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Landscape Revival: A Secluded, Historic 1920s Estate in Santa Barbara (Rose Garden Included)

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Landscape Revival: A Secluded, Historic 1920s Estate in Santa Barbara (Rose Garden Included)

May 15, 2018

For a year now we’ve been tracking Brooklyn-based architect Roberto Sosa around the far reaches of the US, from the Hudson Valley to the wild northern coast of Maui where he’s designed gardens for his remodeled Hawaiian beach cottages and rambling country farms. A few days ago he alerted us to his latest project in yet another corner of the country: a Spanish Colonial house and gardens, designed in 1929 by architect Reginald Davis Johnson (who also designed the main house at Lotusland), in the enclave of Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara, California.

While the house makes a statement (it has nine bedrooms and 13 baths), it’s the gardens we love. The historic nine acres overlooking the ocean had gotten cluttered over the years with colorful plantings and overgrown vines, but Sosa approached the exteriors with subtraction in mind, restoring with a light touch the formal rose garden, outdoor pool, creeping bougainvillea, lemon trees, and Spanish charm—and adding only time-worn pots and planters overflowing with succulents. Join us for a look beyond the gates.

Photography by Roe Anne White and Bill Dewey, except where noted.

The Secluded Front Entry

At the property&#8
Above: At the property’s perimeter, iron gates and a dense stand of oak trees conceal the secluded grounds beyond. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

The clients (who wish to remain anonymous) are “a young, private family, who created, developed, and sold a successful brand,” and with whom Sosa had previously worked on a New York apartment. Their ask, for their return to California? “To keep the beauty and charm of the formal elements, while also making it subtly modern and elegant,” Sosa says.

In tandem with modernizing the house interiors, Sosa worked with Art Gonzalez of local landscaping company Progressive Landscaping to restore the grounds. Perhaps surprising for such a grand canvas, Sosa and team focused on paring back what was there, rather than adding new elements: “There were many established plants that served as a starting point,” Sosa says. “We worked a lot with subtraction, removing a lot of colorful annuals, and filling in beds and borders with a range of textures and a subtle variation of green-gray colors.”

The entryway to the circa- Spanish Colonial. &#8
Above: The entryway to the circa-1929 Spanish Colonial. “The entry terrace was stripped of a lot of colorful annuals, [which we] replaced with asparagus ferns and potted succulents,” Sosa says.
The property has sprawling grounds and several separate garden areas, including a formal hedged rose garden, a rolling lawn, a pool deck, and a central courtyard. Throughout, Sosa and team focused on small but impactful improvements: “The changes were mostly to take away a lot of the annual colorful flowers, remove decaying material, and trim and spruce up the larger trees,” he says. “On the kitchen side, we relocated the air conditioning units to make room for an outdoor kitchen and garden. Most of the change came from sourcing a lot of new plant material from the surrounding nurseries.”
The entryway, with the original tile work and flagstone path preserved. Sosa and Gonzalez &#8
Above: The entryway, with the original tile work and flagstone path preserved. Sosa and Gonzalez “did many trips to local nurseries in search of the perfect material,” Sosa says, and sourced large vintage pots, which look like they’ve been out in the garden since 1929, from Eye of the Day Garden Design Center in nearby Carpinteria. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

The Terrace, for Outdoor Dining

The house is designed for indoor-outdoor living. Throughout, double doors open from the remodeled interiors onto the surrounding grounds.
Above: The house is designed for indoor-outdoor living. Throughout, double doors open from the remodeled interiors onto the surrounding grounds.
When it came to the sprawling terraces—which, as they surround the house become, in turn, an entryway, pool surround, interior courtyard, and al fresco dining area (shown)—Sosa and team elected to go the route of minimal intervention. They preserved the existing flagstone, repairing it only where needed.
Above: When it came to the sprawling terraces—which, as they surround the house become, in turn, an entryway, pool surround, interior courtyard, and al fresco dining area (shown)—Sosa and team elected to go the route of minimal intervention. They preserved the existing flagstone, repairing it only where needed.

