California Garden Designer Spotlight - A Profile on Thomas Dolliver Church

Gardens Are For People 


You have to admire this intrepid pioneer who helped move forward the fertile bedrock of the modernist California Style. Nationally recognized and lauded for his vision on elegant simplicity, livable gardens and native planting. His gardens were designed within the framework of practicality and aesthetic durability traits that likely exist within your own backyard today.   

Church received his BA in Landscape Architecture from Berkeley and completed his graduate work in City Planning from Harvard School of Design. He worked in municipal design for a few years before endeavoring on a prolific 30 year career with his own firm whose practice maintained from the 1940s into the 1970s. He created literally thousands of designs. In his textbook worthy opus on landscape and philosophies for design, "Gardens Are for People" he outlined the four pronged approach: Unity, Function, Simplicity and Scale. Church stated "a garden should have no beginning and no end," and his vision suggested these spaces should be enjoyable from any perspective not just from the house. 

You know when you watch a gardening show or read a piece invoking "outdoor rooms" for your garden? One of his ideas. These discrete sub-areas, habitable garden spaces, feel comforting and sheltering, yet nevertheless are designed specific visions for our outdoors, spaces otherwise previously cluttered in mismatched motifs, or devoid of intrigue with vast green rectangles and plants you'd see in a hospital hallway. Outdoor rooms were novel in the '40s, and have fortunately maintained their cool factor today. The spaces have a way about negotiating transitions between inside and outside like an extension of the home, not the yard. I personally enjoy the fruits of Church's design inspiration within my own backyard, where I've arranged sitting, cooking and lounging areas within defined zones purveying outdoor kitchen and dining room qualities. Church found that adding organic footpaths, usable in-a-practical-sense asphalt and simple stone features will frame perspectives and guide user behavior and interest. 

Former Sunset editor Walter Doty said of Thomas "Tommy" Church, "[He] represented freedom from 'decorating' a house," adding, "Landscaping had meant gussying up structures that weren't worth it. Tommy was a 'behavioral' landscaper . . . gardens to live in were more important." I love that last statement, "gardens to live in," placing the design onus on livable as a characteristic for one's outdoor spaces.  

Over a prolific thirty-year career, Church designed over four thousand private gardens and landscape areas. His legacy of back-of-the-envelope design articulated ideas into larger frameworks. For instance, Church jotted a simple design for the Stanford campus that banished vehicles to perimeter lots, a feature that holds today, notable within the dominant bike and pedestrian friendly interior. Most campuses echo this design, including my own Alma Mater, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

One still appreciates Church's enduring legacy on the Stanford campus at White Plaza and the Kennedy Grove. There are still plenty of places to find Church's works, easily searchable online. Some especially great California designs are found listed below. 


Thomas Church Plan of the Decker McAllister Garden - PCAD

Church's better known California designs include:

  • The Donnell Garden (Sonoma, CA)
  • Parkmerced (SF, CA)
  • Valencia Public Housing (SF, CA)

Your California design reference and inspiration shelf should include Church's still available (3rd edition) book on landscape design on Amazon, "Gardens Are for People."  Many thanks to the talented and excellent landscape writer and photographer Melissa Clark for providing use of her wonderful images.

Donner House - PCAD