Freeform Pool by Thomas Church

The mid century modern house and freeform pool.

Donnell Garden and Pool by Thomas Church.
Thomas Church was one of the leading landscape designers of the 1950s, together with Garrett Eckbo. Thomas Church introduced Northern California with the modern movement while Garrett Eckbo was one of the leading landscape designers in Southern California. Thomas Church grew up in California, and after years of education, travel, and teaching, he opened his own firm in San Francisco. A prime example of his unique awe-inspiring mid century modern landscape design talent is the Donnell Garden in Sonoma. This classic icon of mid century modern landscape design has an irresistible free-form kidney style in the typical modernist manner of the 1950s.

Donnell family relaxing at the freeform swimming pool early 1950s.

Designed at a time in which California’s economy was booming and its population rapidly increasing, Church conceived a garden offering places to relax, entertain, swim, play, garden and BBQ. This modern garden and pool was designed by Thomas Church in 1948 for Jean and Dewey Donnell. Jean and Dewey Donnell asked Thomas Church, along with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, to transform the existing cattle ranch into a modernist paradise. Interesting to note is that the swimming pool, patio and garden were constructed before the actual house was erected (knowing how hot Sonoma summers can be, this may not come as a surprise). Note: Thomas Church did not design the house, it was designed by the mid century modern bay area architect Austin Pierpoint. The pool has wonderful free-flowing curved lines which remind us of the architecture and design by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Thomas Church's landscape layout for the Donnell Garden.

The white modernist sculpture in the center of the pool was created by Adaline Kent which functions both as a focal point and a tiny, inhabitable island in the center of the modernist pool. The Donnell Garden is located on top of a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay where the Donnell family used it for family outings and pick nicks. Even though 60 years have passed, the Donnell garden still continues to wow visitors. Located in Sonoma, California, the garden is not open to the public except for occasional tours; in fact, most of the surrounding area was developed into vineyards.

Donnell Garden by Thomas Church early 1950s.
The Donnell garden took form on a hillside in Sonoma, at the top of San Francisco Bay. Curiously, the garden was built before the house, on a site favored by the Donnells for picnics and other family gatherings. The program first called for a pool, suitable paved surfaces, and a lanai (the Hawaiian word normally interpreted as a porch or breezeway). Thomas Church, with Lawrence Halprin and the architect George Rockrise, created a synthetic work that grew from the qualities of the site. Most of the existing California live oak trees were spared; the pool was the garden's central feature, surrounded by extensive paved areas for use by family and friends. Where the hill fell quickly, these concrete surfaces were extended as wooden
decking, configured to embrace the existing trees.

Of course the pool is the most noticeable of the garden's features. While it appears to be free form, it is actually planned using compass shapes set at a forty-five-degree angle. But in its positioning, the form reads far more complexly than its actual shape, a complication heightened by the varied sets of paths of
movement across the site. As an island in the water, a monumental sculpture by Adaline Kent provides a focal point and destination for swimmers: beneath the surface a large void in the sculpture’s base tempts younger swimmers to pass through.

The lanai and the later dressing rooms complete this perfect modern ensemble. The dressing structures look out away from the pool area and cast only a blank facade in that direction. Sliding glass walls and a continuous bench set along the stone retaining wall join interior and exterior as a part of the California Modern dream to fully integrate inside and out.
The Donnell garden achieved widespread fame almost from the time of its completion in 1948. It was extremely photogenic as well as unusual in form, and as a result, it appeared in popular home magazines as well as professional journals. The garden represented everything modern about California living and helped promote a lifestyle in which living outdoors shared equal importance with life inside the home. Not incidentally, every photo of the garden published by investigation, to Church the garden was most importantly a means by which to live well. As architect William Wurster had phrased it, architecture was the picture frame and not the picture.

Google Earth image of the Donnell Garden 2010.

Donnell Garden (Donnell Ranch Vineyards)
27235 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476