The Quiet Courtyard

In the interior courtyard, a lemon tree lends a Mediterranean feel—and some respite from the sun. Throughout, Sosa softened the existing hardscaping with informal clusters of potted drought-resistant plants. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: In the interior courtyard, a lemon tree lends a Mediterranean feel—and some respite from the sun. Throughout, Sosa softened the existing hardscaping with informal clusters of potted drought-resistant plants. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Tall Agapanthus (Lily of the Nile) adds some privacy to a tucked-away patio. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: Tall Agapanthus (Lily of the Nile) adds some privacy to a tucked-away patio. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Original Spanish charm intact. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: Original Spanish charm intact. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

The Formal Rose Garden

The formal rose garden that had fallen into disrepair by the time Sosa stepped in. &#8
Above: The formal rose garden that had fallen into disrepair by the time Sosa stepped in. “The historic garden, which goes back to when the house was built by Reginald Johnson in 1929, has a beautiful tall hedge surrounding a rose garden that was long gone,” he says. “We carefully restored and filled in the enclosing hedges and the low-trimmed box borders, and carefully selected rose plants for the four sections. At the center of each quarter, we planted Charlotte roses, the name of the owner’s daughter,” he adds.

The only architectural change to the garden? Creating an enclosed place for the clients’ children to play. “The garden overlooks a small canyon that runs along the edge of the property with a lot of native oaks and palms. I designed the parapet wall to contain it, in a similar style to the main house. We also added gates to enclose the rose garden and allow the children to play in a contained area,” Sosa says.

The brick paths are also original; Sosa and team repaired them but opted not to alter their well-worn charm. Here, they wind through the property and through Secret Garden–esque archways in the hedges. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: The brick paths are also original; Sosa and team repaired them but opted not to alter their well-worn charm. Here, they wind through the property and through Secret Garden–esque archways in the hedges. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
“We updated the paths with local California plants, mostly drought-tolerant, creating a discovery walk around the west side of the property,” Sosa says. (For more on drought-tolerant plants, see Curb Appeal: 10 Landscaping Ideas for a Low-Water Garden.)
Deeper into the hedge maze. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: Deeper into the hedge maze. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

The Grand Lawn

The grand lawn is kept simple, with a few chaise lounges and neat landscaping. &#8
Above: The grand lawn is kept simple, with a few chaise lounges and neat landscaping. “We removed all the colorful borders and added iceberg roses and asparagus ferns,” Sosa says. The bright bougainvillea over the gallery was permitted to stay.
Sosa and Gonzalez also restored the original Spanish terracotta tiles along the gallery. Beyond, a view of oak trees and the ocean. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: Sosa and Gonzalez also restored the original Spanish terracotta tiles along the gallery. Beyond, a view of oak trees and the ocean. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Sosa sourced antique pots from Wells Tile and Antiques, Early California Antiques, and local shops in Santa Barbara, and peppered them throughout the property, like this one, spilling with succulents.
Above: Sosa sourced antique pots from Wells Tile and Antiques, Early California Antiques, and local shops in Santa Barbara, and peppered them throughout the property, like this one, spilling with succulents.

The Luxe Pool

Elsewhere on the grounds is the luxe outdoor pool, bordered by a hedge, for privacy. &#8
Above: Elsewhere on the grounds is the luxe outdoor pool, bordered by a hedge, for privacy. “We refinished the pergolas and plaster columns, which we then covered in Solanum jasminoides [potato vine] to keep the monochromatic white theme,” Sosa says.
By the pool, &#8
Above: By the pool, “we added large terracotta pots with Phormium Tenax that is very sculptural and loose,” Sosa says. Here, the planters look sparse and elegant against the white exterior walls. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
The view to the ocean, at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: The view to the ocean, at sunset. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

In Progress

The restoration of the rose garden in progress, with history in mind. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.
Above: The restoration of the rose garden in progress, with history in mind. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Sosa.

For much more on the key components of this classic garden, see our guides to Roses, Asparagus Fern, Echeveria, BoxwoodLemon Trees, Decks & Patios, and Pavers.

And for more lush California gardens, check out:

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