A glorious sight unseen
The perfectly clipped hedges at Montecito’s Val Verde estate still bristle with authority, impossibly long lines of them, not a breach in sight. The 110-year-old camellias haven’t stirred from their posts beside a reflecting pool, and the citrus trees are still cut into the pleasing cubes that garden designer Lockwood De Forest Jr. envisioned playing off the geometry of the breakthrough 1910 Modernist house.
It’s a miracle, really. Of the 1,500 gardens created by De Forest, a celebrity in his own time, this is the only one still in its original form, says Gail Jansen, executive director of the Austin Val Verde Foundation and author of a monograph on De Forest.
What luck that this house and garden, an experiment in Modernism with a nod to the virility of the Romans, had only two full-time owners. How rare in this frenetic culture for a place to exist untouched for almost 100 years. How rare to see something groundbreaking for its time and find it just as relevant today.
Coffee broker and land speculator Henry Dater never lived in the house he commissioned. Val Verde’s first real owner and its longtime genie was the free-thinking Wright Ludington. Endowed with several fortunes and mindful that laws in his home state of Pennsylvania outlawed his homosexuality, he thought it best to get away to California. The second owner, Warren Russell Austin, a poor boy who married an heiress, was physician to the Duchess of Windsor and then to Ludington. When Austin acquired the estate, it was as if Ludington’s spirit passed into his body.
How else to explain a place where time has stood still? The original black paint on the living room floor, Ludington’s idea. The pearly gray walls, a color that architect Bertram Goodhue borrowed from famed architect Irving Gill. The flamboyantly theatrical bathroom with Roman murals painted in 1939 by Oliver Messel, beloved costumer for Beverly Sills and a Tony award-winning designer, that was reviewed in art magazines around the world. Its sensational red canvas drapery still dangles from the ceiling.
But the red drapery that hung in the master bedroom was incinerated when Ludington set fire to the bed in a fit of pique over a lover’s transgression. So one thing gone. But the rest is still there, making Val Verde one of the most important period homes and gardens that you may never see.
On the 17 1/2 acres of Val Verde, there are 185 species of plants that are culturally or scientifically significant, Jansen says. The three plum trees from the garden of the shah of Iran. The watercress in the creek exclusive to the royal family that could only have been a gift from the Duke of Windsor. One of the last oak trees of its kind from the Guanajuato region of Mexico.
To De Forest, though, the plants were just plants, props in a grand theatrical scheme. In a break from traditional design, he saw gardens not as places of showy flower beds but as living artworks. Hedges, walls and walkways coerce the visitor to move from one dramatic setting to another: a terrace on which float three reflecting pools; a tree-shaded plaza with a view of two beckoning obelisks; a pastoral pond presided over by a statue of Olympian beauty.
It’s from the pond that one gets the biggest visual thrill of all. Where once had been a boring grassy slope, De Forest put in hedge-lined terraces that march the viewer to the house above. It’s impossible to resist. Even the woods surrounding the 8 1/2 acres of formal gardens get into the act. De Forest sited many of the trees so that they would act as picture frames for distant vistas.
From 1924 until his death in 1949, De Forest added and subtracted from this living canvas, starting with the communally spirited “plaza,” with its Spanish fountain in 1925. He erected the soaring, Hadrian-esque pillars off the original entryway in the 1930s; planted the four towering palm trees in the outdoor atrium and encircled them with glittering tiles from AD 300 in the mid-'30s; laid a pebble floor in the pattern of an eight-pointed star — rich in religious significance — in the circular “conversation area” in the 1940s. No wonder the garden would be designated a national treasure by the American Society of Landscape Architects and a national, state and county landmark.
De Forest was a master player in a golden age of villa architecture in Montecito, says Noël Vernon, associate dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design. In the hands of De Forest, a garden retained a sense of luxury but with a pared-down simplicity that was new and bold. He embraced the climate while recognizing its limitations: a delicate use of water.
Although De Forest would show off his genius at three other renowned Montecito gardens — Casa Bienvenida, Constantia and Casa del Herrero — it was at Val Verde where he was his warmest and most personal, says Vernon.
“Val Verde is an unself-conscious place, welcoming, something to be admired and enjoyed at the same time,” she says. “You can imagine the artisans and designers at parties there, finishing up a glass of wine and wandering through the garden in the moonlight. It’s a legacy of what villa life is about.”
It had long been Austin’s intention to open Val Verde to the public, as are nearby Lotusland and Casa del Herrero. In 1996 he applied for the necessary conditional use permit that would have allowed 3,340 visitors a year. Jansen, a historian with an architecture degree from UCLA who had come to the estate in 1988 to do restoration, was entrusted to present Val Verde’s best side should the permit be granted.
It never was. During the seven years of crushing legal battles, Austin died (some say from stress) and the funds from the charitable trust he had established were depleted.
But like water that finds a new place to flow when blocked, the Val Verde foundation’s Jansen has resurfaced, weary and wary but undeterred.
“All along the pressure has been to sell the land and develop it,” she says of her decision not to. “I had to sit down with a lot of humility and figure out how to make Austin’s intent work without the public access.”
Throughout the fight, Jansen refrained from additional fundraising for the estate, knowing it would get sucked into the legal fray. Now she can, as she puts it, appeal for help with a clear conscience.
The money is direly needed to fix broken fountains and roofs. The latter is critical. Although no one resides in the house, water damage is compromising the livability of areas such as the Lindbergh room, where Charles and Anne sought sanctuary after the kidnapping.
