clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
With a monumental budget of $16,000, Florence Yoch created Tara on a backlot at RKO Studios.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Filed under:

The fabulous Florence Yoch

To design the shaded splendors of Tara, producer David O. Selznick had only one person in mind: Florence Yoch

It is one of the most famous final scenes in movie history. Scarlett O’Hara, the scheming Southern belle in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, has just been left by her husband, Rhett Butler. Lost and alone, Scarlett’s thoughts turn not to another man, but to her real true love: Tara, her family’s Georgia plantation. “What is there that matters?” Scarlett asks herself rhetorically. “Tara! Home. I’ll go home!”

To design the shaded splendors of Tara, producer David O. Selznick had only one person in mind: Florence Yoch, the landscape architect who had recently completed the landscaping of his estate in Beverly Hills.

Yoch’s iconic work on five famous Hollywood movies is what she is most known for today, but the sets were but an iconic blip in a storied career that spanned seven decades and more than 200 completed landscapes. Her designs ranged from intimate, fragrant “outdoor rooms,” where families could work and entertain in the California sunshine, to the rooftop courtyard of The Women’s Athletic Club in Downtown to sweeping estates for movie moguls like Jack Warner to public projects like the expansion of the California Institute of Technology. Yoch was innovative, intuitive, personal, and above all, practical.

Florence Yoch, 1915.
Courtesy of James J. and Nancy Yoch, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Born in 1890 in Orange County, Yoch was the youngest of six girls. Her German-born father, Joseph, was a successful businessman, who ran mining operations, the local bank, and a sprawling ranch. Her cultured and intelligent mother, Catherine, was prominent in social and civic affairs. The family lived in a large Italian-Revival home in Santa Ana, with grounds including a fish pond, orange groves, and a grape arbor.

The Yoch family often traveled to Laguna Beach, where Catherine and Joseph owned the popular Laguna Hotel. Here, Catherine oversaw a sort of informal salon, playing host to leading cultural lights, including the famous actress Helena Modjeska.

According to Florence’s cousin James J. Yoch, author of Landscaping the American Dream: The Gardens and Film Sets of Florence Yoch, the family often visited Modjeska at Arden, the actress’s famous country estate in the canyon below the Santa Ana Mountains. The painfully shy Florence, constantly in the shadow of her older sisters, was captivated by Arden’s wild and romantic California gardens and winding, private pathways.

Remarkably for the time, five of the six Yoch girls would graduate from college. Florence was no exception, starting her studies in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, then Cornell, before finally graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After graduating in 1915, Yoch moved back to Southern California. She set up her practice in Orange County and Pasadena. She quickly became a favorite of Pasadena’s monied high-society, who favored European-style simplicity and elegance modeled on ancient estates in England, France, and Italy.

But the puzzle was not yet complete. In 1921, a young woman named Lucile Council came to work for Yoch as an apprentice. The two women quickly fell in love and became partners in work and in life. Council encouraged Yoch to find her voice and leave behind the reserved, downcast young woman she had once been.

“Florence told her friend Thomas Moore the story of a woman who worked with her mute chauffeur to gradually build him up and enable him to talk. She concluded by saying, ‘Lucile did that for me,’” James Yoch wrote.

In 1922, shortly after meeting Council, Yoch designed the gardens for Il Brolino, lumber heiress Mary E. Stewart’s Italianate Montecito estate. According to Susan Heeger of the Los Angeles Times:

Yoch borrowed liberally from gardens at Italian villas, using formal terraces, clipped greens and statuary to shape dramatic mountain and water vistas. The exedra that crowns the topiary garden was modeled on a similar design in Siena, and the fountain below it recalls a water feature at the Villa Medici in Rome. But what made Yoch’s compositions so appropriate for California was the way she tweaked formality—bending a path around a tree, sending vines up walls and over trellises… Her planting choices were simple and reliable. She was fond of the oaks and eucalyptus that thrive here… Beyond the topiary are more mazelike hedges—these trimmed in the shapes of card suits—and behind the exedra, a path winds into a secret wood, complete with stone bench.

