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Graceful Transformation

Many watershape and landscape designers will attest to the fact that their best projects are those where no one element stands out among the rest; instead, the entire exterior composition is a balanced integration of beautiful materials and well-chosen features.  Take the property shown here as a case in point,  suggests Colleen Holmes, who transformed the grounds of a stately home in a historic Los Angeles neighborhood into a space of remarkably subtle beauty.
Many watershape and landscape designers will attest to the fact that their best projects are those where no one element stands out among the rest; instead, the entire exterior composition is a balanced integration of beautiful materials and well-chosen features. Take the property shown here as a case in point, suggests Colleen Holmes, who transformed the grounds of a stately home in a historic Los Angeles neighborhood into a space of remarkably subtle beauty.
By Colleen Holmes

Everything about this project was classic and beautiful.  For one thing, the home has the soft look of a French country chateau.  For another, it’s located in Hancock Park, one of the oldest of Los Angeles’ upscale downtown neighborhoods.  And when you add in the fact that it sits on a half-acre-plus lot on a quiet street, we had the pleasing sense that we’d landed on a refreshing oasis at the heart of a bustling metropolis.

We also enjoyed the privilege of working here with Andres Cardenes, a wonderful architect who had collaborated with these clients on and off for several years.  In their latest endeavor, he had come in to refurbish the home along historic and formal lines – something that often happens in this neighborhood, which boasts numerous restored and beautifully maintained homes across a range of architectural styles.

Our firm, New Leaf Landscape of Agoura Hills, Calif., had worked with Cardenes on previous projects.  When he called, he talked a bit about the situation and let us know that he thought we’d be a great fit because of the way we draw inspiration from both the clients and the site.  When we met with the clients, they liked us and what we had to say and we were soon hired to move forward with the landscape.


Initially, we’d been asked to handle only the backyard, but as often happens when things go well, before long we became involved out front as well.  In fact, before we ever put shovels to soil, things had advanced to the point where the clients gave us carte blanche, back and front.

There were, however, two major exceptions to what we could do:  First, we had to work with an existing driveway that ran along the north end of the property past the side of the house before cutting across the backyard north to south – right through the middle of the space.  Second, we couldn’t touch a magnificent Magnolia that had ruled the backyard for at least 100 years.

Inside the home, Cardenes was doing truly lovely work – restoring the original charm of the kitchen, adding a wine cellar and, most prominently, placing a new conservatory at the back of the house.  It was this last item that prompted the architect and his clients to think seriously about the backyard because of the way the glass structure commanded significant exterior views.

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The owners had done a great deal to increase the architectural charm of their French country chateau, especially with the key addition of the conservatory that now overlooks the backyard.  But when I came on site, the exterior spaces left a lot to be desired, including the intrusively monolithic driveway and perimeter plantings that needed to be completely revised.

Initially, the clients and the architect had envisioned either a large swimming pool or some other type of upsized watershape for the backyard.  I worked with that idea for a time, generating several design concepts and plunging into a lengthy process of sorting through various ideas that ultimately would become their backyard.

As we worked, it became mostly a process of taking big concepts and editing and whittling them down to more suitable forms.  Cardenes, for example, started out as an advocate for a broad, truly dramatic swimming pool.  As I saw it, this conflicted with the clients’ basic conviction that they wanted the property to look pretty much the way it might have looked 100 years ago.

After more back and forth, I countered with a suggestion that we should think in terms of a simpler garden oasis.  This would be a space marked by layered views, textures and colors – all enhanced by the sound of water flowing in smaller scale watershapes.  And of course everything out back would be visible from the conservatory, which was to be surrounded by and effectively become part of the exterior space.

With that spirit of historic revision in mind, my thinking about the property opened up and I began seeing everything in a new light.  The backyard, for example, was hemmed in by a huge expanse of privacy hedging on the north side – definitely useful, but it was at that point a mishmash of unsightly, messy plants.  Without my saying a word, the clients said that they wanted all that material removed to create an open, brighter feeling that would be more in step with the home’s country-chateau design.

I agreed wholeheartedly, so one of the first things we did on site was rip out all that material and replace the worn, ugly perimeter walls with beautifully crafted, stone-capped walls that have been expertly finished in stucco to look as though they’d been there for decades.


The next major detail we dealt with – the driveway – was not so easily resolved.

With old homes such as this, it’s not unusual to see driveways passing into the backyard through some sort of porte-cochère.  It is, however, unusual to have the driveway then turn and cut a prominent path all the way across the entire back portion of the property as it approached the garage.  That structure was there to stay, so we had to find a way to contend with the driveway on an aesthetic if not a practical basis.

My solution included removing the original driveway, starting over and creating a “garden drive” stretching some 800 feet from the porte-cochère, through the yard and over to the garage.  Starting at the street, we installed diamond-shaped, washed-aggregate pads spaced several inches apart, adding grass and other plants to superimpose the garden’s aesthetic presence on the driveway’s functional appearance.

