In the city, a fairy-tale escape

Times Staff Writer

AS a gardener, Katrina Rivers dreamed of a home where she could see green from every window. As a mother, she wanted a place where her children could ride safely on their bikes. And as a writer and self-described healer, she yearned for a house with “magic.”

Anyone who wonders if Rivers could conjure such enchantment need only approach her bit of bohemia on Mount Washington, where twin griffin-like creatures greet visitors from high atop a Balinese door. The 2-acre lot is filled with wild beauty -- aloe groves, bellflowers and ferns, a chaotic flurry of evergreen shrubs and vines. Wind chimes, glittering beads and Moroccan lanterns hang with pleasing randomness from trees and windows. Bells dangle from doors. The aroma of lavender and jasmine blends with the scent of Chinese herbs brewing inside, and a water fountain and the rustling of palms create their own auditory magic -- “like you are underwater,” Rivers says.

Her children think of the place as a giant fairy garden. To others it represents what so many people in this city long for: a refuge from the frantic pace of daily life -- an urban haven, inside and out, that may not be perfect or pristine but does feel uniquely her own.


Nearly three years ago, Rivers was living in upstate New York and struggling with the question of whether to move back to Los Angeles. To force a decision, she made a checklist for her perfect family home. Then the real estate agent from L.A. called. “ ‘This house is you,’ she told me,” Rivers recalls. Her elder daughter agreed.

“When I looked at the pictures of the house online, I told my mom, ‘If we have to move, that’s where I want to live,’ ” says Adea, 12.

Thirty-five days later, Rivers moved in with her three children, two cats, five chickens, three dogs, assorted fish and Pip Squeak the rat.

THOUGH the property had the magic she was looking for, it also intimidated her.

“It’s a lot of house, a lot of property,” says Rivers, whose surprisingly diverse clientele is drawn to her mind-body-spirit meditation workshops. “There was a lot of energy. So many people had left their mark in certain places. When I first moved in, I felt like I couldn’t discard that.”

She says the two-story traditional home was built in 1910 as a summer getaway for the governor of Nevada. Subsequent owners included a prop builder for MGM who designed the terraces that meander up the hillside. The builder and his five sons left behind other artifacts: a spooky face that peeks out from one pathway, and a much-cherished Buddha now surrounded by aeonium, flowers and candles.


The owners who followed were palm enthusiasts.

“When they bought the property in 1970 they envisioned an exotic, tropical garden,” Rivers says. They planted rare seeds and seedlings, as well as enormous bamboo that provides shade to this day.

Not all of the house’s history was so welcome. One evening, Rivers says, she awoke to hear kitchen cupboards banging and the piano playing downstairs. Rattled, she decided it was finally time to claim the house of spirits for herself.

“I had to assert myself,” Rivers says.

After “cleansing” the house, she painted the home’s exterior trim a bright peacock blue. She commissioned artist Lola Duffy to paint a bright red eye of Horus over the front door and a romantic mural of the Egyptian goddess Isis on a sweeping side fence. In the concrete patio, Rivers and her children -- Lucy, 4, Lux, 9, and Adea -- inset shells and other treasures from a family trip to Mexico. An angel depicted on the chimney in hand-painted tile looks out over the garden. “She soothes the house,” Rivers says, smiling.

“It is very much a place where people can go and feel balanced and get in touch with spirit,” says friend David Elliott, author of “The Reluctant Healer.” “The place is a real statement about her and how she feels about beauty.”

SOME might think Rivers’ home to be singular in taste, but what makes the place interesting is how eccentric touches are complemented by design inspirations that many DIYers would gladly rip off -- unexpected details such as the blue glass mixed with the simple pea gravel along the garden pathways.

The emphasis on indoor-outdoor living gives the old house a distinctly modern feel. One forgets about doors because none ever seems to be closed. The outdoor living areas are extensions of the house, furnished with all-weather rugs, Chinese lanterns and a Moroccan table and chairs. Likewise, the indoors are a reflection of the world outside: The downstairs bathroom is tiled with natural stone and pebble tiles. “You could be in Mexico,” she says. “Or Costa Rica. It has such a tropical, foreign-vacation-place vibe.”

In the bedrooms upstairs, Rivers broke from the natural look and went bold. In her bedroom, she mixed color and pattern by teaming pink walls with red flocked wallpaper on the ceiling. “There’s a belief that the bedroom is an expression of one’s hidden self,” she says. In Adea’s bedroom Duffy painted a fairy tree mural, and shimmering pieces of white plastic were scattered on wet paint, so the pale purple walls sparkle in the sunlight.

To link the kitchen with the outdoors and a nearby guesthouse, Rivers and two handymen enlarged the side yard and landscaped it. What had been a concrete slope is an elegant, terraced entrance with a mix of drought-tolerant plants. Pieces of concrete found on-site were recycled, some as a bench. When the supply ran out, Rivers found more by placing an ad on Craigslist courting people who had broken up their driveway and were looking to unload the remains.

A meditation area was born from her desire for another place to hang out. On summer evenings, the family stargazes from what they fondly call “the sitting spot” -- a wooden platform to which Rivers added a bench, posts of giant bamboo and shimmery fabric that cost $1 a yard at Michael Levine in L.A.’s garment district.

Rivers doesn’t think of her changes as a makeover, but rather as a tapestry started by all those who came before her. “There’s always new threads I’m adding to it,” she says.

She often thinks of the moment when she walked through the gate and knew this was her house.

“There are no accidents,” she adds. “I truly feel like this house waited for me.”



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Exotic, inspired: shopping for the look

KATRINA RIVERS may take an unconventional approach to home design, but many of her strategies can be borrowed to create the kind of peaceful, urban retreat so many people seek. Among her resources:

World Wide Exotics in Lakeview Terrace. “They are such an amazing resource and so enthusiastic about what they’re doing,” Rivers says. “When you go out to their nursery, you get in the golf cart and go.” (818) 890-1915.

Pot-ted in Atwater Village. Oversized pots, outdoor rugs and statues as varied as a black raven, the Virgin Mary and Buddha. “They are a treasure trove of beautiful things.” (323) 665-3801,

Zation in Lincoln Heights. Balinese gates, griffin sculptures, master bed frame and pebble tile for the bathroom. Rivers calls their sales “incredible” and scored several items for half-off. (323) 342-0178,

George L. Throop Co. in Pasadena. Pea gravel for walkways. “It is really inexpensive. They deliver it by the scoop and you take it from there. The gravel was dumped in the driveway and we carried it up in buckets.” (626) 796-0285,

Bourget Bros. in Santa Monica. Colored glass to mix with the pea gravel. (310) 450-6556,

Mortarless Building Supply in Los Angeles. Custom and antique tiles. (323) 663-3291.

Jackalope in North Hollywood. Buddha fountain. (818) 761-4022,

Mosaik on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outdoor Moroccan lanterns. (323) 525-0337,

Michael Levine in downtown Los Angeles. Fabric for outdoor meditation platform. (213) 622-6259,

Pasadena Architectural Salvage. Argentine kitchen doors. (626) 535-9655, www.pasadena

Pasadena Waldorf School gift shop. Tibetan bells for the kitchen door. (626) 794-9564.

-- Lisa Boone