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Beverly Hills, con brio

After years of disrepair, the Italian terrace at the Virginia Robinson Gardens once again is thriving, with Mediterranean flora and architectural ornaments.

November 20, 2003|Todd Henneman | Special to The Times

The scene is pure Italy, the setting pure Beverly Hills. Amid six acres once owned by a department store heir, a Renaissance garden has been reborn.

The restoration of the Italian terrace, one of five areas of the Virginia Robinson Gardens, is about 80% complete. The grounds surround the mansion built after Virginia and Henry Winchester Robinson, heir to the J.W. Robinson stores, married in 1903.

For 66 years, Virginia Robinson oversaw all five areas: the Mall, an English garden; the Tropical Palm Garden, the largest collection of Australian king palms in the continental U.S.; the Rose Garden; the Kitchen Garden; and the Italian Terrace Garden, inspired by the Villa Pisani.

After Virginia Robinson died in 1977, bequeathing the estate to Los Angeles County, it fell into disrepair. Wind-blown and bird-carried seeds intruded on the original design of the Italian garden, which gradually succumbed to opportunistic plants. "It was on the verge of being lost," said gardens superintendent Timothy Lindsay. "The original design was being completely overgrown."

Today, Madonna lilies blossom and olive trees, citrus and pomegranate hedges thrive. A symphony emanates from the garden's elegant "musical staircase" of pipes, cut lengthwise, that cause the sound to change as water courses down.

Visitors can credit the Friends of Robinson Gardens, formed in 1983, which has raised more than $3 million for the preservation of the estate, including a restoration of the Italian garden that began in 1997. The musical staircase was re-created, opportunistic plants were replaced with Mediterranean flora, and elaborately decorated but earthquake-damaged urns were returned to their rightful place.

Though structural repairs will continue until 2006, renovations on all parts of the Italian garden on the public tour will be completed next year. This little-known oasis has become a fine reference for anyone designing an Italianate garden. It captures the basic principles that define a Renaissance garden: symmetry, water, architectural ornaments and paterres, flat spaces carved in the hillside.

Though Robinson planted bluebells, dianella, agapanthus and other blue-flowering plants, one of the quintessential colors of the Renaissance, she also incorporated her favorite color -- pink -- with the camellia japonica.

Other whimsical additions in Robinson's Italian garden include the grave of her French poodle, Bravo, and dozens of azaleas, more often associated with Asian gardens.

For her 90th birthday, Robinson had asked her guests to bring gifts that cost less than $1. Her friends each brought a one-gallon-pot azalea, many of which remain -- fitting, because Robinson's gardens live on as her gift to Southern California.

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The Virginia Robinson Gardens are open for tours Tuesdays through Fridays. Reservations are required. For information, call (310) 276-5367 or go to the Web site, parks.co.la.ca.us/virginia_gardens .html.

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