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Greenery at the Green


The graceful "Winged Figure Ascending," by the late, internationally recognized sculptor Stephen De Staebler, greets visitors as they approach the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.

Inside the courtyard at the entrance to Weill Hall is a grander sculptural display: 12 16-foot-tall pieces wrought by Mother Nature over the course of 118 years.

A building as striking as the finely-tuned music box designed by renowned architect William Rawn deserves an approach that conveys venerability. That was achieved with these ancient Sevillano olive trees — six on each side of the courtyard — with their gnarled trunks of multiple branches braided together over more than a century.

The olives trees, harvested from a doomed orchard in Corning, trucked in and then carefully placed in trenches beneath the limestone pavers of the courtyard, are among the most significant features within the outdoor spaces surrounding the hall.

With its barn-style door in a concert hall that opens to terraced grass seating, the center is truly designed to offer music without walls on a fine summer day. So the grounds needed to offer the same serenely simple beauty found inside the hall itself.

Observant homeowners and gardeners can glean ideas from public spaces like the Green Music Center, taking note of anything from natural architecture like trees and plantings to pathways, lighting and courtyards such as the entry to Weill Hall.

The grounds are the work of both Bill Mastick of Quadriga Landscape Architecture and Planning of Santa Rosa and the husband and wife team, Larry Reed and Cinda Gilliland, of SWA, an international landscape architecture firm with local offices in Sausalito and San Francisco.

Quadriga came up with the overall site plan for the 52-acre Green Music Center, including the parking lot, the front of the center and the 12- to 14-foot acoustic berms that provide a sound buffer from nearby road noise.

A total of $8.55 million of the $145 million music center project went into the grounds, from the courtyard and colonnade to the west and south lawns, site grading, structural fill, berms, signage, pathways, trees, landscape plants, lighting and outdoor sound equipment.

The long delay had an unexpected upside. The first part of the project to go in back in 2000 was the parking lot, dotted with London Plane trees. By the time the center opened two years ago, they had grown into the mature shade trees Mastick had envisioned.

In fact, time has softened and cooled the whole front of the center. A long line of Chinese elm trees and blue oat grass also are maturing and helping to conceal the plain walls of the classroom wing of the center.

One of the last areas to be developed was the courtyard, made possible by the $12 million infusion from the Weills that finished off the hall and landscaping.

Old olive trees were not part of the original design for the courtyard. But Reed, whose company was brought in to finish the grounds work, said Sandy and Joan Weill pressed for these ancient trees that project an image of both old California and new Wine Country.

They and Reed hand-picked the trees from an orchard near Chico owned by Troy Heathcote of Heritage Olive Trees.

"The olive industry is really going downhill. They're tearing out these old trees and starting to plant walnuts," said Heathcote, who buys up old orchards before the trees are bulldozed and tries to sell as many as possible. But he figures he is only able to find homes for about 7 percent of them. Price is a big factor, with each tree costing up to $3,000 or more. Removal, shipping and planting easily double that cost.

The Semillanos are actually good for landscaping because their fruit is larger — more for stuffed olives and martinis — and thus not as prolific and messy.

The other dominant trees in the Green Music Center landscape are redwoods. The giant evergreens, purchased in 15- to 84-gallon boxes, will provide screening around the periphery of the lawns. The trees also needed to be tall, said Reed, to be in proportion to the stately Weill and Schroeder halls.

The understory plantings are natural and typical of the North Coast — anemones, pennisetum or bunnytails, rock roses.

Reed said the economic downturn also took its toll on the landscape business.

"With the economy going south, growers had to start chipping plant material because they couldn't sell it," he said. "These are the last of the trees of a good size that we were able to get."

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</i>