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UCLA Historical Journal

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From Test Plots to Large Lots: The Gardens of San Marino, California as Natural and Social Laboratories


In 1905, the Southern California transportation, electric power, and real estate magnate Henry E. Huntington hired German immigrant William Hertrich as head gardener for his San Marino Ranch. Huntington told Hertrich that he would have the extensive ranch lands “to play with” for as long as he lived, and Hertrich continued to experiment there until his death in 1966. Establishing numerous test plots on the property, he pushed the limits of Huntington’s boosterish claim that almost anything could grow in Southern California. As it turned out, more than a few things could not. Interestingly, Hertrich’s published writings reveal that there was also a social dimension to his experimentation. He tested notions of race and class then popular among the elites of greater Los Angeles. In so doing, he tried to create a structure for his workforce that corresponded in peculiar ways with the composition and layout of his gardens. His management of the ranch employees as well as his landscaping of the gardens served to exoticize and marginalize Asians and Latinos. As with his testing of plants, Hertrich’s experimentation with his workforce was not entirely successful. If read against the grain, his published writings reveal traces of resistance. Hertrich also played a major role in planning and landscaping the suburb of San Marino out of Huntington’s ranch and surrounding properties. This final experiment was perhaps his most successful, resulting in an exclusive garden-centered community that continues to flourish long after his death.

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