California aesthetic was beginning to emerge in architecture and garden design, namely that a house and garden should be linked with their surroundings in an overt statement of relationship between man and nature. Resuming his practice, Lockwood found the change exciting. He believed that "people who employ forward-looking designers to build them homes are not going to employ landscape architects who profess a preference for the archaeological."

Critical to his thinking was the incorporation into garden design of the distant view. "My house and garden provide the greatest pleasure," he wrote. "I am entirely shut out from everything that is ugly and I get the long distance view...."

Shaking off convention, de Forest defined a new model for the Santa Barbara garden. While the South Coast could easily support tropical and semi-tropical plants, he considered these at odds with the California landscape. It was shrubs and trees that he was drawn to, incorporating them into complex compositions that embraced both immediate and distant views, contrasting formal and informal elements, forms and colors, light and shadow. He was especially fond of rosemary, cultivating trailing Rosmarinus officianalis 'Lockwoodii' (later introduced to the trade) in his own garden.

"My husband was fond of plants with aromatic foliage," Elizabeth said of him. "A rosemary bush, placed where he could brush his hand across it as he walked by, would have priority on his plant list."

Elizabeth never did work in Lockwood's one-man design office. Her milieu turned out to be in the planting of gardens, for she believed you could only know a plant by growing it yourself. Her forte was silver foliage - olive trees, rosemary, lavender, and the like. In addition to doing the plantings for Lockwood's designs and raising their two sons, she found time for volunteer work that included running the American Women's Voluntary Service Canteen during World War II and, later, working on housing projects for veterans and senior citizens.

In 1949, Lockwood died after a sudden illness thought to be pneumonia. He was 53. Despite the loss, Elizabeth went forward. Enlisting the help of landscape architect Richard Brimer, she finished all of her husband's outstanding commissions - including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's retaining wall and concrete benches at Anapamu and State streets, where her name and dates would eventually be added to her husband's.

She then continued on as a garden consultant, acting as supervising landscape architect on Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden (for which she declined pay), choosing Grant Castleberg to design the garden. Other projects included overseeing La Purisima Mission State Historic Park and landscape maintenance at Mount Vernon in Washington, D.C., an undertaking about which she later wrote a book. She joined the board of the Museum of Art and served as its president in 1954-55. She also served on the board of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and founded the Vassar Club of Santa Barbara.

Elizabeth outlived her husband by 33 years, passing on in 1984. Their son, Kellam de Forest went on to become a film historian and lives in Santa Barbara. Lockwood de Forest IV, a solar energy specialist, now lives in Australia.

The de Forest legacy remains alive and well, as the settings they created continue to enrich Santa Barbara lives, in public places and private mansions alike. The body of Lockwood and Elizabeth's work can be seen as a tribute to life and nature. Their house on Todos Santos Lane is occupied by new owners, but the landscape design thrives, intact, a medley of native plants and oaks thoughtfully orchestrated to frame a vista of La Cumbre Peak.

Perhaps the key to their character was in their roots, for their families provided an intriguing mix of the grounded and the visionary. Lockwood's and Elizabeth's lives were about work, plants, design, art, and community service. But more than that, their achievement was the balancing of all these elements in joyous harmony.

Trish Reynales, a frequent contributor to Santa Barbara magazine, is presently living in Seattle.

Above reprinted with permission of Santa Barbara Magazine