A flair for the tropics

Take a 1928 house, lift its lines into the next century, slap it with color and surround it with palms. Voila, it's South Florida in West Hollywood, Modernism in the tropics. Owner Steve Isaacman, a psychotherapist, is so enamored of palms that he drove a rare pritchardia palm all the way from San Diego in his Honda, its head poking out his window.

"I love the tropics but I like to keep things simple," he says. Isaacman bought the English-style cottage on a small 45-by-130-foot lot in 1993. Painted white, with bleached floors and little but grass in the way of garden, it was an ideal canvas for his island vision. "I wanted light, lots of light," he says. "Skylights. High ceilings. Less of a line between indoors and out. And I wanted privacy without having to pull shades."

His glass-walled kitchen overlooks a pool backed by a grove of palms. The French doors to his bedroom open to a Jacuzzi and a bench shaded by red bananas. At the lot's edges, cycads, crotons, tupidanthus and palms such as cabada, pritchardia and traveler's provide a screen from neighboring apartment buildings.

Years ago, as a child on a family vacation, he was smitten by South Florida's landscape. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he swore that some day he'd live there. Eventually, he did, spending five years in a Ft. Lauderdale apartment before moving to Los Angeles, where he found a similar quality of light and an equally broad plant palette. Having only gardened in the Northeast, he couldn't wait to grow here what he never could there.

Landscape designer Dennis Stevens of Sunset-Plaza-based Garden Style helped Isaacman set the stage by ripping out lawn and planting scrims of palms, giant birds of paradise and timber bamboo. Soon afterward, Godfredsen Sigal Architects of Venice went to work on the house, enlarging and recasting the master bedroom, adding a bath, a cantilevered carport and a storage shed that blocks views of neighboring apartments. They used a Carribean-style palette of reds and yellows outside and shades of green and blue inside. After Isaacman added the lap pool and raised spa, the architects turned the dark, closed kitchen into an airy space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a garden view.

Outside, Isaacman put in more plants, including hard-to-find cycads, purple plectranthus, Hawaiian ti plants, asparagus and mother ferns. "If I had the money, I might add ground heaters and grow coco palms," he says. "I've heard you can do that."

Every month he feeds the trees with food that is formulated for palms and intermittently sprays foliage with fish emulsion. "I let a lot of leaves fall, and they build up like the ground in a forest, the decomposing layers creating fertile soil for other plants," he says.

He spends a lot of time in the garden--sitting, swimming and entertaining--and he uses its palms as a frequent metaphor in his work. "The palm grows slowly," he says. "For a long time, nothing seems to happen. Nothing at all you can see. Then one day, you look out and there's a new leaf."


Resource Guide

GARDENS, Pages 26-29: Dennis Stevens, Garden Style, West Hollywood, (323) 654-0425; Godfredsen Sigal Architects, Venice, (310) 664-0302.

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