Real Estate Report: A Lovely Thomas Church Garden (House Included) in Woodside


One of the most innovative and influential landscape designers of the 20th Century, Thomas (Tommy) Church (1902-1978) was the man who gave us two iconic post WWII landscape elements– introducing in 1948 the kidney-shaped swimming pool set in concrete, and decking around native trees to preserve both the trees and provide shaded hardscape. Now taken for granted, both features evolved out of his fundamental philosophy that gardens should be used and lived in, not just looked at.

We had an opportunity last week to visit Oak Hill, a private garden he created in Woodside with an enthusiastic client from 1967 to 1970, and a perfect example of Church’s style– strong, graphic hardscape set off both by centuries-old native oaks and rare, collected specimens. Frank Webster, a prosperous San Francisco bachelor had hired the architectural firm of Volkmann & Stockwell to design his house in Woodside in 1966– a long series of hexagonal pavilions arranged along a wide hallway and set in an oak-studded meadow– back when the town was an agricultural community and not a suburb.

Webster has been described as an avid plant collector, and Church played off the architect’s hexagons with a vast angled platform of plantings and raised beds on one side of the house against two large-scale circular elements– a patio and the circular swimming pool. Above and below, the patio is just off the long hallway, paved with high-iron content terracotta hexagonals:

The raised platform is defined by a low, fat concrete wall along the house, with a high fence and three pergolas on its perimeter– note the “step” composed of a single, well-placed boulder, above. One pergola overlooks the pool with a wet bar and changing rooms, one is dripping in wisteria, and another laden with a rare weeping cypress:

The current owner is an expert-level rose enthusiast with dozens of well-labeled plants. The property could just as easily be renamed Rose Hill:

In recent years, Church has come under attack for using too much impermeable hardscape, but he was a master at deploying it and decades later, the impeccable craftmanship he demanded is evident. In contrast, the other side of the house is classic rural Woodside– open meadow and oaks– overlooked by a series of decks:

If These Walls Could Talk: Oak Hill was previously owned by Charlotte Mailliard Swig Shultz– San Francisco’s renowned Protocol Chief and veteran party-giver, and coincidently married to former Secretary of State George Shultz– and so one of the most apparent aspects of the house is how well it’s set up for entertaining. Or as the current owner quipped “There’s a reason for three wet bars.” Below, one of them is in the vast living-dining room:

More: Oak Hill is not open to the public. For additional images of the house and interiors– which have been staged for the sale– go to realtor Elyse Barca’s dedicated site for the property. Sadly, there’s not much available online about Thomas Church– his career is probably due for a reassessment by a clever architectural historian– but the Cultural Landscape Foundation is a good place to start and includes images of his important 1948 Donnell Garden in Sonoma. Additionally, Church’s influential 1955 book Gardens Are For People is available through Amazon.