A passionate world traveler, Yoch found inspiration through frequent trips to Europe and Africa. In 1922, she sent a series of pictures she had taken in Algiers to the Los Angeles Times, noting of one home: “The left is a house which, if set back in a yard instead of on the sidewalk line, might be taken for one of the new type stucco or plastered Los Angeles ‘bungalows.’”

Erin Chase, an assistant curator at the Huntington Library, which houses the Florence Yoch Papers, treasures a notebook of Yoch’s sketches and impressions from a 1924 trip to Spain.

“She takes copious notes about the colors she sees around her,” Chase says. These include descriptions of “dull, dirty vermilion” on doors and shutters and a “soft green-more blue than jade” color on an impressively painted ceiling.

“There was no color photography widely available, and she used these descriptions to trigger her memory, which would assist her in recreating them here in the states,” Chase says. “It’s a testament to her absolute perfectionism and also her sensitivity to adding classical, foreign elements to a garden authentically and not simply treating them as a motif.”

Yoch was also continuously inspired by particular books, which she often brought with her on work sites. According to James Yoch, two favorites were Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens and Gertrude Jekyll and Lawrence Weaver’s Gardens for Small Country Houses. She also adored the travelogue Viva Mexico by Charles Macomb Flandrau. “His writing about architecture paid attention to the small, personal scene, centered on a loved memento, a portion of an antique wall, a gift from a friend,” James Yoch writes.

The Colonial Revival-style home of Irene Mayer and David Selznick in Beverly Hills, with landscaping by Florence Yoch and Lucile Council.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

This love of the personal and particular led Yoch to design every aspect of her landscapes, from benches to garden tiles to iron gates. Aiming for the “supreme excellence of simplicity,” she became adept at transforming “heroic designs of great European gardens into the small scale of the American suburban lot,” according to James Yoch.

In 1925, Florence and Lucile made their working partnership official, setting up the landscape design firm of Yoch and Council. Yoch was the principal innovator and lead designer, while Council supervised the office, construction, and found and obtained the plants and vegetation.

“The good olive trees, Lucile knew how to find,” Yoch would later write. Foreman James Ross also noted that Council was much thriftier and cautious with money, whereas above all else Yoch “wanted to get it done right and have it look good.”

The firm flourished. Yoch only accepted clients based on referrals and developed long-lasting relationships with many of them. She checked in with old clients frequently, no doubt hopeful they were following the detailed, practical maintenance manuals she wrote for each project, like the Garden Maintenance Directions for Mrs. Preston B. Hotchkis, which can be found at the end of James Yoch’s book.

“The most outstanding feature to me is the breadth of knowledge both Yoch and Council had,” Chase says of the firm’s accomplishments. The couple’s combined expertise in botany, historic gardens, architectural design and chemistry meant that their projects were built to last. This “enabled them to take on almost every aspect of the project with a true understanding for not only how to bring it to fruition but how to keep the garden vibrant and thriving for the long run,” Chase says.

According to Chase, Yoch and Council’s instructions and notes included practical and useful tips: how to compost, recipes for coloring concrete, and ways to create an opulent outdoor space on a tiny lot. “It’s as if they could predict the needs of people in the future,” Chase notes. “All equally, if not more, relevant today.”

Ever evolving, Yoch would encounter a new set of challenges in the early 1930s, as she branched out from the tasteful patrician gardens of upper-class matrons like Hotchkis and Mrs. Richard Fudger to the massive, showy estates of cash-flush, taste-poor movie elite.

Yoch was introduced to this new set of loyal clients by the trailblazing and cosmopolitan filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, often credited as Hollywood’s first female director. Arzner was so pleased with her lush Roman garden, created out of a rocky, sloping lot high in the Hollywood Hills, that she recommended Yoch to influential friends. Soon, Yoch was busy with commissions by some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

In 1934, Yoch and Council designed the sweeping family garden and lawn for the palatial new Beverly Hills home of Irene Mayer and David O. Selznick. The project was unlike anything they had ever done before.

