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A taste of the tropics

Special to The Times

WHEN Richard Neutra designed the redwood and brick Nesbitt house in Los Angeles in 1942, he envisioned a tranquil Japanese front garden, anchored by a pine bonsai surrounded by spreading junipers and Pittosporum tobira. A California pepper tree, one of six on the site, would stand next to seven ponds. A row of pines was to line the parkway, according to plans in the Neutra archives at UCLA.

Today there are no pepper trees, bonsai or that pittosporum. The 30 hibiscuses and 24 nandina sketched for the backyard have disappeared. Only a lawn, smaller than originally planned, remains of Neutra’s vision.

Gardens -- even those with the imprint of a great architect -- change over time. Plants become fashionable, then fall out of style. Or they die and get replaced. The park-like grounds at the Nesbitt house are no different: radically changed from Neutra’s original plan but perhaps no less effective.

Strolling more than half an acre, visitors feel as though they have stepped back to a time when Los Angeles gardens were unashamedly lush. Late spring through summer, the landscape is saturated with the fragrance of Madagascar jasmine vine, its leaves twining through a fence and winding around 5-foot-tall pyramid-shaped wooden tuteurs. The perfume shifts at an espalier of the glossy-leafed Osmanthus fragrans, or sweet olive. At night the huge yellow flowers of the Hawaiian cup of gold vine broadcast their scent too.

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“Although a client invites an architect or garden designer into his or her life to do the garden for them, they are giving up some of their personal power and initiative,” says Pasadena landscape architect Thomas Batcheller Cox, who designed the Nesbitt garden for Pippa Scott, an actress and film producer.

“I’m pretty sure that clients, as soon as they can, want to make the house and garden their own.”

SUCH is the case with Scott, who bought the Nesbitt property in 1992, beating out a developer who wanted to tear the house down. Neutra’s original California-Asian landscape already had been replaced with a profusion of tropical plants, and though she had studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona and architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, Scott knew she needed professional help. Cox still remembers her call.

“She said, ‘I just bought a Neutra house in Brentwood that has a tropical garden, and I’ve never liked tropical gardens,’ ” Cox says. “I thought it was charming that she didn’t care for tropicals and still wanted to be faithful to what was there rather than rip it all out.”

Venice landscape designer Jay Griffith had worked on the Nesbitt property from 1976 to 1992 and says it was his client, William Moran, who asked him to design a tropical garden.

“The place was a tangled mess,” Griffith says. “I looked up the original Neutra plan and studied any Neutra plan that I could get hold of. I compared my master plan to his. I had to paraphrase between Neutra’s original intention and what the garden had morphed into. One of the great things about Neutra’s designs is the repetition of strong movements, big dramatic sweeps and evocative big gestures. That’s what we tried to do.”

Griffith changed the plants but honored the garden’s original structure. He planted sweeps of gingers, Australian tree ferns and giant birds of paradise, and he restored the circular ponds that Neutra had built from redwood brewery vats.

Neutra’s angled mortar-less brick pathway still guides visitors to the house. Cox added a towering palm allee with an understory of mother, deer and Chinese holly ferns. Tall tree ferns, cycads and kentia palms were interspersed along the border.

Griffith, a proponent of environmentally friendly and water-wise landscaping, uses tropicals sparingly these days, and even Scott admits that in many people’s eyes, her plants are as politically incorrect as her second-story addition to the original guest house.

“I think I’ll have to xeriscape it one day,” she says of the garden, only half-jokingly.

Still, the landscape thrives on only twice-a-week irrigation, partly due to clay soil that holds moisture and the hundreds of cubic yards of mushroom compost that were worked into the ground before planting.

IN the 1951 book “Richard Neutra, on Building Mystery and Realities of the Site,” the architect described a small indoor-outdoor pond at the home’s entry, honoring the land with a capital letter. “Here Nature’s garden walks right into the house and through it and out again on the other side,” he writes. “To underline this fact, the pool slips through under the glass entry wall.”

Thomas S. Hines, UCLA professor emeritus of history and author of “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,” says the architect had a “lifelong absorption” with gardens and outdoor spaces.

“After World War I, he got a job working at a nursery dealing with plants, planning and landscape,” Hines says. “Throughout his career, he was careful in his drawings to get the landscaping right.”

Neutra’s elegant serpentine brick wall still separates the front garden from the back. Cox added a small brick-walled garden outside Scott’s office.

Using the center of the door as an axis, he constructed a Moorish-style rill in which water runs down a vertical channel in the center. The white orchid-like blooms of Iris tectorum dangle over the edge of the wall.

There is whimsy here. Cox shaped a winding path through a seemingly impenetrable thicket of ginger plants from one side of the front garden to the other. Scott calls it the “tiger walk.” In early summer, when heliconia is blooming and the heavy scent of ginger imbues the air, it hardly seems presumptuous to suggest that even a Neutra purist might smile.

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