Seventeen years ago, New Yorker Peter Gargagliano stumbled off an airplane and into his Los Angeles dream: a rent-controlled apartment in a cool, Streamline Moderne building.
The interior space was tight -- just about 1,000 square feet -- but it came with a private terrace that had sweeping views all the way to downtown. The new pad was in the middle of Koreatown, which meant that Gargagliano routinely heard gunshots. Police helicopters kept him up at night. None of that mattered. Gargagliano, then a production assistant making $260 a week, knew two essential things: He loved his new home, and the price was right.
Flash forward. Gargagliano, now a successful production designer who creates sets for photo shoots -- backdrops for the likes of Heidi Klum, Sacha Baron Cohen and the cast of "Mad Men" -- had outgrown his apartment. A self-described pack rat, he still had his childhood stuffed animals -- arranged carefully in a wicker basket on the living room floor. His girlfriend, illustrator Masha D'yans, moved in with him in 2005 and added her canvases and art supplies to the fray.
Though the couple could have afforded a larger apartment, Gargagliano didn't want to leave. He wanted to expand the couple's living space by converting that little-used terrace.
With a budget of about $20,000, he called upon friend Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of the hip Atwater Village garden design store Pot-ted, and Dustin Gimbel, owner of Seal Beach-based Second Nature Garden Design. Gargagliano's first mandate: Create distinct outdoor rooms for the 750-square-foot outdoor space. His second: Make the features portable, so if he ever bought his own place, he could move his investment with him.
"Peter wanted all these spatial vignettes -- separate places that would offer different vistas and make you feel as if you had different places just to be," Gutierrez says. "He had no limitation in terms of style. He loves Mediterranean, Asian and midcentury."
Gargagliano's buzzwords: Bohemian, eclectic, magical.
"I wanted the space to look lived in, to show history and evolution, to have layers," he says. He and Gutierrez discussed ways to integrate old furnishings with new pieces, as well as strategies for accentuating the positive aspects of the terrace while addressing the problems.
Problems? There were many. The sun blazed down upon the terrace most of the day, killing almost every potted plant he set out. At night, fierce winds whipped the cheeks of anyone who lingered for longer than a few minutes. Neighbors' rooftops, untended and unloved, cluttered the views.
Gargagliano could make a Vanity Fair spread pop, but his terrace had been a wasteland of chipped plastic pots, mismatched flea market furniture, bright green faux-grass carpet and singed roses clinging to life.
"I think the garden was a little alien to him, so he couldn't approach it the way he usually approaches his other projects. Everything burned and died," Gimbel says. "Peter's terrace was a Home Depot earthquake."
Gutierrez set to work, carving out "rooms" by judiciously arranging rectangular metal planters and lightweight oversized pots so that they formed walls.
"Most people's inclination is to put things on the edges," she says. "That just makes a space feel smaller. By arranging rooms, we give people a path to follow. It makes this terrace feel huge."
The main outdoor room sits under the apartment's original metal awning, furnished with a couch, chairs and coffee table that would look perfectly at home indoors. The seating is covered in fade-resistant chenille Sunbrella fabric.
"It's like toweling in the summer, and it's cozy in the winter," Gutierrez says.
Next to the main room, a set of midcentury-inspired chairs surround a tile-topped Pot-ted table, creating a breakfast nook with a different view of the garden. Another rectangular pocket of space can be used as a meditation and yoga room marked by a synthetic Oriental rug placed over the fake grass and a tableau of potted plants on an etagere. The pots also contain Gargagliano's miniature statues, a bejeweled mirror or two, and some other collected treasures.
Wandering the Rose Bowl Flea Market, Gargagliano found a set of six chairs constructed from wood stumps. He then commissioned a carpenter friend to make a matching table with a Korean barbecue in the middle.
"Since we're in Koreatown, I can just run down to the local supermarket and pick up a platter of spicy marinated meat ready to grill," Gargagliano says.
A vent pipe smack in the center of the terrace is camouflaged by a wooden stand underneath a concrete fountain.
"You know what they say about an eyesore," he says. "You either hide it or paint it red."
Next to that sits a custom-made wooden daybed -- a place where Gargagliano could nap outdoors, Gutierrez says.
The garden designer concealed a neighbor's less-than-spectacular terrace across the way by designing a redwood screen. A moon-shaped cut-out frames the sparkling skyscrapers of downtown. Table lamps and a pendant light, which Gargagliano scavenged from local garbage bins, deliver soft lighting and vintage flair.
Gargagliano wanted the rooftop garden to feel like a "mini adventure," so Gimbel layered small flowers and created living barriers between the outdoor rooms with swaying pepper trees and two types of acacia. Mexican weeping bamboo around the terrace's edge softens views of the urban horizon. (The trick to keeping plants alive on a blazing hot terrace, Gimbel says, was to replace Gargagliano's previous routine of light watering every day with thrice-weekly deep soakings.)
"Whimsy is really important to Peter," the landscape designer says. "We picked plants that a fairy might like, flowers that had tiny details that your eye could rest on. He hoped the garden would make you feel like a child going on this amazing journey."
A kitchen garden near the Korean barbecue is fragrant with sage, mint, rosemary and cilantro.
Six months after Gargagliano embarked on the project, the terrace is transformed. It hosts an assortment of wildlife, including hummingbirds, sparrows, nuthatches, even a hawk. "Once I even saw the hawk swoop down and tear a sparrow apart for lunch," he says. "It was like a scene from 'Wild Kingdom.'
"People thought I was crazy investing money in a rental. Now they can't believe the oasis we've created. They come up here and go, 'Oh!' It's a really good payoff."
Does he ever regret not buying a pad of his own?
"No," he says, with a shrug. "There was never a better place for me. I never got bored of being here. I rediscover the garden constantly, and the world -- Koreatown -- just keeps changing around me. I don't need to move." And so the rent-controlled love affair in Koreatown lives on.