Horticulturist, floral designer, and interior decorator, Miss Isabella Worn was a woman of the Golden Age of American gardens.
Griswold and Weller, The Golden Age of American Gardens
Miss Isabella Worn (1869-1950), known as Bella, rode on public transportation from Marin County to her office in San Francisco, as she did not drive a car. She did, however, become a celebrated flower arranger and combined this artistic talent with an interior decorating business and a career as a horticulturist.
During the Golden Age of American gardens (circa 1890-1940), Americans developed beautiful estates from coast to coast, symbols of great affluence and cultural knowledge: Biltmore in Ashville, North Carolina, The Farms in central Illinois, Filoli in Woodside, California, and La Pietra at Diamond Head in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Golden Age offered women little opportunity for formal training in horticulture and garden design. Many were mentored by men—architects and landscape architects who had ready access to schooling credentials—some of whom acknowledged that women were more detail oriented regarding plants and more inclined to become intensely involved in the particulars of the outcome. Stereotype though that may be, Isabella Worn developed an outstanding knowledge of plants, with a sensitivity for those that owners of the large mansions would wish as cut flowers in their homes. Her business acumen recognized that, although the entire Bay Area offered a number of large estates, it was the San Francisco Peninsula that offered more owners with a willingness to spend the money to properly realize the full potential of her design work. Thus, she became an advisor and supplier to some of the well-heeled garden owners on the Peninsula (Hillsborough and Woodside), as well as in San Francisco and in Carmel Valley. She also advised her clients on the decorative use of potted plants for inside their homes.
Isabella was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a silver cup in her hand. Her grandfather, James Ross, had immigrated to California in 1849 and acquired a land grant for Rancho Punta de San Quentin in Marin County, where the town of Ross is now. Her father, George Austin Worn, married Ross’s daughter, Annie, in 1863. In the following year, George and Annie constructed a home called Sunnyside on the property. They first built an octagonal building over the well they had dug; the family lived on the first floor with the water tank above, while they built a more comfortable home nearby to accommodate their family of five children (George, Gracie, Annie, Isabella, and Louise). Affluent and secure, George Worn worked with his father-in-law as a business associate; over time, he came to oversee the family enterprises and properties, including what had been a flourishing lumber business that shipped lumber to San Francisco in the years following the Gold Rush.
In 1870, Annie Worn departed for Europe for a two-year trip, with four children under six years of age. She visited classical gardens, purchased furnishings and objets d’art for their home, and emptied $36,000 [over a million dollars, in today’s economy] from the family coffers. Mining stock in Virginia City had been booming when they left. On their return, reversals in the famed Comstock Lode, which George had invested in heavily, brought a collapse of its stock, further depleting the formerly robust family resources.
The Worn family subsequently moved from Sunnyside and sold off many of the treasures purchased in Europe. With the death of James Ross in 1874, Annie’s inheritance enabled them to purchase property in San Anselmo, which they called “The Ranch.” Sunnyside later became the site of the Marin Art and Garden Center. George Worn died in 1895, and Annie moved the family to Ross; the family remained stalwart during these difficult times. The girls had begun to demonstrate their decorating talents, inheriting an artistic sense from their mother and horticultural aptitude from their father. Every Sunday, they decorated the Episcopal chapel in Ross (established by their grandmother) with flowers from their own garden.
The Misses Worn
The accolades they received encouraged the sisters, all in their early twenties, to establish a design business in San Francisco in 1888. They christened their enterprise “The Misses Worn” and demonstrated enormous imagination and originality. They were assisted by John Cattaneo, a young Italian who tended their mother’s one-acre garden, used for growing trees and shrubs for the business. Most deliveries, including huge bundles of flowers, were made via public transportation (trains, trolleys, and cable cars). Later, Emilio Dentoni was employed to handle deliveries to the grand hotels in town, using a blue Chevrolet pick-up truck with a wood-framed canvas shell. Isabella Worn could, at times, be seen perched in the front cab of the truck as Emilio drove her to her appointments. The Misses Worn decorated for the opulent debuts of the wealthy, for the Ned Greenway Cotillion, for an elegant luncheon at the Palace Hotel for Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, and for a banquet, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt, held at the hotel in celebration of its Golden Jubilee.
