Their fields of vision

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.

"We both liked Barragan's style and flare," says LeNeve, who has since retired to San Miguel de Allende. "A lot of things have been published of his but most of it is his more dramatic work. Many of his projects were small. When we went down there and looked, we saw so many different ideas, such as windows that shelter you and still maintain light. Even though Barragan was not involved, his was an image we admired."

The blue, gold and orange ochre they saw there would inspire some of the shades in the Segerstrom home. And the pool, decorative cut-out walls and lattice wooden gates are right out of Barragan's design book.

But the greatest challenge was to unify the lots, especially where the alley cut through them with the residence in the front and the pool and garden in the back. A few architectural tricks make the parcels appear seamless.

Both properties have white stucco walls, some more than 30 feet high, and the portion of the alley between the house and the garden area is paved with tiles. And when Segerstrom opens the gates, the alignment is a straight line from the entrance of the house to the garden, where Elizabeth grows herbs and fruit trees.

Henry and Elizabeth Segerstrom are standing underneath a voluminous spiral staircase, the centerpiece of their two-story foyer. It's dramatic, a thick, smooth swirl of white like the top of a giant wedding cake, flowing, inviting, no harsh lines. Sunlight streams through lattice skylights and narrow celestial windows.

It's all white here. White light. White walls. White flowers. White candles. White staircase.

A simple bench upholstered in buttery yellow and cream stripes is against a wall. The blond wood floor seems to flow on forever, into the main room.

"I didn't want a Colonial or some kind of beach theme," Segerstrom says. "See how clean this looks?"

No wonder that he'll tell you, if asked, the story of how the Segerstrom farm was weedless. He's proud of his family's farming roots -- he introduces himself as a farmer -- and is largely a self-educated man in the world of art. (After serving in the Army during World War II, he earned a bachelor's and master's degree in business from Stanford, thanks to the GI Bill.)

Over the years, he has taken the time to cultivate relationships with the artists whom he's commissioned: Noguchi, the sculptors Richard Lippold and Richard Serra.

And slowly Segerstrom has installed more than 20 contemporary works in public places. "Little by little," he says, "we gathered a world-class collection."

But he also credits his wife, Elizabeth, who has been involved in selecting the art for both the public and private collections. He married her in 2000 after the death of his wife, Renee. She was living in Manhattan working as a psychologist at the time they met; he was reviewing plans for the new concert hall with architect Cesar Pelli. Of course, he told her that he was a farmer, and they married three weeks later.

Offering Orange County (she calls it "Orange Country"), their vision of what high art and culture is requires a certain temerity. And there are critics. The Segerstroms' aesthetic is somewhat cool and remote, but they are confident in their mission.

Segerstrom is unabashed. When wooing artists, politicians or dignitaries, he presents them with an Hermes bag. Inside is a burlap pouch filled with lima beans.

And in the living room, on a granite coffee table, there is a green stone shaped like a giant lima bean. Elizabeth cups it in both hands as if it were a fragile Faberge egg. "Isamu Noguchi made this for Henry," she says.

janet.eastman@latimes.com

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