Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"a place where time has stood still"

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.

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