Mr and Mrs William Bourn called Isabella Worn to Woodside, on the San Francisco Peninsula, to work in the gardens of their palatial new estate, Filoli, along with Bruce Porter, an artist and hunting friend of Mr Bourn. Porter designed the gardens in the years after 1918. He was inspired by Italian Renaissance design, creating allées, a sunken garden, and a number of distinct garden rooms. Worn advised on the bedding plants, seasonal color, and other horticultural features. Her garden ideas were carried forward into the era of the next owners, Mr and Mrs William P Roth. Mrs Roth was devoted to her and used her decorating talents in the house as well. In 1977, she reported:
Originally, Miss Worn did all the planting for the garden, under the direction of Bruce Porter, and continued until she became too busy with other work, and then she resigned. Later, Bella was able to come back and take over again, [continuing] until she died. Under her guidance, I learned so much, as she made me feel that the garden was mine, which might be difficult for one in a supervisory position. We put in the swimming pool area and moved the yew allée back of the swimming pool from up near the orchard. We also did all the planting behind the pool.1
Worn earned a reputation for being decisive. In an oral history from Domoto Nursery, in Hayward, Toichi Domoto noted, “She was not inclined to be too talkative until later. She knew exactly what she wanted . . .” Toichi’s father understood her manner, as he knew she was establishing a business and had a responsibility to her siblings; she was also quietly assisting in the education of their offspring. One nephew, Donald Perry, started Sunnyside Nursery in San Anselmo, which continues today.
She was a tall, handsome woman. She usually wore long dresses or sported a tweedy look; her trademark, visible from afar, was a hat with a sensible brim. She crossed San Francisco Bay on the ferry for many years and always occupied the same seat. She worked arduous hours at her business in the James Lick Building on San Francisco’s Market Street, and frequently spent the night sleeping on a mattress that she pulled onto a long marble table. News reporters found her modest, deferring to the talent of her sister Annie. As a single woman, Bella could expend all her energy on the business. In February, 1939, she told a Chronicle reporter, who had asked about her outside activities,
My whole life is constituted by my work. But it has a recompense . . . . It is enough for me to know that I have contributed delight in the time of pleasure, or softened grief in time of sorrow . . . and to hear that I am needed at those times.
In 1921, Isabella Worn spread her wings and, at the urging of architect Julia Morgan, went to work in the gardens at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s extravagant country estate on the California coast north of Cambria. Morgan had started there in 1919; the gardens were laid out and attributed largely to Los Angeles landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams, who seemed to have the flexibility to build the hilltop gardens around the constant addition of artifacts from various periods of world history, according to Griswold and Weller.
One of Morgan’s tasks was to plant the garden, hire a force to maintain it, and, as building designs increased and assumed more of her time, to secure a head gardener who could not only manage a crew but also anticipate what would be needed for luxurious plantings for all over the hill. Gardner Dailey of Morgan’s office held the chief gardener’s job for the first period. . . . Then Morgan hired Isabella Worn. . . . She too, ran up against Hearst’s [imperious] nature and was dropped.2
Memories of Miss Worn during this period are again recorded in the oral history of Toichi Domoto:
Yes, she came out, as I remember, to my Dad’s place with Julia Morgan. But Miss Worn [also] went around San Leandro at that time picking up a lot of trees in the yards. . . . We were buying plants too at that time. . . . with camellias and magnolias, we used to go out with a crew and dig them up and bring them in and establish them for sale. But quite often, we would go out there to buy something, and they would say, “It’s already sold.” I would say, “Who bought it?” “I don’t know; some lady came and bought it.” Almost invariably, [Miss Worn] would pay more than we could. . . . that was the time San Simeon was being developed. Some [were] freighted down, and some of the bigger things had to be barged down. . . . So a lot of the camellias that are down there [at San Simeon] came from the San Leandro area.
