Unearthing a Neglected Gem

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

The big old Spanish-style house on top of the hill in the View Park area of the Baldwin Hills was once home to a Peruvian consul, according to neighborhood lore. The story goes that in 1929 he named the Villa Marcela after his daughter, proudly spelling her name out over the tiled entry in wrought-iron script.

But neither the iron writing nor the tiles were visible to Deborah and Terry Hayes when they bought the house in 1995. A dense, dark tangle of vegetation--including a row of pines planted way too close together--completely covered the lettering. "The day escrow ended, out came the pines," said Terry, who owns an urban planning firm in Culver City.

For Terry, Deborah and their 12-year-old daughter, Alana, the refurbishing of the hilltop home and garden has been a series of surprising discoveries, like an archeological dig. Their adventure began with finding the handmade entry tiles hidden under flagstone. Terry was looking at the edge of the front porch one day and noticed that there were several layers of grout and "wondered what was sandwiched in between." When he broke off a chunk to investigate, there were the colorful California tiles. "Can you imagine covering these up," asked Deborah, a clinical social worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At some point the house had been "modernized" and many of the original features were covered up or removed. Then the property was neglected for years. "It was the haunted mansion on the hill," said Deborah. When the Hayes family moved in, the dark, rundown home bore little resemblance to the sparkling, light-filled home with its bright bougainvillea-filled garden that was a star attraction on a recent area garden tour.

The old garden was uncared for, untrimmed and filled with junk ... literally. The previous owner had been a junk dealer. The Hayeses filled eight full-size, roll-off rubbish containers before they could begin on the house or garden.

But they did manage to save, restore or salvage every historical bit of the old house and garden. Inside, they carefully repainted all the faux-tile concrete floors and faux-stone plaster walls. They put in a new leaded glass window with iridescent panes, where one had been replaced with a single pane of plate glass that didn't go with the hand-crafted character of the house.

Outdoors, when they took down the short iron fence across the front yard, they found a place for it as a handrail at the edge of a tall retaining wall in back. Old window grills were reused as gates and even a figurine in a fountain, missing both legs, was carefully rebuilt by Terry.

Another surprising discovery was the original garage facade of arched doorways, hidden behind a wall. "We noticed right away that something was not right with the garage," said Terry. "It just didn't go with the rest of the house," and, sure enough, when they started exploring, they found that a layer had been added to the front to make the garage about 18 inches deeper, "probably so some car's tailfins would fit inside," joked Terry, who loves old cars.

The slightly smaller size of the restored garage with its elegant arched doorways is no problem for the Hayes since the only car they keep inside is a classic little Morris Mini Cooper S that is barely 10 feet long. Their big SUV and other cars are parked outside in a modern motor court beside the garage, hidden behind a tall stucco wall.

A mural by one of Terry's oldest childhood friends, Art William, hangs on the wall outside the garage. Along the new wall fronting the street, Deborah planted a bold, graphic garden of cactus and succulents and other tough plants such as bougainvillea, thorny silk floss tree, verbena, blue fescue grass and Australian rosemary. Many of the plants began as cuttings or seedlings from the gardens of friends and family.

A giant agave, which marks the entry to the garden, came from Terry's mother's garden; the tall silk floss tree was a seedling from Deborah's brother's yard. "I love the idea of passing plants along," so they have history and meaning, she told me.

Even the rocks that outline the beds came from friends. A wide band of river rock cuts though part of the front garden like a summer-dry stream. It even runs downhill like a stream should. Deborah has cleverly mounded the soil in these narrow beds so that the plants farthest from the sidewalk seem to be standing on bleachers of dirt, posing for their class portrait. This really shows off the plants and makes the beds seem bigger than they are.

"It's a pretty eclectic mix out here," she admits, but the plants were all chosen because they are easy to maintain. She wanted the front garden to look "clipped and simple."

Terry sketched what the backyard would look like from an upstairs window. He designed it so there are lots of little places "where I can hide," with paths winding though the garden to connect them all. Each little alcove in the garden has a place to sit with a good book. One even has a little fireplace for those chilly days. Being able to hide out is an idea any owner of a small business should appreciate.

From the upstairs window Hayes tried to figure out what was missing from the original garden. For instance, there was a gate that led nowhere. Step through it and you'd fall 12 feet. He figures there must have been a wooden stairway there at one time. They decided not to replace that, but came up with another, more graceful way down into the sloping backyard, which is built on several terraces.

Then there was the fountain, with no legs, on the upper terrace. The ghostly concrete lady (the Hayeses call her Marcela) was still standing but on rusted stubs of rebar, her plumbing gone. Terry managed to model new legs and get the water flowing, but the pond had problems as well.

Built of a kind of lava rock that was popular in the 1920s, the pond was slowly becoming buried like the town of Pompeii and no longer held water. Rather than replace it, the Hayeses fixed the bottom, then scoured rock yards and found look-alike lava, which they added to the rim so that the pond would again hold water.

They added aquatic plants and koi, surrounding the old rock pond with tropicals, including bamboo, bananas, gingers and elephant ears. These were very trendy plants in the '20s, so they look right at home behind the Hayes' 1929 villa.

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