When Don Sciore set out to replicate the worn redwood planter in front of his mid-century South Pasadena home, he had plenty of inspiration.
First off, Sciore, 41, who teaches film animation at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, had the home's original architectural blueprints. Made mostly of redwood and glass, the house was the creation of architect Jean Roth Driskel, who designed and built it for her family between 1948 and 1951.
Driskel was president of the Pasadena chapter of the American Institute of Architects, became a fellow at the institute and was a charter member of South Pasadena Beautiful.
The plans showed that the tiered redwood planter was an essential part of the home's design, its planks woven into a dozen redwood-faced concrete steps leading from street level up to the front door.
Sciore was also inspired by Driskel's son, Dana Driskel, who grew up in the house and teaches film and animation at UC Santa Barbara. Sciore found Dana Driskel through an Internet search and invited him and his family to visit the house. Once there, Driskel shared old family photos taken in and around the house.
And finally, Sciore figures he was guided by the spirit of Jean herself, who died in 1971.
"I think she's still hanging out," he says with a smile. "I consult her."
The planter was not a concern when Sciore bought the house in March 1999 after an extensive search for a home "with some personality." His first priorities were to replace a block wall in the backyard, and to redo the home's antiquated plumbing.
"I didn't pay any attention to what was here," he says of the planter area, and old photos reveal why. Designed to be a cascading showcase for annuals and small perennials, the planter had become shaded and overwhelmed by a giant rubber tree that dominated the top tier. The tree's branches hung over the roof and into the neighbor's yard. Its roots pushed into the home's foundation and into the planter area.
Sciore didn't notice any of this until one day when he bought a flat of impatiens to liven up the planter. As soon as he dug in, a couple of the tiers started to collapse, weakened as they were by the tree roots, termites and time.
"OK," he told himself, "here's my next project."
Three months of work and $2,400 later, the job was complete.
The first step was taking out the tree, which took three weeks of cutting, chopping and stump grinding.
In tree-loving South Pasadena, taking out a tree is a big deal. A friend tipped Sciore off that he needed to apply for a permit and pay a fee before removing the tree.
"A lot of eyebrows went up," Sciore says of his neighbors, who he later learned had checked to make sure he had the proper permit. Even so, they were dismayed to watch the tree and the planter disappear, leaving a ragged dirt wound in their wake.
Sciore was also distressed to take out the tree and chop up its roots.
"That hurt," he admits. "It was a beautiful tree. But it was either that or the side of the house."
Once the area was clear, Sciore set stakes and yellow string to identify where the new planter would go. And he asked the Gas Co. to mark the exact location of the gas line that ran through the space.
While he was adamant about re-creating the planter as Jean Driskel had intended (albeit stronger), her son explained that his mother, a professional dynamo in an era of housewives, liked change and often altered the house.
"Don't be afraid to make changes," he told Sciore.
A large stack of 2-by-8 redwood planks was delivered to the house by a lumberyard, and Sciore bought the other materials as the job progressed.
"It was a million trips to Home Depot," he recalls. "Ten trips a day." Before the planter could be rebuilt, the steps themselves needed upgrading. The rough-cut redwood planks on the face of the concrete steps were worn and frayed after 50 years of feet treading up and down. To attach the new planking, Sciore used expansion bolts installed with a hammer-drill.
Next, the five-tiered planter. On the left side, it would anchor to the steps, and on the right to a series of galvanized pipes set in concrete.
In Jean Driskel's original structure, the corners of the tiers were tied to redwood posts, but Sciore opted for a stronger solution. On the downside, attaching the planks to the pipes with lag bolts required hours of drilling.
"I have 100 dull 3/8-inch drill bits," Sciore says.
After the planter was built, Sciore installed sand in each tier and created French drains so the water would drain down the slope under the planter, rather than spilling over the top. Over the sand he poured "bags and bags and bags" of Supersoil.
When time came to add greenery, Sciore made careful selections. To replace the rubber tree, he chose a coral tree, which the nursery assured him had shallow roots. For the tiers, he chose a lively combination of mondo grass (which Jean had chosen decades ago), heather, lilies, geranium, alyssum, society garlic and other flora.
"It turned out better than I thought it would," Sciore says. "I'm so pleased and so were the neighbors."
Indeed, Sciore enjoyed building the planter so much he is hoping to hire out his carpentry skills during his summer break from teaching.
While Sciore is onto his next home-improvement project (unearthing an amphitheater Jean had built in the backyard, which another owner had covered with a deck), he expects to enjoy his new planter for decades to come.
"Jean got 50 years (out of her planter)," Sciore says, "and I want 50 years."
Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 11 years. If you have a question for the homeowner about this remodel, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Source Book Project: Rebuild five-tiered redwood planter in front of a house in South Pasadena.
Designer: Jean Roth Driskel, FAIA (1915-71)
Builder/homeowner: Don Sciore, (323) 255-9263
Duration: 3 months