“The garden is deliberately ahistorical,” James Yoch wrote. “There is no statuary. Stages for cars and games dominate this unabashedly American plan…. For the first time Florence Yoch acknowledged the needs of children.”

Florence Yoch and Lucile Council in 1940 at a garden in Pasadena.
Courtesy of James J. and Nancy Yoch, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

The Selznicks, used to getting what they wanted quickly, soon learned that Yoch, and her gardens, were not easily rushed. “Miss Yoch didn’t stint there (on soil preparation) or on any of the sensible priorities,” David Selznick wrote. “Money was sunk where it didn’t show, so we had a grand new house, a splendid tennis court, a few nice trees, and many tiny plants. Miss Yoch said we were to practice patience and let them grow—a big order in that overnight town.”

Both Yoch and Council would make a big impression on one of their next Hollywood clients, the legendary director George Cukor.

Hired to landscape his narrow, terraced lot in Beverly Hills, Yoch spent time learning the layout of the land. “Yoch’s method began with a great respect for the site, particularly for any existing trees,” James Yoch wrote. “Cukor described her visit to his hillside estate, where she sat and mused until, suddenly rising, she declared a walk here, a pool there, and the lookout on the southern ledge… she drew a very simple sketch that showed the basic configuration of the garden.”

Cukor considered Yoch an “extraordinary woman,” although he found both she and her partner to be “a couple of tough customers.” He recounted one story of the exacting Yoch’s perfectionism in a later interview. “She walked down a freshly planted border at his estate, pulled up the plants and tossed them onto the walk and turned around at the end of the border to look the workmen in the eye and snapped, ‘Now do it right,’” James Yoch wrote.

In 1935, when Selznick and Cukor joined forces to film a version of Robert Smythe Hichens’s The Garden of Allah, they knew just who they wanted to recreate the story’s exotic Algerian locale.

“One of the most important things in the picture, is the garden itself,” Selznick wrote. “I would urge we engage Florence Yoch for the job, even though she would cost us a good deal of extra money. The landscaping must be simply magnificent, as so much of the story depends upon the beauty of this garden.”

Yoch and Council were excited by the prospect of this new challenge. Yoch “is so anxious to do the garden, regardless of when we make the picture, that she states if there is any chance of our getting together with her, she will, on her trip to Europe which she is about to take, hop over to Africa and do some study on this matter,” Selznick wrote.

Selznick accepted Yoch’s offer, and she and Council set out on another adventure. “Her touring car had broken down in the sands of the Sahara, and Bedouins rescued her and Lucile by pushing the car across the desert dunes,” James Yoch writes. During the trip she made numerous sketches and photographs but kept in mind more personal projects at home. “I do hope your own garden is coming along nicely,” she wrote to Cukor from Africa. “I yearn to get home and pat it into shape.”

A scene from the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet. Yoch drew on her extensive travels to Italy to design three outdoor sets for the movie.
Courtesy Everett Collection

She worked with Cukor again in 1936, when he partnered with MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg on their all-star adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. According to James Yoch, she drew on her extensive travels in Italy to design three outdoor sets for the movie: the Capulet palazzo, an ancient graveyard, and the famed Capulet balcony covered in flowering vines. Her designs were stark, highlighting multi-leveled terraces and off-center, isolated trees. When asked if he had given Yoch any directions on what he wanted, Cukor quipped “of course not!”

Critics raved about the sets of Romeo and Juliet. Film critic Frank Nugent complimented the film’s “jeweled setting… ornate but not garish, extravagant but in perfect taste, expensive but never overwhelming.”

The next year, Yoch created flooded Chinese rice fields at the MGM Ranch in Chatsworth for Thalberg’s elaborate adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.

In 1936, Selznick acquired the rights to Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Civil War blockbuster. He gave Tara, the O’Hara plantation, a starring role, making it Scarlett’s only true inheritance, where her heart and soul eternally lives. “Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you?” her father, Gerald, asks her early in the film. “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Once again, Selznick turned to Yoch to create the grounds of Tara, giving her a monumental budget of $16,000 for the plantation’s landscaping alone. Yoch traveled to Georgia, learning how “to take California trees, shrubs and vines and do tricks with them so to make a passable likeness to Georgia trees, shrubs and vines.”

