By Delle Willett | Art on the Land
Beginning in the early 1950s, the commercial landscape architecture firm of Wimmer Yamada was regarded as the landscape architecture firm of choice for San Diego’s most progressive architects.
Founded by Harriet Barnhart Wimmer in 1954, the firm was staffed by herself and Joe Yamada, a new Berkeley grad who originally came aboard as a draftsman/apprentice and later became her partner in 1960.
Wimmer Yamada was the first woman-owned landscape architecture firm in San Diego and one of four firms at the time. They worked out of the Fifth Avenue Design Center, ground zero at the time, for many of San Diego’s most notable architects and landscape architects.
Together they made a great team. Wimmer had an excellent education (a bachelor’s from Stanford; landscape architecture, Univ. of Oregon), years of practical experience, and a prosperous postwar clientele. And Yamada, who became an iconic designer in the local community and now retired, brought fresh design ideas and excellent training to the firm.
While Wimmer’s strength was in residential garden design, Yamada was more interested in the land form and design of hardscape features and well equipped to handle commercial and urban design. From the beginning of the partnership they began to win important design awards.
For over 50 years, as San Diego grew and expanded, Wimmer Yamada provided landscape design for many of San Diego’s landmark sites including SeaWorld, Seaport Village, the Embarcadero Marina Park, La Jolla Village Plaza, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Copley Estate, and numerous private gardens in La Jolla and other San Diego environs.
Additionally Yamada did campus planning for 20 years at UC San Diego and numerous other campus projects.
Wimmer helped landscape architecture become an esteemed profession in San Diego. She was one of several local professionals who facilitated establishment of the San Diego chapter (of the Southern California chapter) of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).
In 1976 the national ASLA bestowed its highest honor to Wimmer, decreeing her a “Fellow.” The award recognized “the contributions of individuals to their profession and society at large based on their works, leadership, management, knowledge, and service.” Yamada was also made an ASLA Fellow, in 1979.
Wimmer remained active in the firm until 1967, which continued under her name after her passing in 1980, and is known today as Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey.
In 1980, the city of San Diego declared May 19 to be Harriett Barnhart Wimmer Day, in honor of her contributions to the beauty of San Diego.
Wimmer Yamada was the starting point for many of the region’s stellar landscape architects who came under the influence of Harriet Wimmer and Joe Yamada, including Frank Kawasaki and Mike Thilaker (KTU+A); Dennis Otsuji and Jack Nakawase (ONA); Rick and Gail Garbini (Garbini & Garbini); and Patrick Caughey, now president and principal owner of Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey.
Caughey first met Yamada during a career-day presentation at his son’s high school Ornamental Horticulture class in 1972, which sparked Caughey’s interest in the profession. Several years later, after completing his degree in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture from Arizona State University, Caughey contacted Yamada for an informational interview in August of 1984.
The outcome for Caughey was part-time work for the firm in the Phoenix market, which led to a full-time position, running the Phoenix office, in the spring of 1985. After becoming partner in 1990, Caughey purchased the firm in 1995, along with his wife and equal partner, Jenny Caughey, who is also the firm’s business manager.
Caughey, who worked with Yamada from 1984 until his retirement in 1998, said that Yamada’s biggest influence on him was developing his particular landscape-design style and understanding the business acumen of a design firm.
“I was given the opportunity to discover an early mentor and later would be privileged to become his business partner,” Caughey said. “As his partner and [now] owner of the firm, I owe Joe an endless amount of gratitude for my career.”
Caughey has carried on the tradition of promoting the profession of landscape architecture. An active member in ASLA since 1986, he has held important positions at both the local and national level and was inducted into the ASLA class of Fellows in 2004.
This year, Caughey is chairing the Friends of Balboa Park, where he will lead the nonprofit organization in their mission of preserving and enhancing the historic park for future generations.
In November of 2011, Dennis Y. Otsuji, former principal and owner of ONA Inc. Landscape Architects, joined the Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey team as a principal, bringing to the table nearly 30 years of experience in landscape architecture, urban design and land-planning and a reputation for designing exceptional, award-winning projects.
An active member in ASLA since 1979 and an appointed Fellow since 1993, in his new position Otsuji provides leadership and concentrates on business development and client relations for the firm.
He is an active volunteer with the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Manzanar Camp National Monument Committee, a member of the San Diego City Planning Commission and the U.S.S. Midway Museum Foundation.
The plethora of awards accorded Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey have come from various sources. The firm especially prizes the Collaborative Arts Awards from the American Institute of Architects (biennial, 1960 – 1968).
Other recognition includes numerous ASLA Merit and Honor awards; multiple local Orchid Awards; and APA Planning and AIA Design awards. The firm was also awarded the ASLA Landmark Award in 2011 for the first San Diego River Improvement Project that was completed in the late 1980s.
To see the work of Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey is easy, just pick a spot to stand in Downtown San Diego and look in every direction; you’ll see Horton Plaza; the Gaslamp Quarter; the Meridian; The Westin; The Mark; The Loft; the Chinese Historical District; Bank of America; and more.
Walking along the harbor, their work is included at Seaport Village; Marina Embarcadero Park; the Old Police Headquarters; the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina; the Unconditional Surrender statue; and more.
In Balboa Park, their talents are associated with the addition to the Reuben H. Fleet Museum; Sefton Plaza; the original fountain in front of the Natural History Museum; and the first edition of the Old Globe Theater, after the fire in 1978.
Back in the day, Wimmer Yamada was the landscape architecture firm of choice for San Diego’s premier forward architects. Today, with a record number of ASLA Fellows, Wimmer, Yamada and Caughey remains one of the most highly regarded firms in the San Diego region.
Their office is located at 3067 Fifth Ave., in Bankers Hill, with a staff of 11, including eight landscape architects and three support staff. For more information, visit wyac.com.
—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 email@example.com.