Church was born in Boston and grew up in the San Francisco area, where he made a garden for his mother. He studied landscape architecture at Berkeley, graduating in 1922. He later studied at Harvard and went on a European tour in 1927. In 1929 he opened an office at Pasatiempo in California. Typically, he would site gardens in the natural landscape and provide them with a patio-style garden. The style was traditional. In 1937 he went on a second European tour and saw the work of Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. The 1939 Golden Gate Exposition gave him an opportunity to experiment with the ideas he was developing. These gardens used white concrete, freeform 'piano' curves and zig-zag lines, drawing from cubist painting.
David Streatfield wrote that Church 'transformed landscape design from the manipulation of an eclectic range of styles dependent on past models to a completely modern design mode' (American landscape architecture, ed WH Tishler, 1989). Eckbo described Church as 'the last great traditional designer and the first great modern designer'. Michael Laurie wrote that 'Church's success and fame were a result of his skill in combining the rational with the romantic; his ability to produce form related to the site and to the purpose of the place; his concern for materials and details; and above all, his relationship with his clients who were willing participants in the process' (M Treib ed Modern landscape architecture, p. 178).