Time to turn back the clock to when early-20th-century homes were one with nature?
By Michael Good | HouseCalls
History seems to have overlooked the landscape architect. On the city of San Diego’s website you’ll find information about some 60 master architects, roughly 30 master builders, but only two master landscape architects.
Yet garden design was an important part of early-20th-century residential architecture. The Craftsman house was specifically conceived as a blend of indoors and out. Esthetically, Craftsman houses were based on natural forms and colors. Philosophically, they were based on the belief that nature didn’t have to be tamed and subdued, as the Victorians thought. The Craftsman house’s mix of earth tones, natural materials, ground-hugging construction, and interconnected plants and garden structures made the house appear part of the landscape.
The Spanish Revival bungalow was also at one with nature. Based on Mediterranean and early California designs, it was defined by outdoor living spaces: walled courtyards, L-shaped designs that wrapped around patios, and covered arcades that encouraged outdoor living.
Unfortunately, much of the early-20th-century landscape designers’ handiwork has disappeared. Nature has a way of reclaiming its own, and destroying our feeble attempts to imitate it. Rain, rot, sun and termites make quick work of garden structures. And flowers, groundcover, lawn, bushes, trees — all have an irritating habit of dying.
Then there are the depredations of man. Beginning in the 1930s, a new sort of frugality took over the streetcar suburbs. Every bungalow got painted white, lawns and gardens were converted to dirt patches, patios and porches were enclosed and turned into rooms that could be rented out, and houses became much less homelike and more utilitarian and easier to maintain.
With the recent renaissance of San Diego’s urban neighborhoods, that attitude has changed. Not only are homeowners reclaiming the neighborhood, they’re reclaiming their outdoor living spaces. It must be something in the water — or maybe it’s the beer. Instead of drinking in dark, smoke-filled taverns, San Diegans are downing a lager in the bright sunshine of an urban garden (North Park’s Art Produce beer garden comes to mind). The trend has even gone national. A recent survey of new homebuyers found that the most requested feature was outdoor living space. New homebuilders have responded with disappearing walls and outdoor living rooms in “demonstration” houses.
South Park’s Old House Fair, which for 18 years has been the place to find a vintage building contractor, is hip to the trend. This year’s edition has almost as many landscape contractors as contractors of the wood-and-plaster, kitchen-and-bath kind. Many of the this year’s exhibitors will be familiar to anyone who has driven the neighborhood and noticed the signs, including: Nature’s Elements Landscaping, Mooch Exterior Designs and Raymond Shaw Landscape Design. Then there’s the new kid on the block: James Fahy of Deep Rooted Designs. This year Fahy will have not only a booth, but also a house on the tour as well.
“We’re a new company,” Fahy said. “This is just our third year in business. Last year we did the Old House Fair. A South Park couple came by the booth. In September, they gave us a call and said they wanted to work together. We found out a couple months ago we’re going to be on the tour.”
It was a typical small Spanish Revival bungalow, with a broken-down backyard fence and rotting pergola. What wasn’t typical, Fahy said, is that many of the ideas for the landscape design came from the owners.
“We put together a vision board (based on clippings the homeowners liked), to get the ball rolling. They had an idea what they wanted to achieve. It was a real collaboration.”
Fahy uses 3-D rendering to help the client visualize the finished project, but there’s nothing like actually walking through the house from front to back, indoors to outdoors, to experience the flow, which you can do on the tour.
The master builders who worked in the neighborhood 100 years ago came from all walks of life, and often didn’t become builders until after they arrived in San Diego. One was a Hollywood photographer and publicist. Another was an Episcopalian minister. Yet another was a streetcar conductor.
Fahy was originally from Connecticut and has a degree in marketing. In New York City, he ran a construction company that updated inefficient lighting in commercial buildings. Then five years ago he “took a leap of faith” and came to San Diego.
“If someone told me when I was 20 that I’d be living in San Diego working in landscaping, I would have thought there’s no way. If I’d gone to a psychic, I would have asked for my money back. But that’s just how life works.”
In San Diego, Fahy discovered North Park. The authentic feel and creative energy reminded him more of an East Coast urban neighborhood than a West Coast community. He ended up working for a landscaping company in the back office, and then decided to branch out on his own. The business has grown like a bougainvillea with deep roots and a drip irrigation system.
Speaking of the South Park project, Fahy said, “Everything we put in there is waterwise — from shrubs to drought-tolerant grasses to modified drip systems. Everything is self-sustainable. After three months, you could drop the water times down to about six minutes a week.”
Each plant takes only about a pint of water a week. For the project in South Park, he estimated they cut water use by 500 percent.
The trend for waterwise gardens has undoubtedly been a boon for landscape designers and builders (and a bust for the old-school maintenance guy with a lawnmower in the back of his truck). But it is a trend, however, and subject to the usual popular misconceptions.
For example, San Diego isn’t exactly in the middle of a drought. Rainfall last year was 114 percent of normal. This year’s total is only slightly below average, with three months to go in the water year. Of course, most of our water comes from the Colorado River, and water levels at one of that river’s reservoirs, Lake Mead, are at record lows. But local water supplies are secure for some time to come. Since we have a water surplus, not a shortage, with the new desalination plant online, rates are going to go up because homeowners aren’t using enough water. Then there’s global change to consider, which is caused, in part, by deforestation. We should be planting trees and bushes, not cacti. We should be covering the ground with something growing, not granite.
“But there’s something more going on here,” Fahy said. “It’s not just saving water and saving money. It’s also saving time. It’s the attraction of a turnkey watering system, plants that almost sustain themselves.
“What I’m seeing in North Park and South Park is that homeowners have two concerns. There’s a problem with water. But there’s also a problem with the house. North Park and South Park are high-priced and you don’t get much for your money. You can add an outdoor living space in the back of a house for a fraction of the cost of building another room inside the house. An outdoor space can maximize the square footage of the lot and the square footage of the house.”
The Old House Fair is Saturday, June 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 30th and Beech streets. There will be live entertainment, in addition to contractors, vintage crafts and craftsmen. The restaurants in the area will be open, including a number of drinking establishments: Hamilton’s bar, South Park Brewing and Kindred. The combination of contractors and beer is a natural — at the fair, if not the job site.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.