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We did a lot of work with stone, plants and a bit of water in the front yard, doing what it took to lend a sense of antiquity to the approach to the entry door.  The keys here are the weathered stones we used for the revised walkway as well as the addition of an antique livestock trough and trickling waterspout to a space adjacent to the porch.

Beneath the porte-cochère – a spectacular structure on its own – we added stones to make for a more solid surface and to signal that this was the place to unload passengers or groceries.  Past this point, we picked up the diamond pattern again, carrying it though the backyard until the driveway reached a final turn at the very back of the property and entered the garage.  (This driveway had critical viewpoints that happened to fall on the main axial line from the conservatory.)

As a backdrop to that axial view from the conservatory, we placed a small, artful waterfeature (to be described below) with a deck made of pavers cast from the stones of a French castle in front of it.  We also used this material to pave the section of the driveway adjoining the deck, but this time we used an ashlar pattern that blends in with the adjacent spa/fireplace patio.  We then reverted to the diamond pattern as the driveway continued toward the garage, allowing the area around the waterfeature to become a visual extension of the driveway while also making the driveway part of the garden.

When we finished, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief:  This new treatment took what was probably the most awkward component of the landscape and turned it into a beautiful complement to the home and its surroundings.

That same integrative sensibility was crucial to the rest of the process that now unfolded before us:  It was our mission to make all of the various elements of the backyard work together visually and harmonize thematically with the home’s architecture, doing all we could to align our thinking with the clients’ wish list.

Happily, there was nothing unexpected on their list:  They wanted places to relax in the midst of a beguiling, welcoming garden; they wanted spaces where they could entertain up to 30 guests; and they wanted a comfortable spa as well as a fire feature – all easily accommodated within the available space.


One of the quirkiest challenges we encountered in the project had to do with the stone that had been used in the home’s original construction.  Large sections had been faced with a beautiful yellowish-gray stone we wanted to use elsewhere in the space, but we soon discovered that nothing similar was being quarried anywhere in the country and didn’t seem to be available by any means from any source.

So immediately, we had to come up with something different that would still be similar enough that the untrained eye wouldn’t notice.  We searched diligently among the many stone yards in the region before finally procuring a material we thought would work – and happily, it did.  That was a good thing indeed, because the plans called for using it on the perimeter walls of the property as well as the outdoor fireplace, the raised spa and series of low planters that were to flank portions of the driveway.

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Our principle challenge with the project was to minimize the visual intrusiveness of the old, monolithic driveway.  We did this by replacing the original slab with a diamond pattern we carried all the way through the property and back to the garage with two key interruptions – one for the surface of the porte-cochère, the other for an extension of the patio space.

The tale of the stone brings up an important point about the guiding principles of a design such as this:  We were so intent on finding a close match for the stone used on the house because we wanted to use it throughout the site as a recurring, unifying, integrating visual element.  We did so firm in the belief that the best designs offer a connections and balances among hardscape, plantings and other design features.

With the hardscape issues settled at last, we were able to focus our attention on plant selection, bringing in a wide variety of plants that might be found in a classic European garden.  The key was setting up layered views with changes in textures and colors – all organized so the spaces were visually fused and no single element came to dominate the view.

We had an advantage here in that plants are our point of greatest expertise and my crews are well-seasoned professionals who work expertly with my staff and I during garden installations.  We know all about plant spacing and growth patterns and position each individual plant in a way that those in the foreground won’t block awareness of what lay beyond – a sort of deliberate layering that gives garden spaces an inviting sense of depth and complexity.  This, we believe, is the sort of impression that pulls people into the space where they can discover its full extent and explore its mysteries.

Another edge we have is that we handle both design and installation.  This gives us the opportunity to work physically within the space rather than simply creating a plan view and moving on:  We’ve always believed that understanding the installation process ultimately improves the work we start by developing a design.

In this case, the entire aim of that design was to provide a sense that the landscape had been there for years and had matured gracefully along with the home.  In my opinion, this particular house is one of the prettiest on a street filled by lovely homes and therefore deserved to present itself with a well-dressed, even regal sense of sophistication – beginning, of course, with the front yard.


As was mentioned above, the clients’ appreciation of what we were doing in the back yard is what led them to ask us to work on the front yard as well.  In so doing, we respected what was there when it came to placements, but as we’d done with the driveway, we replaced details such as the walkway with weathered stones that lent a sense of antiquity to the main approach to the front door.

We supported that temporal transformation by installing a waterfeature on the front porch made with a trough that had been used to water livestock in the French Pyrenees hundreds of years ago.

Using the neighborhood’s existing, purple-flowered Jacarandas as a point of departure, we planted brightly colored camellias, hydrangeas and gardenias in the front yard.  We also installed a secondary decomposed-granite path along the side of the house, bringing passersby into close contact with the fragrant plants and encouraging them to appreciate some of the home’s finer architectural details.  In addition, we planted antique climbing roses to crawl up the stone face of the house and the small retaining walls we’d built from reclaimed material.   