Hundreds of fake dogwood blossoms frame the porch of the plantation house at Tara.
Bettmann Archive

According to the New York Times’s William L. Hamilton, she convinced Selznick to give Tara a more romantic, unkempt appearance, with a front lawn of waving, unmowed grass and a meandering driveway snaking through oak trees to the side of the plantation house designed by art director Lyle Wheeler.

Yoch created Tara on Forty Acres, a backlot at RKO Studios in Culver City. Technical advisor Wilbur Kurtz described the innovative way she recreated the Old South in sunny SoCal:

She was superintending the planting of certain trees around Tara, which had been hauled—roots and all—on trucks. Two real magnolia trees had been secured, and some… bushes and vines were emplaced. As for dogwood, some sort of tree that had the right lines was set up, and for blossoms, the skillful fingers of the Property Department had fabricated hundreds of amazing replicas which they tie on greenery as shooting requirements demand.

A gang of laborers and plaster artists were making oak trees, huge affairs built of wooden framing, chicken wire and plaster, all around tall telephone poles—the upper ends of which show as poles and serve as anchorage for guy wires running to the top of the house. On these guy wires will be tied green leaves in clusters, so that the proper shadows may be cast upon the front façade on the foreground… I’ve never seen such an amazing performance.

The results shared similarities with many of Yoch’s real-life gardens. “Huge trees frame Tara’s porch,” James Yoch notes. “As she had arranged similar trees in Selznick’s own garden, she did not make them simply symmetrical but balanced masses against each other. Continuing this informal poise in other parts of the composition, a crape myrtle on the right side of the porch answers the large vine clambering up a pillar on the left. Trees seem to flourish behind the house and shade its roof.”

Yoch made her last foray into film design in 1941, when she designed Welsh rolling hills and valleys for John Ford’s romantic family history How Green Was My Valley. For this film, Yoch and Council made 10,000 daffodils bloom at once. “These movies touched her heart, for they illustrated her own enterprise,” James Yoch speculates. “In these, characters triumph over adversity through the redemptive power of the landscape.”

Yoch and Council continued their successful private and public works throughout the 1940s and ’50s. In 1958, Yoch began to write an unfinished book on landscaping, scribbling notes of practical advice on any spare scrap of paper she saw.

“Only a flourishing garden is pleasing,” she wrote in a longer passage. “Therefor, choose plants that can grow happily in the spot you select for them, with the minimum of care, plants that will develop naturally into such shapes or heights as will best serve your needs with the minimum of pruning or tricky training, plants that have a pleasant restful appearance and whose fruit, flowers or leaf color come at a desired season.”

In 1960, Yoch and Council moved to the Monterey Peninsula. They focused on smaller commissions, creating comfortable, personal gardens for clients in Carmel and Monterey. She continued to work after Council’s death in 1964, writing in 1971, “I am having fun this year doing the garden for the oldest wooden house in Monterey.” A few days before her death on January 21, 1972, Yoch was at the garden she had designed for the Florence Doud House overlooking Monterey Bay, raking and planting, making sure everything looked just right.

Today, the work remains. You can, of course, view Yoch’s film creations from the comfort of your own home any time you want. For a truly immersive experience, take a trip to the Athenaeum Faculty Club at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Chase’s favorite Yoch and Council creation.

“Yoch’s garden design surrounding the Athenaeum... was carefully planned to compliment the main building’s architecture. Mature olives and laurels were planted along with other Mediterranean plants that included cypress, palms, juniper, fig, and espaliered southern magnolia in both formal and informal arrangements that balance perfectly the stateliness of the place with an approachable and intimate pedestrian experience,” she says. “The center courtyard of the Athenaeum is one of the most beautiful spaces in Los Angeles.”

Los Angeles Filming Locations

‘Night of the Comet’ is a feel-good dystopian movie set in LA


How did ‘Blade Runner’ stick as the vision of LA's future?

Los Angeles

How the LA landscape shaped film noir

View all stories in Los Angeles Filming Locations