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Steeped in Tradition : The Landscaping of This Hollywood Hillside Garden Recalls the Magnificent Terrace Gardens of the Mediterranean

November 25, 1990|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

THE HOUSES IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS may have spectacular views, but their gardens, often as precipitous as the hills themselves, present quite a challenge to gardeners and garden designers. Subdivided during the early decades of the century, many of these lots have never been landscaped; they were developed before the advent of cut-and-fill and tidy, level building pads. Not only are the lots steep, but they're also small; every square foot counts (and every level square foot counts double).

But where there's dirt there's hope. Stephen Lenci, an environmental designer and developer, fell in love with a house on such a site in 1986. The house, with its Mediterranean-inspired architecture, was irresistible and the view spectacular, but the gardener in him shouted, "Trouble!" Fortunately, this was not his first home on an impossible site; he's had a couple of hillside gardens, and he's learned a few tricks.

He also had seen magnificent terrace gardens on similar sites in Italy, and one in particular, the villa Axel Munthe at Anacapri on the isle of Capri, became his inspiration. Impressed by the use of carefully planted levels, he began to do the same with his Hollywood hillside.

There are now three levels to the garden, hewn from the hill and held in place with retaining walls that correspond to the three stories of the house. The lowest is on street level, where drought-resistant plants fill the beds. Patrick Turnbull and Collie Valadez, landscape designers who had worked with Lenci on a previous residence, helped here as well, choosing an unusually exuberant and eclectic assortment of plants. Graceful fountain grass and kangaroo paws, seemingly always in flower, billow from their perches; geraniums, lantana, ground-hugging rosemary, knotweed and tradescantia drip down the walls.

The next level is above and behind a high wall. It is the most conventionally gardenlike; there's even enough level room for a lawn. Here the small size worked to Lenci's advantage--he was able to plant dichondra, which is difficult to grow in large amounts because it needs lots of water and is bothered by many pests (but seldom needs mowing). Tucked into one corner of this terrace is a small oval spa surrounded by cannas and more kangaroo paws.

From there, steps curve up to the third level, which runs the width of the property, though most of the way it is only about three feet wide. This is a nicely decorated walk, protected by small stuccoed walls on both sides (partially open on one side to expose more of the view and a sense of the precipitous) and arched over with a metal frame that supports grapevines, carefully thinned to cast a scant shadow. Cool and shaded with a commanding view of the "village" below, it is a modern miniature of many 17th-Century walks that cling to the hillsides of Tuscany and Florence.

At one end of this walk, behind the house, there is a small patio paved with Bouquet Canyon stone. A classical lion's-head fountain is set against a wall of local granite blocks. Large pots filled with New Guinea impatiens brighten this shady part of the garden. On a hot summer's day, the shade and the sound of water are as welcome on the south-facing slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains as they are on the scorched hillsides above the Mediterranean.

And, should one find the energy, there is one more tiny, almost hidden stairway that leads a few steps higher, to the very top of the property, with a hammock waiting at the summit. Strung between two old shrubs that have grown to become trees, it has the best view of all, and the respite is welcome.

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