ESTATE OF GRACE : Val Verde, Garden Designer Lockwood De Forest's Masterpiece, Is Looking Even Better With Age

GIVEN THE RAVAGES OF TIME AND OWNERSHIP, many of Montecito's great estate gardens, most built in the early part of the century, survive only as stunning fragments. Not so Val Verde, home of Dr. Warren Austin, who began restoring the 17-acre grounds 40 years ago and has maintained them ever since. The oaks are taller now, the walls and paths weathered to an elegant patina. But box hedges still run in waste-high tunnels along the terraces, and masses of plants frame reflecting pools with graceful simplicity.

Everywhere, architectural details offer surprise and mystery. Among these are an allee of handsome columns that support nothing but the sky, two circular garden rooms, each containing a single stately urn, and a curving wall embedded with Roman and Byzatine reliefs. Austin and his nonprofit Val Verde Estate Foundation, are hoping to open the grounds to the public sometime next year on a limited, reservations-only basis. "I've never felt this place was mine," says Austin, who purchased the estate in 1956. "I'm just the keeper of the treasure."

Built from 1915-1918, Val Verde's unadorned, Mediterranean-feeling house was the work of architect Bertram Goodhue, who also laid out the grounds. Landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams added a tropical garden rife with palms that still thrive on parts of the of the property. Then Lockwood de Forest, perhaps the most gifted local garden-maker of his time, arrived on the scene. De Forest, working with close friend Wright Ludington, who owned Val Verde from the late 1920s until the mid-'50s, incorporated and revised what he found, adding stairways, hedges, garden rooms and reflecting pools. In addition to paring down some of the growth and revamping the garden's terraces, he integrated the landscape with its natural setting, opening up mountain and ocean views and planting native oaks. He also made inspired use of Ludington's collection of classical sculpture, placing pieces in outdoor rooms and pools and on terraces. Architectural historian Gail Jansen, who is writing a series of monographs on Val Verde, emphasizes that the garden's brilliance resulted from "an accumulation of ideas, not an eradication of what went before."

Austin, now 84 and retired, was once a prominent internist whose patients included opera singer Ganna Walska, owner of Lotusland. He first visited Val Verde in 1948 on a medical call. Ludington, wanting his doctor close, rented him a cottage on the property. After Austin bought the estate, he made few changes beyond cleaning up the overgrown gardens, which had been neglected.

Living at Val Verde with his wife, heiress Bunny Horton, who died in 1991, and their daughter, Dorothy, was "quite heavenly," Austin says. "In spite of its grandeur, it has a lot of secret places, little getaways." He adds that "if I don't know what a plant is, I give it a medical name: 'cirrhosis,' or 'chronic cystitis.' " Dorothy Austin remembers building forts in the garden's Morton Bay fig trees and spending days in "mysterious and changing forests." The estate, she says, was the "magic world" of her childhood. "It represents a way of life that's gone, a memory that my father and I want to share. It's not about aristocracy and wealth, it's about beauty."

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