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The Eye by Barbara King

The Sierra salon

This unlikely spot, a remote hamlet in the foothills, has become a magnet for some of L.A.'s most prominent designers, writers, architects and artists. Just one day there, and you'll know why.

September 11, 2003|Barbara King

Could it have been any more appealing than this? "Dahling, do go and have a little nap after your massage. And when you wake up, doesn't matter when, come down and sit in the creek."

I opened the screen door of the guest cabin and thought how right "Darling" sounds when it's spoken with a posh English accent, but how charmingly discrepant that accent seemed out here in cowboy country. Except that Londoner and Angeleno Jenny Armit herself is right at home in this town called Three Rivers and wants everyone who visits her at her weekend house to feel right at home, too. And inevitably they do. They really do. Any number of them start looking to purchase their own property somewhere nearby in the southern Sierra, and more than a few of them are seeing it through.

I was still too mentally mushed up to think about Central California real estate. A local masseuse with inordinately powerful hands had set up her table in the sedating, dark gray cocoon of the library and gone to work on my uptight city muscles, just as she was about to do with Jenny's three other house guests. Fresh white terrycloth robes were laid out for the four of us. I didn't even pause to take mine off before falling down in a profound sleep under the mosquito net. That, too, happens to just about everyone who makes the three-hour drive from L.A. to this peaceful wonderment of a place -- that first-day, coma-like crash onto beds, sofas, chaises, hammocks, soft green grass.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Battle Mountain Ranch -- A caption accompanying a story in Thursday's Home section about Three Rivers, Calif., incorrectly stated that the Battle Mountain Ranch is in Three Rivers. It is in Springville. Another caption said that a sofa in the ranch's bunkhouse was by L.A. designer Gregory Evans. Evans designed the sofa's fabric.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Battle Mountain Ranch -- A caption accompanying a story last Thursday about Three Rivers, Calif., incorrectly stated that the Battle Mountain Ranch is in Three Rivers. It is in Springville. Another caption said that a sofa in the ranch's bunkhouse was by L.A. designer Gregory Evans. Evans designed the sofa's fabric.

Clean air, farm-fresh food, a classic babbling creek and a hostess who knows enough to create a kick-back country place made for plopping your feet on the furniture (groovy designer furniture, at that) and not moving an inch if you don't want to. Which I didn't for the rest of the day and on into early evening. I doubt that 4 1/2 hours qualifies as a nap in the lexicon of any language, and it probably would have lasted on into tomorrow had I not been roused by the shenanigans of Otis the dog and the arrival of friends from the local community stirring up dust and commotion.

Jenny is an interior designer with bedazzling international credentials who has been making a big splash in L.A. since she moved here four years ago, and whose keen color sense and style -- "decorative eclectic," as she offhandedly referred to it when pressed -- I greatly appreciated. As soon as she invited me to the simple frame house in Three Rivers that I'd seen featured a while back in Elle Decor, I accepted, with curiosity and gratitude. I was intrigued not only with her decorative eclecticism but with this remote area of the state in the foothills of the mountains and on the edge of Sequoia National Park. How piquant that Jenny Armit, a sophisticated world traveler who grew up between Ireland and England, lived in an old palace in Spain, spent years going back and forth to Sri Lanka, designed interiors for lords and ladies ("but hip society, dahling, not the swag and chintz set," she clarified) had chosen this rural backwater southeast of Fresno to build what she calls her "country house" seven years ago, before she had even moved to the States.

It all began with a man named Jeremy Railton. In the mid-'80s, Jeremy, a production designer and art director for film, TV and stage, drove up to see Sequoia park, looked around the area, and thought: ideal. He'd been searching for an affordable place to buy land and build a second home, and here, unexpectedly, was a landscape so beautiful he knew he needn't search further. He promptly bought 10 acres. Jeremy and his close friend Anjelica Huston, whom he'd met at her mother's house in London when she was 16 and he was just out of art school, had made a promise that one day they would own land together. And so, over the years, they have bought a total of 160 adjoining acres, with farmhouses in sight of each other.

Jenny, too, knew Anjelica and Jeremy from London. Because she was "the best of British," as Jeremy describes her talents, he hired her to work with him at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he was designing the AT&T Pavilion. And then when Jenny visited Anjelica at Three Rivers in spring seven years ago, the Sierra and Sequoia spell overcame her: She bought a small plot of land with two old cabins on it, without ever entering the cabins. "I fell in love with the location," she said, and a good thing that was enough, because the main house was unlivable. "I mean, pieces of the ceiling would come off and two tons of stored acorns would fall through," Jenny said.

Two and a half years ago, she built a new one, in keeping with the vernacular of the old house. And in and out of that house go a steady stream of visitors who, in their city lives, produce, direct, act, write, design, teach, paint, play music, practice medicine, and who, in their Three Rivers interlude, do nothing.

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