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SOCAL STYLE / Gardens

Rooms for More

A sweeping renovation indoors and out expands the possibilities for living under the open sky

October 25, 1998|Susan Heeger

Like many a small garden on the west side of Los Angeles, the one owned by John and Marilyn Wells must serve many functions. It both shows off and secludes their 1920s Spanish-style house, a beauty designed and once owned by architect John Byers. It expands the house, adding an open-air kitchen, dining and living rooms. It offers peace--trees and trellises for shade, fountains that muffle traffic noise--and it stimulates the senses. All of which makes it seem much larger than it is: 100 by 168 feet.

Yet in 1996, when the Wellses moved in, their house and garden seemed cramped. Decades of renovations had left interior rooms partitioned and reconfigured, and large amenities had eaten into garden space. A swimming pool and trampoline all but filled the backyard, while a tiered fountain dominated an elegant entry court. In addition, plant-ings were dull and overdone, especially in front, where birches, tree ferns and palms jostled each other over beds of impatiens.

Right away, the couple hired Beverly Hills-based Tichenor & Thorp Architects to help them return to the simple architecture of the house and open up its rooms to the outdoors. "We began with a total interior remodel, updating the house and restoring its character, redoing major rooms like the kitchen, reworking fireplaces and other details," recalls Brian Tichenor.

Outside, the designers filled in the swimming pool and recast the landscape into what Tichenor calls "a series of linked experiences with different flavors." A lawn carpet edged with flower borders and built-in benches replaced the pool, a wall fountain replaced the tiered courtyard giant, and a pondlike spa, surrounded by low walls, took the trampoline's spot. Other stucco walls and stone paths gave the garden its shape, and new details, such as an outdoor fireplace, pergola and paved terrace, defined the outdoor spaces.

John Wells, executive producer of the television series "ER" and "Trinity," requested a lath house for his collection of orchids. His wife, Marilyn Turnage Wells, a psychologist, asked for masses of flowers, primarily roses, to cut and to enjoy outside. Both of them, Tichenor says, were "very adventurous and open to interesting plants." Accordingly, he brought them books, photos and even bouquets to help with plant choices. He painted sample watercolors as they developed the color palette--a subtle blend of blues, oranges, ochres and bronzes inspired primarily by the home's roof tiles, two-toned stucco walls and existing eucalyptus trees.

Just as compelling as its bold hues is the garden's textural mix. In the front borders, for example, agaves, euphorbias, convolvulus, sedums and bronze flaxes grow in close proximity, recalling the loose yet controlled plantings of early California landscape architects such as Lockwood de Forest. In the back, like musical themes, some of the same plants repeat, along with additions and variations. In one vignette, tall bearded irises, enclosed by myrtle hedges, gather around a birdbath. In another, scarlet Kalanchoe mirabella and an unusual yellow alyssum add excitement to a formal fountain.

Of the overall plan and its execution, Tichenor says: "We tried to deepen the space by adding layers against the edge and by making it habitable all over. If you have a lot of places to go--to sit in and wander through--the smallest garden can be completely satisfying."

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