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French With A Twist

Jewel Box Beds and Lollipop Trees Grace a Beverly Hills Vision of Versailles

August 18, 1996|SUSAN HEEGER

In these days of low-maintenance landscaping, a formal garden might seem like a throwback to 17th century France, when people of means gazed out their chateau windows on elaborately patterned gardens called parterres. But for Fabienne Guerin, who grew up on a flower plantation in the South of France, the tidy geometry of a parterre is a reminder of her roots and childhood visits to great estates like Versailles. She missed clipped box hedges so much that, 5 1/2 years ago, when her new house was still under construction, she asked landscape designer Arnold Soe to plant a parterre on the two-acre lot in Beverly Hills. Remembers Guerin: "I pictured hedges, sculpted trees and lots of color in compartments."

Soe, a Danish-born designer who has laid out gardens in Los Angeles for 50 years, studied Guerin's books on French gardens and built exactly what she wanted: curving beds stuffed with primrose, tea trees pruned into lollipops and perfect walks winding through them all. There's even a custom filigreed gazebo where you can sip lemonade and survey the view. "It's not modeled on a certain landscape, but on a feeling," says Soe, who chalked out the 40-by-90-foot garden on bare dirt even before Guerin's house was finished.

The house on the former Charles Boyer estate is Mediterranean in style, which Guerin and her husband, J.P., thought suited California. But Soe's oh-so-French parterre isn't visible from the building's windows, which face casual terraces and lawns. "In any landscape," Soe explains, "there should be built-in surprises. You shouldn't see it all at once."

Which means unexpected delights abound. The splashing "fountain" at the parterre's heart is a spill of flowers in a copper bowl. A real fountain, tucked away in a garden below, provides the sound of water. Two large urns brought from the Guerins' old garden sit in their own compartments, like relics from ancient history. Between the urns, in the logical spot for an ornate bench, is a wooden seat on wagon wheels.

"Coming here is like discovering a magic pocket," says Guerin, who has already hosted four baptisms and a wedding under the garden's entry arch. For those occasions and in between, Soe fills her parterre's jewel box beds with summer begonias, fall bulbs, winter cyclamen and spring tulips, all in Guerin's favorite shades of home.

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