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The glass-wrapped conservatory was the key architectural addition to the home and became the key focal point we used in organizing the backyard space.  Directly opposite, we placed an outdoor room that includes a large fireplace.  Just behind it, we set a raised spa that now offers superb views of the gardens beyond.

As you walk through the shade of the porte-cochère and enter the backyard, you pass through a small space darkened by ivy before the backyard unfolds.  Alternatively, the yard is approached via a door off to the side of the solarium – another space we shaded with hanging vines and other plants to create a sense of entering a new and special space beyond.  

To the right of this door is a stone-clad outdoor fireplace with an associated deck/gathering place.  To the left is a raised circular spa that provides views of the gardens beyond.

As mentioned above, while you’re in the solarium, you look through all of the spaces we’ve established to the very back of the property, where we positioned an intriguing, weeping stone wall that features a mask of Ariadne (companion of Bacchus the wine god and herself the goddess of ancient Crete) with a spout pouring into an antique bathtub.   

This back area has a lawn and includes a cupola the owners had in storage.  The perimeter (where the privacy hedges had been) was planted with sporadically spaced Italian Cypresses punctuated by butter-yellow roses we set in the gaps.  The walls themselves are finished with a distressed, soft-yellow plaster and have been capped with pieces of the stone we used throughout the landscape.


As was mentioned above, initial thinking about the backyard included a swimming pool, but when all was said and done we followed a more restrained path and went with three small watershapes:  the all-tile circular spa, the antique trough near the front door and the weeping wall featuring Ariadne.   

As we collectively came to see it, these relatively modest watershapes do more for the space than a large, static pool would have, introducing the sounds of moving water, providing distinct, remote destinations within the landscape and giving us a means of bringing sculptural elements into the space.   

The spa is truly elegant:  a raised, circular vessel clad inside with a beautiful porcelain-tile mosaic marked by prominent olive greens and buttery yellows.  Its stone-clad wall rises beneath a trellis with hanging grapevines – an area that feels very private but is also well-suited for socializing.  The fact that it’s raised not only gives bathers and non-bathers a place to sit, but also offers advantageous views of the garden.

We located the spa’s equipment about 75 feet away on the far side of the driveway in an area enclosed by an intriguing wood-and-metal gate.  This way, instead of looking to all the world like a utility area, we’ve created another destination.


Toward the back of the property, we established a key destination in the form of a weeping-wall composition that features a mask of the Greek goddess Ariadne that shoots water into an old copper tub – a great way to summarize the sense of antiquity we wanted to bring to the outdoor spaces.

Of the three watershapes, the most unusual is the weeping-wall/tub combination at the back of the property.  As mentioned previously, it features a mask of Ariadne mounted on an ancient-looking stone surface.  Water issues from the mouth of the goddess; it also weeps through the rough-hewn stones, which we’ve left to collect moss that contributes to the aged appearance.

The story of the acquisition of this feature’s copper tub bears mention:  I found it way in the back of an antiques store on Melrose, a street in Los Angeles known for such establishments, and the owner was an old codger who really didn’t want to sell it to me.  (He declared that it had originally been owned by Esther Williams:  I have no way of knowing whether that was true or not, but in any case, he wouldn’t budge.)

It was perfect for what we wanted, however, so I made my case and ended up begging him to reconsider.  I finally left him my card and walked away, but I kept after him with repeated phone calls until he finally relented and named a price.  I visited his shop with the clients, who fell in love with the tub and acquired it on the spot.

The piece was so beautiful that it warranted a great setting, and the weeping wall was the result.  When I subsequently found the Ariadne mask and suggested adding it to the composition, I knew we had it made.


The story of this project ends on a wonderful and truly unusual note.

From the start, we knew we had to complete our work in time for the celebration of their father’s/father-in-law’s 80th birthday.  We were all for meeting that goal, and as we came to know the clients and came to appreciate the fact that they were fun, kind-hearted people with fantastic creative spirits, we were even more intent on doing all we could to let them start enjoying their refurbished property well before the deadline passed.

We’d wrapped up our work in the front yard and applied finishing touches out back with days to spare, leaving plenty of time for party preparations.  On the big day and as a surprise for her father, they had obtained the permits required to close off the block to traffic and somehow managed to hire the University of Southern California’s famous marching band to come down the street and stop in front of the house, where they performed to everyone’s delight and amazement.

To all of us who were involved in this wonderful project, this seemed like the perfect exclamation point to close off what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable jobs we’ve ever done.


Colleen Holmes is president of New Leaf Landscape, a full-service landscape design/construction firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif. A landscape designer with more than 30 years’ experience, she began her career as a child at the side of her father, Charles Prowse, who instilled in her a love of the art of landscape design. She studied landscape architecture at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., where she was profoundly influenced by sculptor/landscape artist Michael Watling, and later attended UCLA’s school of landscape architecture. Her early work focused on designs for country clubs and gated communities in the Coachella Valley. Since then, Holmes has run her own pool and landscape maintenance firms and founded her first landscape design/construction company in 1980. She established her current firm in 1987 and now focuses exclusively on high-end residential projects including a number of celebrities’ homes.

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