Tag Archives: Mission Hills

The Tree Lady

illustration by Jill McElmurry from the children’s book by H. Joseph Hopkins

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We spent a month in San Diego. Shopping center after shopping center, parking lots, garages, and malls. What can everyone be purchasing, we wondered, as they sped about day and night in their shiny new cars? Where are they all going and what are they are so busy buying? Objects to furnish their homes, clothes to beautify their bodies, hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Meanwhile this piece of the planet has been plowed over, hardscaped with asphalt and concrete. I could hear it cry “RAPE!” What is needed is a new feminization of San Diego. A planner with a vision. Another Kate Sessions to turn things around and get the city back on the right path.

Barren and brown, that’s how Kate Sessions saw San Diego in 1884 when she first arrived from Northern California. The image of dirt and sagebrush must have burned into her consciousness. Her contract was to teach, but she left teaching after a short time to open a botanical nursery. Soon Sessions had nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, and Mission Hills. Recognizing her passion, the city leased to Sessions 30 acres of a scrub-filled mesa known as City Park where cattle grazed and garbage was dumped. The park became her growing fields. And the park became Balboa Park, one of the premier urban parks in the country today.

If all this sounds like a fable, it isn’t.

Unprecedented for a woman at the time, Kate had graduated UC Berkley in 1881 with a degree in Natural Science. With that she became a botanist, horticulturist, landscape architect, and in the process, an activist. She published articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals, was appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools, and supervised school gardens. “Her whole life and her whole interest was in horticulture,” noted her biographer, Elizabeth MacPhail.

“Sessions cut an extraordinary figure before women’s suffrage in California,” wrote Geoff Wade in the California Sun newsletter. “She kept her hair in a knot atop her head, and wore men’s shoes—perpetually muddy—and a twill shirt with a large inside pocket that bulged with pruning shears, a knife, and other tools.”

Growing from seeds collected around the world, Sessions planted thousands of cypress, pine, oak, peppertrees, jacaranda, and eucalyptus trees, where San Diegans didn’t think trees could grow. Blessed with a mild climate, plants thrived on the boulevards, in canyons, and public spaces.

And then, it’s almost as if San Diego became too desirable a place to live and everyone moved there. 

It’s no wonder we kept dodging into Balboa Park during our visit.

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The Gods Amongst Us

When I was in my late twenties and living in San Diego I was fortunate to land a position in an interior design firm that had a highly acclaimed name in Southern California. The name was the owner’s, Gerald Jerome. He was considered a master, and no one knew it more or believed it more than himself and his staff. Looking back, we were almost like a cult.

Working for meager salaries we thought nothing of staying until midnight if that’s what it took to meet deadlines. And that frequently happened because Gerry, quite the salesman, made promises he wouldn’t have kept otherwise. None of us could have possibly had a child or a marriage and survived that employment. Still, we were for the most part young and told ourselves that we were the fortunate ones, that there were hundreds of designers out there with portfolios under their arms who would love to have our jobs.

So we worked for the association with Jerome, the hope that some of his genius would spill over, and that one day too we might be on our own. Such is the nature of the field, it is almost medieval like the apprentice system. Gerry Jerome relished that. He had a larger-than-life persona, and oftentimes while we were under the gun he made himself at home in our office, sitting back with a vodka & tonic, telling tales. Meanwhile we were at our drafting tables working, flying down the hall to make blueprints, organizing all the materials he would need for his meeting with the client in the morning, and driving home half dead.

His genius, the look we became so good at, was over-scaled and custom-designed for the most part. His interiors favored textures such as wood, stone, wool, leather, hide, over pattern, unless it was tribal, an ikat or a primitive rug. He combined contemporary with primitive, with little to nothing in between. His color palette favored the naturals, and we tended to steer clear of color with the exception of “Jerome red,” a brick/rust red. Everything Had to Make a Statement. It was design with a man’s hand. And his signature at the end of a job was often a custom designed door that stood twice as tall, twice as wide, made of copper or carved. One had to marvel at how easily it swung.

I knew I was over the edge when one day my brother-in-law, a Boston based writer and filmmaker on assignment in LA, came to visit, and I tried to explain to him that Jerome was “like a god.” All my brother-in-law had to do was give me that look and I knew. Not that I was going to do anything about it. You have to remember, I was in heaven.

Looking back, much was not right. All those hours without overtime pay, the chauvinism we endured, the salaries that might have been better but for the fact that Jerome was fond of making deals with his clients, and often took payment in the form of a rare Pre-Columbian sculpture, a Tamayo or Francisco Zuniga painting, or a large piece of quartz, all of which were showcased in his home in Mission Hills.

And then one day, after he had turned all other clients away so that our small firm could oversee an enormous convention hotel project in Mexico with Westin, we woke to find that the Mexican economy had collapsed overnight and the government had imposed a freeze on the American dollar. I didn’t understand the economics then and I don’t understand it now, but Westin pulled out and Gerry Jerome laid us all off. Just like that.

For years afterwards in whatever I did in the arts, I felt Jerome over my shoulder, bellowing if he didn’t like what I was doing, or laughing that I “designed like a woman” (the ultimate insult).We put up with such behavior in a person that extraordinarily talented or bright, and here he wasn’t even around. I was married and at home with my first newborn when I received a call from an old associate in our firm, informing me that Gerry Jerome had died. He had come home, slipped out of his Italian shoes, and suffered a heart attack while sitting up in bed reading “Architectural Digest.” There always had been a matter with his heart; I seem to recall it ran a little fast. His memorial service had come and gone—while I was in labor and in the hospital giving birth–and I never had a chance to say goodbye to this man who had meant the sun, moon and stars to me. How many people can be that significant in a lifetime?

Later when my life took a decidedly literary turn, I assured myself that I would always have a hand in interior design so long as I had a shelter to live in. I think it was only in writing that I didn’t feel Gerry Jerome lording over me. It is in writing that I would find my own voice, and what looks like my own design style while I’m at it.

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