In the meantime, Jansen still wants to share Val Verde. She formed an alliance with the Center for Teaching for Social Justice at UC Santa Barbara, inviting small groups of students from colleges, high schools and grade schools to the estate.
“We look at Val Verde as text, that you can walk into this unfamiliar place and yet be able to read it,” Jansen says.
It’s a veritable who’s who of the first half of the century. Ludington, obsessed with the arts, invited the nobles to his house: Cole Porter and Noel Coward, Christopher Isherwood to recover from his breakup with W.H. Auden, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tallulah Bankhead and Gloria Swanson, and De Forest prodigy Garrett Eckbo, who also was rethinking California landscape design.
“Anyone who had done anything of significance came here,” Jansen says of the period from late 1924, when Ludington acquired the house, to 1955, when he sold it to Austin. “We want to make that available to other people.”
Certainly, architect Goodhue saw the house as a linchpin in his vision for an all-inclusive society, one that borrowed from many cultures. There was a Mexican perspective to his buildings at Balboa Park in San Diego. At Val Verde he was experimenting with concrete and using the same footprint of nine geometric modules, a design sacred to Japanese architecture, as he would at the Los Angeles Central Library.
So being able to see Val Verde is being able to “understand the intent in architecture,” says Jansen. “If you aren’t interested in intent, then you will fail to understand the results you acquire.”
Another watershed: The creek running through the property, coursing hard this year with the unusual rainfall, is home to steelhead trout. It’s a bonanza for federal and state wildlife agencies that are planning to study the fish with underwater cameras, impossible at more public habitats. The project is bringing grant money to Val Verde, as will various preservation funds for which Jansen is applying.
That may not be enough, so in two small, freshly painted rooms in an estate outbuilding, a computer expert is refining technology that’s beaming Val Verde to the outside world, using live video feeds from the estate and tapping into its archives.
The project supports three Val Verde educational programs: a “Cultural Landscape Collaborative,” “Life by Art” (teaching art to children) and “Arts Olympus” (which brings in visiting cultural icons).
Meanwhile, Jansen and her supporters wait for a shift in the winds that blew scorching hot when Val Verde tried to go public.
Anyone who has been to Lotusland walks away a little changed. You can’t wander through Ganna Walska’s tweaked vision of a garden and not look at your own little plot differently.
But there were people in the surrounding Montecito neighborhood greatly opposed to opening it to the public. Too much traffic. Think of the noise. After much bitter wrangling, an agreement was hammered out to let a small number visit each year.
Like the butterfly flapping its wings, Lotusland’s opening may have doomed Val Verde.
Not that there wasn’t cause for celebration at Austin’s estate in January 2001, when a Superior Court judge voided a decision by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to deny Val Verde its conditional use permit.
The supervisors’ 3-2 vote not to allow regular visitors cited, among other things, increased traffic; the dangers of cars entering and exiting the estate from Sycamore Canyon Road because of poor sight lines; noise and lights from events at the estate and other “neighborhood compatibility” issues.
It also cited a need to stop granting permits to protect the “quiet ambience and neighborhood integrity valued by the Montecito community.” In other words, one Lotusland was enough.
Superior Court Judge J. William McLafferty wasn’t buying it. He cited an independent environmental impact report that found no existing safety problems at Val Verde’s entrance. He found it arbitrary that Supervisor Naomi Schwartz had ignored the environmental report findings and decided that, based on her personal experience, the road was unsafe.
He dismissed the three supervisors’ concerns over the noise and other disruptions in neighborhood life as purely speculative.
The celebration was short-lived. In November 2002, an appeals court reversed McLafferty. Jansen and the attorneys pondered other legal actions and then officially threw in the towel in late 2003.
For now, those 3,340 visitors a year aren’t welcome.
On a mid-May weekend, the local Trust for Historic Preservation held a party at Val Verde to raise funds for restoring Santa Barbara’s Presidio. This was perfectly within the law. The Montecito Planning Commission had earlier codified its policy on events at private homes, saying that a household could receive up to 300 guests for a single event up to four times a year without permits. There were 150 at the Val Verde shindig.
Jansen took the occasion to bring in some local decision-makers and community members to let them know Val Verde was alive and well, and to talk about the educational programs at the estate. Other institutions with public-access problems also took note.
Joni Gray, an attorney who had supported Val Verde’s efforts as a member of the County Planning Commission and later as one of two supervisors who voted for it, can’t forget the anger that seethed around Austin’s plan. She calls the estate a treasure and marvels that Austin was willing to share such a special place with “just us ordinary folks.” She found the traffic concerns bogus.
“I spent hours up there watching the traffic and there were no problems,” she says. It was simply a case of people not wanting to share, she says. And it got mean. Name-calling and shoving-in-the-hallways mean. “It was like watching this circus, with people who are wealthy and famous and sophisticated, but they were acting like kids having a food fight,” she recalls.
Asked about one Val Verde detractor’s complaints that the garden and house were run-down and hence insignificant, Gray brings up a trip she took to Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara County ranch, which is being preserved virtually intact. She was surprised.
There was nothing attractive about his favorite orange Naugahyde chair, she says. In fact, “even the guys said it was ugly.” So were the harvest gold refrigerator and avocado green canisters in the kitchen. “Nothing in that place would make you excited,” she says, “but 100 years from now it will be a big deal because it’s the original stuff.”
Ann Herold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.*
A glimpse of artistic grounds
The Val Verde estate in Montecito is open by invitation only.
General inquiries: More information about Val Verde is available from the Austin Val Verde Foundation at its website, https://www.austinvalverdefoundation.com .
Visitor inquiries: (805) 969-9852.