By Deborah Netburn
35 Images

Photos: The weird and wonderful Hermitage of Santa Barbara

High in the hills of Santa Barbara lies the Hermitage, the private whimsy of Theodore Roosevelt Gardner II. Few are invited to the 18-acre property, where Gardner has amassed a dizzying array of sculpture that plays out like an art lover’s funhouse. Come join us for a tour…. (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner wears many hats. He has written books and founded a choir, and he still runs a property management firm. He bought the Santa Barbara property in 1987 and moved there full time in 1990. He opened his home and grounds to the public only once — for a diabetes benefit in 2000 that raised $15,000. “We were very pleased until we realized that’s how much it cost to put it on,” he said. “I thought, ‘Next time I’ll just write a check.’ ” (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner’s home and 90% of the wood sculpture burned in a 2008 wildfire. He has plans to rebuild his house and to construct a museum on the property. The house will look like an amoeba from above, and Gardner crows about how the skylights will be in the shape of grand pianos. The museum will be constructed to look like a disheveled stack of books. (David McNew / For The Times)
This piece, designed by Val Bertoia, is “Sound-Gateway.” When the steel tips at the top hit one another, the piece sounds like church bells from outer space. (David McNew / For The Times)
A horseshoe sculpture by Mark Bulwinkle, an Oakland artist and one of Gardner’s favorites. (David McNew / For The Times)
The sunken spaceship was one of the first pieces that Gardner had on the property. He commissioned it from Carl Johnson, a San Diego artist, who also designed Gardner’s mailbox and his front door. Johnson built the piece onsite and created the controls of the spaceship (not visible in this picture) partially out of the innards of an old fertilizer tank.  (David McNew / For The Times)
The woman with the goggles is a bronze sculpture by Ella Tulin. Several of her pieces are scattered throughout the property. (David McNew / For The Times)
“Warrior” is by Oscar Pumpin, whose work usually incorporates auto parts. Note the giant stone hand peeking out from under the tree on the right. (David McNew / For The Times)
There are several giant body parts that appear to be partially submerged in the earth. Here, concrete toes were commissioned from Pat McVay. The big toe is roughly 5 feet high.  (David McNew / For The Times)
A giant nose by the same artist. (David McNew / For The Times)
Most of the art Gardner purchases veers toward the comical or surreal, but over the years he acquired several pieces by Jane DeDecker, whose pieces featuring children and mothers are of a more sentimental nature. Most of these pieces are positioned overlooking fields of flowers, drawing attention to the breathtaking landscape.

After purchasing the piece, Gardner learned that Michael Jackson had bought one of DeDecker’s works for Neverland.  (David McNew / For The Times)
Another piece by Mark Bulwinkle. (David McNew / For The Times)
Earlier this year Gardner put out a self-published, at times tongue-in-cheek book about his property called “The Hermitage Santa Barbara at 20" (Allen A. Knoll, $75). He writes of these jockeys:

“The archaeological dig, c. 777 BC, is an excavation that revealed the remains of five rows of jockeys. It is reminiscent of the Chinese Warriors who are buried around the late Emporer’s tomb, ostensibly to protect his soul from the demons and to scare off potential grave robbers.”  (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner had one of his three staff gardeners dig the ditch with a bulldozer. “He had a grand old time,” he said. (David McNew / For The Times)
About 10 years ago Gardner began to dabble in creating bronze sculpture himself. He has made dozens of busts, including those of writers, composers, artists and presidents. (David McNew / For The Times)
Richard Nixon by Theodore Roosevelt Gardner II. (The artist occasionally credits himself as HermiTed.)  (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner’s self-portrait, titled “The Slow Thinker.” (David McNew / For The Times)
More signs of the fire at what had been a pool pavilion. (David McNew / For The Times)
Another piece by Oscar Pumpin. (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner walks by a charred piece of wood sculpture. He can’t decide whether to get rid of it or whether he likes the new look. (David McNew / For The Times)
“Y3K” by Pat McVay. This sculpture resides in the section of the Hermitage known as the Zoo. That structure in the background is Gardner’s studio. (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner shows off the clay mold for a new piece he’s working on called “My Muse Has No Shoes.” (David McNew / For The Times)
In a different part of the property, chess is the theme. This sculpture, “Chess Players,” is by Robert Holmes. “These guys have been playing for more than 10 years and haven’t made a move yet,” Gardner says. (David McNew / For The Times)
“Angry Man” by Viola Frey is made of painted ceramics. (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner has two pieces by Celeste Roberge on his property. The steel cages originally were meant to be filled with river rocks from Maine, but to cut down on shipping costs, Gardner filled the structures with river rocks from Arizona(David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner had this sign made after being inspired by the words on a map at the mall. (David McNew / For The Times)
A fiberglass dog head originally designed by graphic artist Harold Bachman for the Northern California drive-in chain Doggy Diner. (David McNew / For The Times)
Gardner calls this piece “From Barracuda to Barrister.” (David McNew / For The Times)
Just when it feels things can’t get more surreal, Gardner points out the punctuation he has dotted across his property. This question mark took 15 man-hours to complete. (David McNew / For The Times)
(David McNew / For The Times)
“Who knew bicycles grew on trees?” Gardner asks. (David McNew / For The Times)
On top of the garage that Gardner and his wife installed: a mosaic maze by Christine Desmond. The artist collected the stones in riverbeds and on beaches, then assembled each of the 64 sections in individual frames. It is a particular favorite of Gardner’s wife, who is pictured in the piece as a mermaid.

In the book Gardner admits this was a particularly expensive piece, but when questioned about how much he has spent so far on his private whimsy, he is characteristically vague. “Five billion, give or take,” he deadpans. (David McNew / For The Times)
That’s Gardner’s head springing out of an agave. (David McNew / For The Times)
This sculpture, appropriately titled “Giant,” is made entirely out of rebar.

Why would anyone self-publish a book about the place that he keeps hidden from the public? “You have quickly put your finger on the paradox,” Gardner says. “Why should I do a book when what I want above all is privacy? Is it too late to recall it? I expect it is.”

Each week the Los Angeles Times profiles a different home in Southern California. See them all at Home tours: More than 100 profiles of the weird and the wonderful.  (David McNew / For The Times)