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A glorious sight unseen

Supporters of Val Verde faced an uphill fight to open the historic Montecito estate to the public. They vow not to let it slip into oblivion.

June 02, 2005|Ann Herold | Times Staff Writer

The perfectly clipped hedges at Montecito's Val Verde estate still bristle with authority, impossibly long lines of them, not a breach in sight. The 110-year-old camellias haven't stirred from their posts beside a reflecting pool, and the citrus trees are still cut into the pleasing cubes that garden designer Lockwood De Forest Jr. envisioned playing off the geometry of the breakthrough 1910 Modernist house.

It's a miracle, really. Of the 1,500 gardens created by De Forest, a celebrity in his own time, this is the only one still in its original form, says Gail Jansen, executive director of the Austin Val Verde Foundation and author of a monograph on De Forest.

What luck that this house and garden, an experiment in Modernism with a nod to the virility of the Romans, had only two full-time owners. How rare in this frenetic culture for a place to exist untouched for almost 100 years. How rare to see something groundbreaking for its time and find it just as relevant today.

Coffee broker and land speculator Henry Dater never lived in the house he commissioned. Val Verde's first real owner and its longtime genie was the free-thinking Wright Ludington. Endowed with several fortunes and mindful that laws in his home state of Pennsylvania outlawed his homosexuality, he thought it best to get away to California. The second owner, Warren Russell Austin, a poor boy who married an heiress, was physician to the Duchess of Windsor and then to Ludington. When Austin acquired the estate, it was as if Ludington's spirit passed into his body.

How else to explain a place where time has stood still? The original black paint on the living room floor, Ludington's idea. The pearly gray walls, a color that architect Bertram Goodhue borrowed from famed architect Irving Gill. The flamboyantly theatrical bathroom with Roman murals painted in 1939 by Oliver Messel, beloved costumer for Beverly Sills and a Tony award-winning designer, that was reviewed in art magazines around the world. Its sensational red canvas drapery still dangles from the ceiling.

But the red drapery that hung in the master bedroom was incinerated when Ludington set fire to the bed in a fit of pique over a lover's transgression. So one thing gone. But the rest is still there, making Val Verde one of the most important period homes and gardens that you may never see.

On the 17 1/2 acres of Val Verde, there are 185 species of plants that are culturally or scientifically significant, Jansen says. The three plum trees from the garden of the shah of Iran. The watercress in the creek exclusive to the royal family that could only have been a gift from the Duke of Windsor. One of the last oak trees of its kind from the Guanajuato region of Mexico.

To De Forest, though, the plants were just plants, props in a grand theatrical scheme. In a break from traditional design, he saw gardens not as places of showy flower beds but as living artworks. Hedges, walls and walkways coerce the visitor to move from one dramatic setting to another: a terrace on which float three reflecting pools; a tree-shaded plaza with a view of two beckoning obelisks; a pastoral pond presided over by a statue of Olympian beauty.

It's from the pond that one gets the biggest visual thrill of all. Where once had been a boring grassy slope, De Forest put in hedge-lined terraces that march the viewer to the house above. It's impossible to resist. Even the woods surrounding the 8 1/2 acres of formal gardens get into the act. De Forest sited many of the trees so that they would act as picture frames for distant vistas.

From 1924 until his death in 1949, De Forest added and subtracted from this living canvas, starting with the communally spirited "plaza," with its Spanish fountain in 1925. He erected the soaring, Hadrian-esque pillars off the original entryway in the 1930s; planted the four towering palm trees in the outdoor atrium and encircled them with glittering tiles from AD 300 in the mid-'30s; laid a pebble floor in the pattern of an eight-pointed star -- rich in religious significance -- in the circular "conversation area" in the 1940s. No wonder the garden would be designated a national treasure by the American Society of Landscape Architects and a national, state and county landmark.

De Forest was a master player in a golden age of villa architecture in Montecito, says Noel Vernon, associate dean of Cal Poly Pomona's College of Environmental Design. In the hands of De Forest, a garden retained a sense of luxury but with a pared-down simplicity that was new and bold. He embraced the climate while recognizing its limitations: a delicate use of water.

Although De Forest would show off his genius at three other renowned Montecito gardens -- Casa Bienvenida, Constantia and Casa del Herrero -- it was at Val Verde where he was his warmest and most personal, says Vernon.

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