House on Hill
The Tobin Clark estate, House on Hill, was completed in 1931 in San Mateo, designed by architect David Adler of Chicago. Mrs Clark insisted that everything possible in the construction of the house be done by hand, including the digging of the basement, as the country was in a deep depression, and she desired to give work to those in the local community. Mrs Clark and Adler traveled abroad to select details for the house; 400-year-old oak parquetry was imported for the floors, along with Queen-Anne-period paneling for the sitting room. Adler designed gardens for many of his homes; here, he laid out plans but engaged Isabella Worn for the plantings. There was just as much thought and time taken in the development of the gardens as there was with the house. Years in advance of construction, large trees had been transplanted to the grounds from as far away as the Monterey Peninsula. A stone pine (Pinus pinea) was imported from Italy, and an entire grove of oak trees relocated to create the desired effect. By the north entrance to the house was a courtyard, with two thirty-foot magnolias flanking the front door, surrounded by containers, some of which featured miniature roses.3
The house opened onto a south terrace with an extraordinary, unobstructed view over a sunken garden. A set of stone steps in front of the library wing led down to a gravel promenade that edged the walled garden and opened onto two separate flights of stone steps into another garden. Rectangular and modest-sized, it was lined with flowers and shrubs selected by Worn. She also planted the rose garden on the north side of the house.
In 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition was held on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Alice Eastwood, famed botanist and curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, visited the Exposition’s social center, a project of the Women’s Board. She found her friends Isabella Worn and Katherine Donohoe had achieved an indoor-outdoor garden. Tall standards were intertwined with the pastel jewels of Victor Reiter’s ‘Treasure Island’ fuchsia, which he had hybridized especially for the exposition. 4 The exhibit also included geraniums, callas, fruit-bearing orange trees, more fuchsias, and other flowers that area residents loved so much.
Stern Hall, a women’s dormitory at the University of California, Berkeley, housed nineteen students in 1941. A new residence for 150 women was designed by architect William Wilson Wurster, dean of the School of Architecture. Completed in 1942, it was situated on the eastern hills of the campus, with a view of San Francisco Bay and the City beyond. Wurster also rendered a plan for the landscape; John W Gregg, campus landscape architect, completed the design and selected Isabella Worn to work with him on the project. The plan called for parking, trees for privacy, and an entry court with trellises and white wisteria. On the bay side were two garden areas adjacent to the building, one with a flower bed and “sweet smelling shrubs,” the other featuring daphne—also wonderfully fragrant.
In 1950, the notice of Isabella Worn’s death brought mourning to many of San Francisco’s most distinguished families with whom she had worked. Numerous letters of condolence came to her sister, Annie Perry, relating memories of her talent, kindness, and friendship. From Filoli, Mrs Roth wrote:
Every day I miss your sister. Filoli does not seem the same. Each and every plant reminds me of her—I think she really loved this place, although I know it caused her a lot of worry. I will always think of her in this garden. Perhaps it would make her happy to know how many loving friends she had. Everyone misses her. She spent her life doing sweet things for others; that was her way.
Isabella Worn brought enthusiasm, passion, and an artistic sense of color and design to her work in gardens and floral arrangements, bringing pleasure and delight to her clients who, invariably, became her loving friends. An era was coming to a close in 1950 and, with it, the creative work of Miss Worn. Her friends gave generously to a memorial fund; in 1953, a grove was dedicated in her name at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Northern California.
The author is deeply grateful to Tom Perry for sharing the Perry-Worn archives. Additional thanks go to Gay Komich, Bruce Mussell, Allan Perry, Barbara Pitschel, Tom Rogers, Stephen Salny, Lucy Tolmach, and Irene Valos for their encouragement and assistance with this article.
Boutelle, Sara Holmes. 1988. Julia Morgan, Architect. New York: Abbeyville Press Publications.
California Nurseryman’s Association. ca. 1980. Oral History of Toichi Domoto, Domoto Nursery, Hayward.
Griswold, Mac and Eleanor Weller. 1991. The Golden Age of American Gardens. New York: Harry N Abrams Inc.
Harrington, Gayle. 1976. The Tobin Clark Estate. College of San Mateo Student History Paper
Helfand, Harvey. 2002. A Campus Guide: University of California, Berkeley. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Wilson, Carol Green. 1955. Alice Eastwood’s Wonderland: The Adventures of a Botanist. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences