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 Volume 11, Issue 92  | November 15, 2019


Al Treviño: The visionary landscape architect attributes much of his success to “lucky breaks, and the people you meet”

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Sitting in the Bluebird Canyon home he designed and built almost 60 years ago –the home he nearly lost in the 2005 landslide – Alberto (Al) Treviño, 86, is eager to tell me about the new nonprofit website, www.seniors2seniors.com, that he is hoping to launch. 

The website will connect high school seniors with the elderly. “The goal is to help senior citizens while fulfilling community service hours for high schools,” he explains. The young are tasked with teaching technology to the old, giving them lessons on their smart phones, tablets and other devices. “I want to reach the administrators from each California school district, and get them familiar with the website,” says Al. 

A big project for a man who claims he’s retired. 

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Al has a great smile

No question in my mind that this new project will succeed. Al’s vision and accomplishments are legendary in Orange County. As a landscape architect, Al pushed the boundaries of conventional design. As a Hispanic, he pushed Orange County’s boundaries of discrimination. His professional legacy can be seen throughout Orange County and his influence extends well beyond. His personal legacy will last for generations. From 60 years of marriage to his beloved wife, Dolores, came 11 children, 22 grandchildren, and a collection of memories that seemingly have no end.

Out of Al’s imagination sprung the designs for Fashion Island and Linda Isle in Newport, and University Park and Turtle Rock in Irvine. His hand guided the path of the 405 freeway. His vision inspired Epcot Center in Florida. He served under three U.S. presidents as Assistant Secretary of HUD.

Humble, Al claims things were different with his generation. He felt less spoiled, more serious, and in tune with the generations before. He says luck played a role, and the people he met along the way made all the difference.

People like Frank Gehry, George Argyros, Howard Bolzt and even Joseph Kleitsch, though the latter’s influence occurred via a painting rather than a serendipitous meeting.

More about those serendipitous meetings later. But first, I ask Al to fill me in on the 

winding road of his life. 

Born into both distinction and the Great Depression

Al was born in Inglewood in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression. When business dried up in California, his father (who owned a chain of shoe stores) moved their family to El Paso, Texas. 

Al’s mother, Adelina, was from the Escajeda family. The Escajedas had a long history of power and influence in El Paso, and were the earliest pioneers of the town. King Ferdinand VII of Spain gave the Escajedas a land grant in 1818 and they settled San Elizario and Ysleta. Adelina’s name is still encrusted in the stained glass of the Ysleta mission.

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Al in front of a favorite painting

In contrast, his father’s family settled in Mexico in 1480. “The Treviños were known as Jews in Spain,” Al tells me. “The king, during the Spanish Inquisition, made a decision to throw out the Jews. They gave my family a choice: stay and be killed, or set sail for the New World.” Today, the Treviños still have a stronghold in Monterrey, Mexico, remaining a rich and powerful family.

Although the family returned to southern California during Al’s high school years, these earliest influences were, perhaps, instrumental to Al’s own destiny. Al was one of Orange County’s initial and significant settlers. He came to Laguna Beach in the 1960s, before any of the modern-day industries or businesses were built. His was the first house built in his Bluebird Canyon neighborhood. But Al arrived with vision – and degrees from both UC Berkeley and Harvard in landscape architecture. The Depression gave Al drive, and his history gave him confidence. 

The circuitous path to success

When Al began his academic career, he’d never heard of ‘landscape architecture.’ But he did like plants and trees. So, after graduating from Saint Francis in La Cañada Flintridge, Al set off to Cal Poly Pomona to study horticulture. During a design class, a professor saw his drawings and the head of the department pulled him aside. “You should become a landscape architect,” Howard Boltz told him. “You could get into Berkeley.” This single comment changed the course of Al’s life.

But Berkley nearly rejected his already approved application because of one stark ‘C’ on his transcript – in Spanish. “There was discrimination against Hispanics then, and I didn’t give a damn about the class. My mother spoke perfect Spanish. My sisters, to this day, speak Spanish. But I didn’t care about it.” Leland Vaughan, the head of the department and a prominent California architect, looked at Al. “Aren’t you Spanish?” he said, while signing Al’s admissions slip.

The interruption of war

Being a student wasn’t enough to spare Al from war. In the middle of his academic career at Berkeley, he was drafted into the Korean War. But because he tested well, he was sent to medical school in Fort Benning, Georgia. “I was attached to a tank battalion,” says Al. “We’d go out on maneuvers and people were always getting hurt. It was something I never expected to do.”

One night, while on maneuvers near the Alabama border, the lead tank ran over a civilian’s vehicle. “The fellow was pinned in the car. He was moaning, but there was no blood,” says Al. The man’s injuries were entirely internal. His stomach and chest had been crushed. “There was nothing we could do ourselves, so we called an ambulance.” When the ambulance arrived and took out their stretcher, they saw the man. “’You’ll have to call a black ambulance,’” they told Al. “’We only treat white patients.’” It took over an hour for the black ambulance to arrive. Too long, as it turned out. “That kind of thing was prevalent,” says Al. “And it really hit me.”

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Al contemplates his past

But the war brought Al nice surprises, too. One day, a starred general showed up asking about Al. He’d heard about Al’s talents in landscape architecture and decided it was time to improve the base. Al was transferred to special services. He was given a staff, a Jeep, and – eventually – a mission to improve all the officers’ facilities across several states throughout the southeast. 

“I walked into the Corps of Engineers looking for help. I yelled out, ‘Are there any architects here?’” Al recalls. “This little guy in the back raised his hand. He said his name was Frank.” Frank’s last name turned out to be Gehry. 

Al helped Frank Gehry get a transfer to Special Services, before leaving the army himself and attending Harvard. 

The house where dreams were made

Al returned to California after Harvard. But Pasadena, where his parents resettled, held no pull for him. Dolores suffered asthma, and the ocean proved better for her health. When Al discovered Laguna Beach – the tiny town that, at the time, held few professional opportunities – his father nearly lost his mind. He’d offered to help Al and Dolores buy their first home, but insisted that home had to be in Pasadena or San Marino. 

The owner knew Al’s reputation and talent. He agreed to give the property to Al for whatever he could afford. “I was only making $6.50 an hour.” Frank, his new friend and fellow architect, was jealous. He was only making $4.50.

Al remains in that same house today. In many ways, the house itself is a metaphor for Al’s life. Beautiful but impossible, perched precariously on the side of the hill. Its 1960s style is quirky, but enduring. The design is bold and ambitious, and the views are beautiful. 

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A wonderful view from Al’s house

When he brought his bride to the property nearly 60 years ago, he said, “Pretty nice view isn’t it, Dolores.” Al gets choked up recalling it. Dolores has been gone for over two years, but her absence still feels palpable to Al. “I haven’t really been happy since,” he says.

How Joseph Kleitsch rescued Al Treviño

The 2005 Bluebird Canyon landslide hit the Treviños hard. Their house was red/black-tagged. They had 30 minutes to remove a few personal items. Al’s son grabbed his mother’s favorite painting. To Dolores, it had only sentimental value, depicting the San Juan mission she loved. Al picked it up at a garage sale for twenty bucks some years before.

When the Treviños discovered insurance didn’t cover landslides, they feared they would lose the home. That’s when their neighbor discovered that the salvaged garage sale painting was, instead, “Evening Shadow,” an original oil from famed plein air painter Joseph Kleitsch (1885-1931). When the painting sold for $500,000 in a private auction, the Treviños were able to rebuild their home.

A dining table, cardboard and Polaroids –

The birth of Fashion Island

Around Orange County circles, Al is famous for his progressive vision that shaped Fashion Island. The original concept was a conventionally designed indoor mall. But Al didn’t like it. “There’s no need to have an enclosed mall by the ocean,” he told the developers. 

Basing his design on the Old Orchard mall in Skokie, Illinois, Al spread some cardboard cutouts across a dining room table to show investors his vision. The mall would be open-air, incorporating European-style piazzas and lush landscaping. The design would take advantage of the nearby Pacific and the Mediterranean climate. There would be sky bridges across to the surrounding office buildings with outdoor coffee shops and flower stands. 

When Al proposed high-rise office buildings in a county that had little more than dirt roads and orange groves, he said, “People thought I was smoking something.” But it all came to pass, just as Al envisioned it – minus the sky bridges, which Donald Bren decided would block visual access to storefront signage.

A county still mired in discrimination

This was the 1960s. Talent, intelligence and experience still weren’t enough to spare a man from the sting of discrimination. When Fashion Island was close to completion, the Irvine Company decided it didn’t want a Hispanic face on the front of its project. A white planner would be hired over Al to give all the presentations pertaining to the project. 

Al was well aware of the prejudice that existed against Jews and Hispanics in Orange County. The California Club, a country club in Los Angeles infamous for its discriminatory practices, had several prominent Orange County members. He knew it was time to take his leave. 

Life beyond the Orange County curtain

Although Al never left Laguna Beach, he took a lucrative offer from General Electric (GE) and continued his storied career, taking on large projects mostly on the east coast. Over the coming decades, he would work for GE and Walt Disney, then as Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush and, later, as Assistant Secretary of Policy Development and Research.

Shortly after September 11, the White House flew Al to Madrid in an effort to build good relations with Spain. As Al prepared to deliver a speech on urban planning, he discovered George Argyros, famed Orange County real estate investor and U.S. Ambassador to Spain, was in town. The two spent their time together, traveling to Toledo Spain and to Eli Broad’s opening at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

“My life has just been events like that,” says Al. 

Still conquering new horizons

I ask the question: Are men like this born or made? 

Al would say it’s all about lucky breaks. He credits meeting a long series of smart, engaged and talented people for many of the good fortunes he’s experienced. “Argyros, many of these people, we were all very poor young men. We’ve just been very nice to each other.”

As I pull away from Al’s home, watching him take his two caged birds inside for the night and turn off the living room lights, I can relate. I, too, feel lucky. These people we meet along the way – they make all the difference.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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