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Their fields of vision

For farmer-turned-developer Henry Segerstrom and his wife, Elizabeth, cultural movers in Orange County, home is a vast play of art and light on Balboa Peninsula.

December 14, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

HENRY SEGERSTROM dreams big. He always has. When the real estate developer thought about creating a shopping center in Orange County in the 1960s, he created South Coast Plaza. When he wanted to bring art and culture to the region, he and his family gave money and land to establish the Orange County Performing Arts Center, relocate the South Coast Repertory Theater and open a new concert hall this fall bearing the Segerstrom name.

So when it came time to build his own home in the 1980s, he wasn't about to scale back. Yet in Segerstrom's case, ambition means more than pulling out a fat checkbook -- which is saying a lot for one of the richest men in Orange County. It also means perseverance and over-the-fence diplomacy.

In the pantheon of Orange County multimillionaires, Henry Segerstrom is different. He didn't (quite) inherit his wealth like Irvine Ranch's Joan Irvine Smith or O'Neill Ranch's Richard O'Neill, and he isn't (quite) as ostentatious as Irvine Co.'s Donald Bren. The Segerstrom family, after all, got its start farming lima beans, and old habits are hard to lose.

Like the habit of patience. Segerstrom will wait out anyone to get what he wants. It's something he learned from his grandfather, Charles John, who first farmed the fabled bean on 20 leased acres in 1898 and over the years acquired more property for more fields and dairy farms.

So it should come as no surprise that Segerstrom, who changed his family business from agriculture to real estate development in the 1950s, applied the same strategy when it came to amassing six contiguous lots for his private residence on Balboa Peninsula. Nor should it surprise that in spite of its size -- 7,250 square feet -- and its illustrious artwork -- a Henry Moore here, a Milton Avery there, an 18th century Venetian angel -- that there is still a certain down-to-earth modesty in its conspicuously material ambition.

For its architect, James LeNeve, it was an aesthetic that was easy to pull off, and for Segerstrom and his wife, Elizabeth, it seems almost second nature.

"To Elizabeth and me, this house relates to our appreciation of living in Orange County," he says.

Henry Segerstrom is hardly a simple man. You don't get where he is in life at the age of 83 on simplicity. So perhaps it makes sense that when it was time to build his palace on Balboa Peninsula, he aspired for just that -- simplicity.

With its white facade, its sandy beach, clean lines and gardens, the residence looks something like a cross between an ocean liner and a Mediterranean villa. Step inside and you will find an open floor plan. No walls separate the dining room from the sitting area or the seating around the fireplace. Twin Matisses hang on either side of the mantel but are overpowered by the view of the bay.

To reach the water, Segerstrom steps through glass doors that have screens of welded metal and melted glass by Abstract Expressionist Claire Falkenstein. He strides across a large patio he designed and had plated in the same Arizona sandstone that artist Isamu Noguchi used for a public garden in Costa Mesa. Across the water, a sailboat glides by.

"This is the reason I'm here," he says.

Segerstrom bought the first lot in 1962 from the granddaughter of Andrew Carnegie, and he and his family divided their time between their homes in north Santa Ana and on Balboa Peninsula. Back then, lots on this coveted piece of real estate were passed on from one generation to the next and rarely sold. One lot he eventually bought was owned by a family for 40 years; another he bought from a family that had owned it for 70 years.

Over two decades, he acquired his lots by talking to the owners, then waiting until they were ready to sell. By the mid-1980s, he had six lots, two facing the bay and extending back 85 feet to a narrow alley and four on the other side of the alley, stretching to one of the peninsula's main streets.

It was time to build.

Segerstrom wanted the design to fit the land. To give him privacy. To unwind in at the end of the day.

"This is the home we like to come home to," he says, sitting on a chenille sofa with his third wife, Elizabeth, 52. He still goes to work each day to Costa Mesa next to the family's original farmhouse. "We like it serene, surrounded by nature."

When asked about the design, he recounts a trip that he and his friend Noguchi took to the Salk Institute in La Jolla. They were both mesmerized by the work of Modernist Luis Barragan, who collaborated with Louis Kahn to create the incandescent space stretching between the buildings. It was enough to warrant a trip to Mexico.

With architect LeNeve, who had worked on many of South Coast Plaza's stores, Segerstrom and his then-wife, Renee, flew to Mexico City to meet with Barragan. Although too ill to take on the project, the master of color and light instructed his assistant to give them a tour of his work.

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