Standing in her Santa Monica garden, Nancy Goslee Power surveys the profusion of greenery that springs from every inch of the long, narrow lot. Burmese honeysuckle climbs a balcony opposite a splashing fountain, Matilija poppies nestle among Agave attenuata, and near a cobalt-blue wall, cheery foxgloves flourish alongside native maidenhair ferns.
“The garden is always changing,” she says. “I’ve tried all sort of things and had failures. But I’m ruthless. If it’s not working, I get rid of it.”
Since 1995 the property has served as a launch pad and testing ground for design ideas and plants that interest her. “You can’t be a perfectionist and have a garden,” she says. “We’ve tried to control nature since man was on earth, and it’s impossible. You might as well go with it.”
Power has been making her mark on the Southern California landscape for more than 35 years, transforming such landmarks as the Norton Simon Museum, Kidspace Children’s Museum and the Beverly Canon Gardens in Beverly Hills with innovative and bold plantings that more than hold their own with the buildings they complete. Along the way, she’s created public and private gardens in collaboration with some of the biggest architects working today: Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Michael Maltzan, Steven Ehrlich, Marmol Radziner, Rios Clementi Hale.
Her portfolio is astonishingly varied — modern and traditional, modest and grand. Passionate about teaching and education, she cofounded the Garden School Foundation to give Los Angeles schoolchildren a chance to get their hands in soil and grow their own food. Whether she’s creating spaces in which to linger or learn, Power believes garden design is a living art form.
Maltzan remembers when he first asked her to design the landscape for the Skid Row nonprofit Inner-City Arts. “Nancy was already an established and important presence in the city, and she said yes to working with a very inexperienced architect. Her work elevated the project not only because of her design but because of her belief in and connection to the things we were doing.”
Her encyclopedic grasp of horticulture as well as design sets her apart, he adds. “Nancy has a foot in both worlds. She’s a model for the impact landscape design can have at a residential level, a commercial level and an urban level.”
Power honed her visual sensibilities and appreciation for nature growing up in Georgetown, Delaware, where she roamed nearby fields and woods and watched her mother fuss over greenhouse plants and her grandmother tend her organic kitchen garden. “My father was the first member of his family going back to the seventeenth century who didn’t live on a farm. I come to my field pretty naturally.”
After attending a liberal arts college for women in Boston, Power set off for Italy. She spent two years in Florence, studying art history and painting and becoming, she quips, “a born-again Italian.”
Back stateside, she worked in New York City for decorator Sarah Hunter Kelly and then launched a successful interiors firm of her own. In 1977, after one of her projects appeared on the cover of House and Garden, she moved to California with her then-husband and young son, Oliver. She worked part-time scouting homes for House and Garden and then became House Beautiful’s west coast editor. “Paid to snoop,” she says. “Perfect!” Intrigued by California’s climate and indoor-outdoor lifestyle, she began doing garden projects for friends. That evolved into a partnership with landscape designer Thomas Batcheller Cox before she opened Nancy Goslee Power & Associates.
Power discovered her Santa Monica property in 1995, when, newly divorced, she sought a temporary place for herself and Oliver. The sloping lot was overgrown and overrun with cats, but she saw promise in its pair of dilapidated rental cottages. She’d take the front one, and Oliver would have the one in the back. Of the front house, she says, “Originally I thought I would put in a couple of French doors, paint it some pretty colors and live there until Oliver went to college. And then I got carried away.”
Inspired by her travels to Spain, Brazil and Morocco, she overhauled the property, creating outdoor spaces for dining, reading and entertaining. A neglected walkway connecting the front courtyard to the rear patio was reimagined with river stones set in a chevron pattern. The lily pond on the main axis between the houses is a nod to her fascination with the sophisticated hydraulic systems of Moorish Spain and her belief that every garden needs water.
With help from architect William Nicholas, she rebuilt the 1,200-square-foot main house, ensuring that each room is awash with natural light and open to the sights and sounds of nature. The interior brims with favorite pieces — 18th-century French and Italian furniture, a ceramic rabbit that belonged to Bunny Mellon, embroidered linens that she uses every day, a graceful canopy bed that belonged to her grandmother, a Chinese armchair that was her mother’s. Power’s beautifully rendered watercolors share the walls with paintings collected over the years. The effect is at once worldly and inviting.
If Power has never met a plant she didn’t like — with the exception of Tulbaghia violacea, or “society garlic,” which she deems “too stinky” — she feels the same about color. Yellow-ochre paint, a shade she discovered by mixing saffron powder from Morocco with water, trims the white-painted exterior. Inside, the main room has pink walls and woodwork done in “Turkey red—from old rugs and popular for barns.” The kitchen is the shade of a ripe apricot, while the green of the bedroom’s Venetian plastered walls brings to mind freshly harvested peas.
Since closing her office in 2012, Power has worked out of Oliver’s onetime home on the property, now a studio/guesthouse filled with watercolor sketches of projects and shelves overflowing with books. At 76, she feels no inclination to sit back and put her feet up. “I tried to retire for about eight months, and it was a disaster,” she says with a grin. “I’m sort of semi-retired.”
One look at her current and future projects, and it’s clear that for Power, “semi-retirement” means something a little different than it does for most people. There’s her ongoing involvement in the Garden School Foundation; an addition to the Norton Simon — “I’m stewing about what it should be and how I’d like to walk through the space,” she says; and a columbarium for Moore Ruble Yudell’s St. Matthew’s Parish in Pacific Palisades. Then there are her weekly watercolor classes, upcoming trips to Naples and Sweden, and an idea for a third book, about the next generation of garden designers in Los Angeles (to join her Gardens of California: Four Centuries of Design from Mission to Modern and Power of Gardens).
These days she picks and chooses commissions that move her, skipping entreaties to “green things up” and favoring projects on which she can offer guidance on site planning from the start. “I miss having a big firm — the young people, the camaraderie, the teaching — but it’s a nice place to be,” she muses. “I’m back to where I started — small.”
The temptation to do more is always there. “Restraining myself is the hardest thing,” she admits. “This is a field where there’s always something new, and you never do the same thing twice. It’s very fluid and extremely abstract. I’m still trying to figure things out.”