Rooms With a View

A South Pasadena architect restores her garden to its former glory.

By Susan Carrier

Susan Carrier is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who has written about homes, gardens and neighborhoods for  the LA Times, Sunset Magazine, LA Architect and other local and national publications.

Article published online here: PATCH

Susan Masterman, a South Pasadena architect, designs houses and interior rooms for a living. But one of her most rewarding challenges has been re-creating a series of outdoor rooms in her family’s South Pasadena garden.

The 1922 Mediterranean Revival home where Susan lives with husband, Brian, and their three children (ages 7, 10 and 13) came with a pedigree. Famed Pasadena architect Reginald D. Johnson designed the 5,000-plus-square-foot home. Johnson’s other projects include the All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara City Hall.

In 1930, noted landscape architects Florence Yoch and Lucile Councils created the home’s gardens. The life and landscaping team designed and executed more than 250 gardens, including the private home of MGM’s David O. Selznick and the garden setting of Tara in Gone with the Wind.

Yoch studied at University of California, Berkeley; Cornell; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she completed a degree in landscape gardening.  But, according to Susan, her real education in formal gardens came from “the grand European tour.”

At her own house,any influence from formal European gardens was erased when the homeowners in the 1970s decided to “update” the gardens. A large, crescent-shaped lawn replaced the formal rooms of the original landscape.

Susan’s goal was to restore the formal elements of the original garden while reusing as much of the existing planting and hardscape materials as possible. The concrete driveway was replaced with pea gravel, a popular landscaping material in Yoch’s time. Susan had the concrete, another material favored by Yoch, cut into rectangular pavers. These rectangles, interspersed with woolly thyme, can be seen throughout the gardens.

The concrete and thyme motif is used to introduce each garden room. Susan said that gardeners often fear that that dividing a yard into rooms visually shrinks the space, but the opposite is true. “The rooms create a perspective that reinforces distance,” explained Susan. “Once we reverted to rooms, the yard seemed much bigger.”

The French influence is also reflected in the Mastermans’ potager vegetable garden, where a 20-foot by 50-foot edible garden is designed in a harlequin pattern. “Now we’re out in that part of the yard more than ever before,” said Susan.

“It feels like an old estate now,” said Susan, who completed the project in June 2010. “And yet it’s informal enough to make our family and friends feel comfortable.”

Masterman Tips:

Consider the source: Think about how guests will circulate from the house to patios and gardens and from garden room to room.

Consider the use: How will the homeowners and guests use the outdoor space? For a quiet retreat, for entertaining, for child’s play, for vegetable and flower production or a combination? Susan’s three children use the lawns in the potager garden and living room garden for turning cartwheels and the pea gravel driveway for riding bikes. She and her husband Brian use all of the rooms for relaxing and entertaining.

Consider the scale: The Masterman’s large house called for comparably scaled features in the garden. The wide entrance gate, garden gates and imposing columns incorporated into the front fencing match the scale of their home.

Repeat, repeat, repeat: If “location, location, location” is the real estate catch phrase, then “repeat, repeat, repeat” is the landscaper’s mantra. Susan repeated the broken concrete pavers interspersed with woolly thyme in the front entrance, the front patio, the entrance to the potager garden and the entrance to the living room garden.

Pea gravel is repeated in the driveway and the perimeter of the lawn in the potager garden.

Susan advises landscapers to stick to two or three hardscape materials. Her garden features brick, concrete and pea gravel.

The same advice applies to plants. Susan favors a simple plant palette with “masses of a single plant.” “Otherwise, your yard starts looking like a plant nursery,” she warns.

Be water wise: The Mastermans eliminated most of the large swath of grass, updated the irrigation system and used a mix of native and succulent plantings. The result: A 60 percent reduction in their monthly water bill.

Create focal points: Benches, garden sculptures or plants can give the eye a focal point and create perspective. The benches in both the potager and living room gardens elongate the view and provide a favorite spot for relaxing.

Recommended Reading

Here are a few of the books that inspired Susan Masterman.

Landscaping the American Dream: The Gardens and film sets of Florence Yoch 1890-1972, James J. Yoch, 1989

Johnson, Kaufmann, Coate: Partners in the California Style, Scripps College, 1992

Italian Villas & Their Gardens, Edith Wharton, 1904

My Kind of Garden, David Hicks, 1999

California Gardens, Winifred Starr Dobyns, 1931