Discovering historic landscapes in San Diego County

Posted: January 5th, 2018 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Featured | No Comments

By Delle Willett

This past January, a group of professionals — landscape architects, architects, historians, and planners — got together to develop a program to identify and document historic landscapes in San Diego County.

Led by landscape architect Joy Lyndes of Coastal SAGE Landscape Architecture, the program is called the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). It is a committee of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), San Diego Chapter and part of the national HALS movement.

A portion of the San Diego HALS team: (l to r) Amy Hayes, historic resources specialist, SOHO; Gail Garbini, principal landscape architect, Garbini & Garbini Landscape Architects; Amy Hoffman, associate, KTU+A; Vonn Marie May, principal historian, Cultural Land Planning & Research; Nancy Carol Carter, horticultural history author (Courtesy Joy Lyndes)

The program’s initial goal was to provide a central source of information, which would contain a data base listing properties and significant master designers to be used by the community.

Following the national HALS model, the committee promotes the identification, documentation, preservation, and advancement of knowledge of historic landscapes in San Diego and highlights the role landscapes have had in the history of our community.

Since the 1900s, landscapes have been identified and documented at local, state, and federal levels, but never systematically in this manner.

Established by the National Park Service in October 2000, HALS is the first permanent federal program to focus on historic landscape documentation.

In early 2001, ASLA, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that established a framework of cooperation, and in 2010 the three organizations signed a new Tripartite Agreement that made HALS a permanent federal program.

Documentation of historic landscapes through research, photography, and drawings is crucial to the preservation of the understanding of the design, the knowledge of master designers, and the stories of people and places which are tied to the property.

Like historic buildings, historic landscapes reveal aspects of our country’s origins, and development through their form, features, and the ways they were and are currently, used.

They range from several thousand-acre rural farms and ranch complexes, to several-acre urban plazas and parks, to a single residential yard.

The evolving nature of historic landscapes makes them fragile and highly vulnerable to loss and alteration.

Rose garden at Marston House (Photo by Delle Willett)

Joy Lyndes, principal landscape architect at Coastal SAGE Landscape Architecture, started the local HALS committee in 2015 and serves as its chair, with a focus on public outreach and education.

As she explained, there is a community of professionals in San Diego who are knowledgeable and excited about historic properties, but there was no group specifically focused on historic landscape documentation.

Because of that, there wasn’t a central resource or central point of contact for architects, historians, planners, or policymakers to engage when there were questions about properties.

“Even though preservation of significant historic landscapes is our passion, we believe that the documentation of landscapes through the HALS documentation process, and the recording of these documents in the Library of Congress, is a valid and meaningful way to preserve the stories of people and places in our community; to build the historic knowledge base of our community; and to connect our history with the history of the entire country,” Lyndes said.

The project is important to Lyndes because she loves landscapes and history.

“I believe that we are who we are today due to our ancestors, how they have paved the way for us,” she added. “Our world today was created by their leadership and skills, how they lived on this land and molded their environment, and how they impacted the land.”

HALS is also a perfect fit for Lyndes, who has been a landscape architectural consultant for many tribes in Arizona, and her connection to the land and our history is due somewhat to the Native American beliefs of people’s connections to nature.

“There’s evidence of our ancestors’ impacts all around us today, which tell the story of the people who came before us,” she said.The old cobble sea walls at Hospital Point in La Jolla, the Formal Garden of the Marston House, and the grounds of the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, are the physical three-dimensional books our predecessors wrote about what they did here and how their lives were important to the future. But you have to know how to read these artifacts and landscapes.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery (Photo by Delle Willett)

“Reading a historic landscape is like conducting landscape forensics, there may not be anyone around who can tell you the story of them, so you need to use the clues left behind; do research, read old newspaper articles and put the pieces together to find out what the story is,” Lyndes said. “It’s almost like making the invisible visible or bringing the dead alive through the evidence left behind in the places they lived.”

Amy Hoffman — associate at KTU+A Planning and Landscape Architecture, and a HALS volunteer — has been interested in design and preservation of historic landscapes since she was in grad school. She’s served as a docent with Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) at the Marston House, giving garden tours along with tours of the historic home.

“I am able to tell the story of not only events that happened on the land where the house stands, but also the story of the evolution of the garden from bare earth to what it is now,” Hoffman said. “Often times landscapes are not thought of as historic. It is easier to raise awareness for a structure and point to its historic features than to a landscape where things change, grow and sometimes disappear. Because of this, I think many landscapes are lost during renovations or even day-to-day upkeep. Serving on the committee gives me a chance to raise awareness about historic landscape preservation.”

Gail Garbini of Garbini & Garbini Landscape Architecture Inc. and another HALS volunteer, also believes in the importance of preserving the knowledge of past landscapes.

“We are losing many of our important cultural and designed spaces and this activism has brought to the attention of the design community the potential loss of important landscapes in our local community,” she said.

Exposure to and an understanding of the early landscape history of the local area has actually helped provide a background for sustainable design in San Diego over the long term.

“There’s nothing like identifying trees and vines that survive today, from 1890 or 1915, to give perspective to what may do well in local landscapes,” Garbini said.

The committee’s current focus is the west mesa of Balboa Park, now known for the Sixth Avenue playground, Redwood Bridge Club, San Diego Chess Club, Lawn Bowling, and Nate’s Point Dog Park.

This portion of Balboa Park was originally the grand entrance to the park from Downtown. Few people realize it is one of the most historic sections of Balboa Park.

Kate Sessions’ commercial plant nursery was located here and in 1902, well before the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, a professional landscape designer from New York City named Samuel B. Parsons Jr. was hired to design it. Much of Parsons’ plans for this part of the park can still be seen today, if you know where to look.

The San Diego HALS team consists of Joy Lyndes, landscape architect, Coastal Sage Landscape Architecture; Gail Garbini, landscape architect, Garbini & Garbini; Vonn Marie May, cultural landscape specialist; Amy Hoffman, associate landscape architect, KTU+A; Amie Hayes, planner and historic resource specialist, SOHO; Diane Kane, historian and SDSU professor; Kevin Mock, senior designer, KTU+A;

Jackie Higgins, director of planning, design and programs, Balboa Park Conservancy.

The local HALS committee welcomes volunteers who are knowledgeable and interested in historic and cultural landscapes to join them. Contact Joy Lyndes at For more information, visit

— Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at


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