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A Cozy Cabin for Relaxin' on the River

April 02, 2006|Barbara Thornburg | Barbara Thornburg is a senior editor for West.

Denise Domergue doesn't like to fish, but she does love to watch trout dart and hide along the rocky bottom of the Kaweah River in Tulare County. She often makes the five-minute stroll from her home down to the river. All seems right in the world when she's sitting on the bank with her 11-year-old Dalmatian Petie, dipping her feet in the cold mountain water.

If her house guests do happen to be anglers, she certainly doesn't keep them from carrying their rods and tackle boxes down to the river. Lake Kaweah, roughly 10 miles downstream, is rich with largemouth bass, bluegill and catfish, and trout thrive in the cold runoff of the Sierra Nevada snow melt.

A painting conservator whose main residence is in Venice, Domergue bought the board-and-batten house nearly two decades ago, after a friend invited her to visit Three Rivers, population 2,600. She hadn't really wanted to make the trip, but relented, and during an afternoon walk saw a "for sale" sign on a house near the river. She knocked on the door, her 18-month-old son, Axel, in tow. A week later she owned the modest one-bedroom, one-bath home.

"It was fate, I guess," she says. "It's become our second home, the place my son and I have spent nearly every summer and holiday. He's 20 now."

Over the years Domergue has expanded the house, built in the '30s, with the help of Santa Monica architect Roger F. White. She added a pair of bedrooms and a second bath, and erected an outdoor shower under a large pepper tree--especially inviting when summer temperatures hover around 100 degrees.

To accommodate the friends, kids and dogs that visit each summer, she added enclosed sleeping porches and furnished them with four vintage metal beds topped with crazy quilts. Domergue also prefers sleeping out on the porch, where breezes, along with the sounds of the river, pass through screens on hot summer nights.

Her laid-back rooms are filled with a combination of old family furnishings and Visalia flea-market finds. She bought the previous owner's living room sofa and chairs, then promptly slipcovered them, with children and muddy dogs in mind. The family's upright piano sits in the corner, resonant with past holiday carols and children's "Chopsticks." Books and board games are scattered about. The room, fragrant with the smoky aroma of the well-used fireplace, sets the tone for what a second home is all about.

One summer, Domergue asked a local artisan to construct a trellis above the porch outside the kitchen, and she planted it with Carolina jasmine woven with white Christmas lights to form a fragrant, twinkling backdrop for alfresco summer dinners. "It's a nice place to sit in the evening," she says. "The sky is so clear it's easy to pick out constellations, planets . . . falling stars."

Inside the screen door, a '30s kitchen table is surrounded by ladder-back chairs. The white walls are enlivened by guests' paintings. "The house rule," Domergue says, "is that you have to paint something that grows in the area." Artist friends and their children have obliged over the years, chronicling an array of leaves, flowers and pine cones--visible memories better than any wallpaper.

There are no fishing poles leaning against the door frame in Domergue's house, but the river still beckons. Sometimes, when she's standing waist-deep in the water, a trout will brush against her leg. The touch is as light and fleeting as a butterfly's kiss, she says. "It's magic."

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