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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Finding his own Fantasyland

In a landscape created by a Disney theme-park mastermind, perspective is forced, whimsy runs rampant and there's a lagoon in the frontyard. Current owner Gregg Nestor wouldn't have it any other way.

October 13, 2005|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

FRED JOERGER loved to bring his work home with him -- as friends who visited his Lakeview Terrace property were quick to appreciate. When the front door of the spare wood-frame house opened, they found themselves looking down the living room toward a brilliant vista. Beyond the rear glass wall, tiers of aquamarine pools, the nearest presided over by a man-size statue of Neptune, receded into a long allee of towering cypress. The view was so intense they could almost hear the falling water. No, wait. That sound was real, coming from the fountain concealed in the wall of natural rock just off the entry.

It was the carefully constructed vista that was not quite what it seemed. Joerger, who died in August at 91, was a master model maker. As one of the original theme-park designers, or Imagineers, whom Walt Disney hired in 1953, Joerger gave three-dimensional shape to a now familiar Southern California landscape: Disneyland's Main Street and Sleeping Beauty's Castle were built from his models, and he supervised construction of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. In the process he became known as the go-to guy for rock and water effects as well as a master of benign illusion.

As a present-day visitor to Lakeview Terrace is startled to discover, that long allee beyond Joerger's former living room is actually a short hillside. The flanking hedges, though sheared to a uniform shape, descend in height as they ascend the hill, leading the eye to judge the distance much greater than it is. Close up, the statue of Neptune, portrayed as a saucer-eyed, mildly salacious figure of fun, is only shoulder high.

This eye-tricking technique, known as forced perspective, was one Joerger exploited brilliantly at Disneyland. Gregg Nestor, the current owner of Joerger's house, explains: "That was the whole great technique in Main Street. The castle is only about 50 feet high." It seems much larger as you approach because the buildings along the street are scaled down. The effect also works in reverse, he notes. "As you leave, you'll see Main Street doesn't feel as far to walk, so it moves you psychologically out of the park faster."

Nestor, a musician who prepares scores for films, including Disney's, bought the half-acre property, which he calls Villa di Fontani, or Fountain House, in 1997. By that time, Joerger's personal Fantasyland had grown to include a willow-shrouded lagoon in the front yard, a second forced-perspective garden off the glass-walled bathroom, and a dining-room ceiling painted with carousing nymphs and satyrs courtesy of Tyrus Wong, a fellow Disney artist who designed Bambi's forest.

Earthquakes had disrupted the gravity flow of the long entryway fountain, and much of the shrubbery was overgrown, but Nestor knew he was looking at a slice of midcentury history. Part curator and part fellow-fantasist, he has spent the succeeding years preserving Joerger's creations while finding places to inject his own perspective. It's not always easy to tell the two apart.

From the moment the tall entry gates appear -- their rustic wood posts topped with braziers painted in a wobbly Greek key pattern -- it's clear that in this landscape, design idiom, like distances, will be playfully stretched and tilted. The path to the house seems to wind between several worlds. On one side is a two-tiered rectangular pool, its nearly 50-foot length home to a dozen spouting fish. These suggest 18th century Europe with an assist from the China trade. (Joerger found the molds when he worked at Warner Bros.; they'd been used in the period film "Anthony Adverse.") Opposite is a waterside garden with an Asian feel. Low groundcover -- Nestor is experimenting with a mossy green Sedum angelicum -- sets off an ancient juniper, part of the original landscaping now expertly pruned, a gnarled tree wisteria, and several specimen boulders. Despite Joerger's facility with molded rocks, Nestor says, these are the 1,400-pound real thing. He had them brought in by crane and shaped in situ. Not all artifice has been banished. Just past the juniper, an urn (souvenir of the Jungle Cruise) serves as backdrop to foot-high carvings of instrument-toting frogs. Nestor, a classical guitarist, refers to it as his Froggywood Bowl.

All of this is just a slow setup for the front garden's main feature, a 16,000-gallon lagoon. Here Joerger's Pirates of the Caribbean dreamscape has undergone subtle refurbishing. Nestor has replaced the central overgrown island with a circular redwood dock, the hand-framed French curves of its railings wide enough to serve as seating for about 20 guests. Water splashes into the pool from a 12-foot fall, partially hidden by trees and jungle leaves. (Though venerable-looking, it's a new addition.) At night a misting system sends up a dreamy blue-lighted fog, and tiny black boxes dangling from the overhanging branches create -- thanks to LED lights and the random spinning of a motorized computer fan -- the illusion of fireflies.

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