Preserving the private gardens of a pioneering landscape architect should have been a breeze.
By Timothy A. Schuler
When Joseph Yamada and his wife, Elizabeth, died within nine days of each other in May 2020, obituaries and appreciations appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and NPR. Most focused on the couple’s incredible story: Born two days apart in 1930, the two met at age 11 at a Japanese internment camp.
They later attended the same high school, studied together at the University of California, Berkeley, then moved back to San Diego, where Joe Yamada became one of the most celebrated landscape architects of his generation and Liz Yamada was the first Asian faculty member at San Diego High School, later joining her husband’s firm, Wimmer Yamada & Associates, as a partner.
The Yamadas’ deaths touched many in San Diego’s design community. “It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, and Liz did pass away from COVID, so for me, it hit hard,” recalls Kelsey Kaline, a historic preservation specialist at IS Architecture in San Diego. When the Yamada family organized an estate sale at the couple’s house in La Jolla, it attracted not just friends and neighbors but design enthusiasts who knew Joe Yamada by reputation. “I think a lot of people went just to pay respects to him,” Kaline says.
Also put up for sale was the Yamadas’ home, at 1676 El Camino Del Teatro, a 3,330-square-foot, 1970s modernist wood house designed for the couple by Liz’s brother, the architect David Kikuchi. With six decks extending the living space to the outdoors—described in a 1978 issue of the Los Angeles Times’s HOME magazine as akin to “beaches surrounding some wooded island”—the house is set back on the steeply sloped lot, with a Joe Yamada–designed, Japanese-style entry sequence that features a dry-laid stone path gently winding through dense plantings of Pinus thunbergii, Metrosideros excelsa, and Rhaphiolepis umbellata f. ovata.
In 2021, the house was sold to Troy Wu and Insun Lee, who recognized its historic significance and began exploring how to get it listed as a historic property at the local level. They contacted Kaline’s firm, which specializes in historic preservation. “They contacted us not only to get started with the designation process but to have a better understanding of what they could or couldn’t—or shouldn’t—change,” Kaline says. As far as she could tell, Wu and Lee genuinely wanted to “understand their role in conserving the property in the future. They want to be stewards of the resource, which is rare.”
Within IS Architecture, there was little doubt that the house met the criteria for designation. Not only was it an exemplar of a distinct style of architecture (Criterion C under the city’s historic resources regulations), it also was associated with a figure—in this case, two figures—who were “significant in local, state, or national history” (Criterion B).
A disciple of California modernists including Thomas Church and Garrett Eckbo, Joe Yamada designed the landscapes for many spaces that became San Diego landmarks: Seaport Village, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Embarcadero Marina Parks, SeaWorld, and parts of the University of California, San Diego, campus. “I’ve always been interested in historic landscapes, and specifically midcentury designed landscapes, and in that realm [Joe’s] kind of a giant,” says Todd Pitman, ASLA, who, as the campus landscape architect and assistant director of planning with UC San Diego, manages landscapes originally designed by Yamada. Patrick Caughey, FASLA, who joined Wimmer Yamada in 1984 and later became a name partner, recalled in an oral history produced by the Cultural Landscape Foundation that during the 1950s through the 1970s, “if you were going to do a project in town, you wanted Joe Yamada.”
In September 2022, the nomination for the Yamada House, located in a part of La Jolla known as the Muirlands, went before San Diego’s Historical Resources Board (HRB), submitted under Criteria B and C. The board agreed that the house should be designated. There was just one problem. “I find it ironic that we are designating the home of a landscape architect, and there are no landscape components in the designation,” Ann Woods, a professor of art history at San Diego State University and a member of the HRB, said at the meeting. What few landscape elements were mentioned were not identified as contributing to the historic nature of the property, something that struck Woods as odd. “I walked through that front yard, and clearly, it’s part of the design of the home. It was important,” Woods says now. The HRB tabled a vote and asked IS Architecture to inventory historically significant landscape features and to reapply for designation at a later date.
The omission of Yamada’s landscape from the original nomination is a reminder of how heavily historic preservation regulations are weighted toward architecture and also represent an opportunity for the field. “I don’t think we’re very well educated about landscape architecture, in general. You’ve got this civilian board, and we come from very diverse backgrounds,” Woods says (though the HRB is required to have a landscape architect on it).
It’s not just a matter of who sits on the board, however. The basic processes that govern preservation generally ignore landscape architecture as a discipline. In San Diego, for instance, the HRB’s guidelines state that Criterion C “applies to resources significant for their physical design or method of construction.” Although the term “physical design” is broad enough to apply to landscape architecture, the guidelines go on to say, “The resource must embody distinctive characteristics of an architectural style, a type of construction, a recognized construction period, or an identifiable method of construction, as established through accepted bodies of scholarly and professional work.”
“In general, these types of reports aren’t very conducive to landscape elements,” Kaline admits. A core reason is that landscapes are alive. They grow and change, and there is not always a record of when alterations are made. Although the Historic American Landscapes Survey, managed by the National Park Service, has guidelines for documenting landscapes, the program was only established in 2000, and local designations rely on local historians with landscape knowledge.
It’s also a problem within landscape architecture. Pitman, the landscape architect for UC San Diego, spent six years as a member of the HRB before stepping down in May 2022. He says that city staff and the HRB should “do their due diligence to be more aware of where they are” and educate themselves about the designers who shaped San Diego. But he also argues that “architects, in general, do a better job of championing their heroes. Everybody knows who Frank Lloyd Wright is, right? We should celebrate the folks who do great work that came before us.” In the case of the Yamada House, it was fortunate that Joe Yamada’s career is as well-documented and—in large part thanks to the work of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, whose oral histories are available online for free—as accessible as it is. And yet, for every Joe Yamada, there are 10 equally important designers whose work is not so carefully chronicled, Pitman says.
Per the HRB’s recommendation, the team at IS Architecture revisited the Yamada House landscape. Without a formal plan—Yamada apparently never made any drawings of the garden—the architects combed through footage of the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s interview with Yamada in the oral history for clues to his original vision. According to the final historic resources report, both Joe Yamada and Harriett Wimmer, his mentor and partner at Wimmer Yamada & Associates, were “influenced by Japanese garden landscape design,” coauthoring at least one article on the style. For the house on El Camino Del Teatro, Yamada blended traditional Japanese elements, such as natural stone, bamboo, and an active water feature, with a restrained, monochromatic plant palette. Large, hand-placed boulders defined spaces and created planting beds, which were filled with ferns and white-flowering shrubs, a nod to Wimmer.
The use of undulating, vegetated topography to direct lines of sight is a strategy Yamada used elsewhere, to an extent that it became known in San Diego as the “Yamada roll.” “[Joe] was a master of landform,” Pitman says. “He used mounding and grading to create space, to shield unwanted views, and to suggest movement and circulation.” Although the Yamadas gave Kikuchi free rein as to the style of their house, Joe Yamada also likely had a hand in siting the house, as he regularly “insisted that it should be the landscape architect who sites the building before the architectural design begins,” according to the nomination. Yamada liked the “unique landscape spaces” that resulted from angling a building on the site.
Remarkably, besides the 2014 addition of a putting green in the backyard, the Yamada House’s landscape is mostly intact. “When you’re talking about Joe Yamada, to be [considering] his own house, with his own landscape and his own aesthetic, and for it to be largely intact, was an incredible opportunity,” Pitman says.
IS Architecture’s final report, completed in October 2022, identified the stepped, stone walkway and waterfall and the boulder feature (“placed in the Japanese style without concrete mortar”) as significant landscape elements, along with mature sycamore, New Zealand Christmas trees, and Japanese black pine trees; white-flowering rhaphiolepis; nandina; and fortnight lilies.
Encouraged by Woods, the final nomination also formally elevated Joe Yamada to the level of “master landscape architect” within the City of San Diego, which made the property eligible under Criterion D (“representative of the notable work of a master builder, designer, architect, engineer, landscape architect, interior designer, artist, or craftsman”). It also made the case that the Yamada House is eligible for designation under Criterion A, as a property that reflects “special elements of the city’s, a community’s, or a neighborhood’s historical, archaeological, cultural, social, economic, political, aesthetic, engineering, landscaping, or architectural development.” The Yamadas were the first Asian American family to be allowed to purchase land in the Muirlands, tacitly helping end a discriminatory practice among local Realtors and owners. “The Yamadas broke the gentleman’s agreement that people of Japanese descent shouldn’t own houses in that area,” Kaline explains.
Kaline also made sure Elizabeth Yamada was included in the title for the Yamada House and devoted a significant section of the nomination to her many individual accomplishments—among them, serving on the boards of numerous cultural institutions, including the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and advocating for the preservation of Japanese American history. The nomination also notes that Elizabeth Yamada was “integral” to the success of Wimmer Yamada & Associates, which she joined as an administrator, and later partner, in 1976. “I’m a big proponent that the women should be brought up just as much as the men are,” Kaline says. “So often in preservation we only look at the source material, but the source material is often missing the female component because they were overlooked at the time.”
Upon reviewing the revised nomination, the HRB voted unanimously to designate the Yamada House a historic property under all four criteria. “I’ve gotten three criteria before, but to hit four—that’s unheard of,” Kaline says. The vote represents a major step forward for the visibility of landscape architecture in general and of Joe Yamada in particular, Pitman says. “There were people on the board who didn’t even know that you could designate under a master landscape architect,” he says. “That’s not willful ignorance. They just never come up. So as these things become more common, it almost has a snowball effect.”
Woods says she is immensely happy with the outcome. “To tell a consultant, ‘You have to go back and do all this research and explain why this person is now a master,’ that can be really onerous. It’s expensive. So to have gotten this far, I’m pleased,” she says.
And yet as comprehensive as the final nomination is, for Kaline, it’s still just a starting point. “I could have spent two years working on this,” she says. “I could have written a book. Someone should write a book.”
Timothy A. Schuler writes about the intersection between the built and natural environments. He lives in the Kansas Flint Hills.