Photo by Robert Burroughs
"The house is the most beautiful thing I have. It’s a house you can happily end your life in. Isn’t that the definition of a great house?”
The villa high above the sea on the semi-wooded northern slope of Mount Soledad is typical of the houses that lie thick on La Jolla’s rich man’s private mountain. A garden carpeted with spongy ice-plant overlooks the blue arc of the bay. Adirondack chairs piled with cushions are placed around a pool trimmed with Portuguese azulea tiles. In one corner of the patio, a bronze parrot preens itself on a metal bough, and around it little bixia trees sit in yellow wooden boxes. This is the Muirlands, and the house’s owner, a 62-year-old plastic surgeon, likes to come out every evening at six, drink a martini on one of the Adirondacks, and admire the view. Next to the chair will be a cedarwood box of 1987 Harvest Crop tabaras. A puff of smoke will go up from the master’s patio parasol, and as the russet cicadas purr in the tufts of pampas grass, another day on San Diego’s wealthiest hill will wind to a close. If it were not for the preposterous Frederick Remington cowboy statues on the balcony, it could be a scene from a Jim Cain roman noir.
It seems a shame to leave the salon, with its weird decor of William Ritschel paintings (a dour wagon on a misty beach) and its pseudo-stucco walls imprinted with trompe l’oeil patterns.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Inside, the house is, perhaps, a plastic surgeon’s dream of courtly, worldly opulence. The front room, with its sliding glass doors overlooking the sea, is filled with matching gray leather furniture, a 19th-century Iranian fringed silk sourog carpet, an igneous stone coffee table, and rows of John Bull china tankards. On one of the mantelpieces sits an ornate French lyre clock with coloured pastes and painted signs of the zodiac. It ticks away lugubriously. And overhead the cedar beams are decorated with painted red Mozarabic zelliges, star-shaped patterns, an Ibero-Moorish feature common to these Spanish Colonial villas from the 1920s.
We dip into the bathroom briefly to ogle the huge tub from Wisconsin and the little patio added “so that the dogs could have a bath whenever they wanted.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“I didn’t move here because of the area,” the surgeon explains, tightening the cord around his quilted banjan, sinking into one of his gray leather armchairs, and lighting a tabara with a silver device in the shape of a tiny Alfa Romeo roadster. “I moved here because of the house. I wanted one of these Hollywood-Spanish places, with the tiles in the pool, the big fireplace, and the painted beams. I came here from New York, the Upper West Side, and I wanted something a bit, you know, Rudolph Valentino-ish. The Moorish feel. My wife had the parrots put in, and the cowboys. They go so well, don’t you think? That was to keep us down to earth. To remind us that we lived in America, after all.”
Upstairs, rose curtains and eiderdowns with embroidered dolphin motifs in the main bedroom offset some garish china and gold-leaf antique lamps.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Most inhabitants of Mount Soledad don’t like to see their names in newspapers. Instead, they prefer to go by anonymous letters, K, G, H, and so on, like the heroes of existentialist novels. Why? Because as owners of the most expensive properties between Los Angeles and the border, they know that they are a burglar’s honeypot. Our surgeon, K, tells me how his late wife spent weeks scouring auction houses all over California for the few pieces of genuine Americana that dot the rooms. Like the wooden spinning wheel in the vestibule. Or the tin milk pails and the faded chintz curtains in the kitchen. What a struggle between them, he chuckles. The country girl’s taste against that of the “sophisticated doctor” (as he puts it) from the Upper West Side.
Winfield Durbin: “Do call ’round anytime you like. I’ll show you my iron window vents."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“The difference between owning a house in New York and owning one in a place like Mount Soledad — and perhaps this is true of all of California — is that [in New York] you feel constrained when you do the inside. You have to be tasteful in one way rather than another. You can’t mix everything up. Here, it’s like living in an isolated ranch house. In a wide empty space. Those parrots, for example. I couldn’t have those in a New York apartment. I mean, people would laugh. But I like them. And people here don’t laugh at anything. If you have a bloody great bronze parrot in your front room next to an 18th-century lyre clock, it goes unnoticed.
“I suppose I’m laughing at myself somewhat. But it’s my patch of mountain. If I want a 30-foot lime-green polyester statue of Marilyn Monroe over my swimming pool, I can put it there. And still nobody will say anything. They’ll just say, ‘Hah, how unusual, K. Are you going to keep her green?’ ”
Upstairs, rose curtains and eiderdowns with embroidered dolphin motifs in the main bedroom offset some garish china and gold-leaf antique lamps, and yet another lyre clock, this time sitting on an old French dresser. In fact, clocks are almost everywhere. Pendulum docks, brass docks, cuckoo docks. A soft, unsynchronized ticking follows you from room to room.
“I sort of got obsessed with time here,” says K. He muses and rubs his chin as he leads the way to a second salon lovingly draped with acrylic paintings of tropical beaches and tinkling glass-droplet lamps. “It’s so quiet you can’t help thinking about it. When I moved here, I was on the point of a nervous breakdown. I wanted to bow out. I became quite Oriental, actually. Bought all these Japanese screens and Chinese knickknacks. I didn’t think they’d clash with my wife’s Belgian china shepherdesses, and I thought it might inject, you know, a philosophical note into the place. The house itself encouraged me to be hermitic, and I hardly ever used to leave it.
“When my wife died, she [K uses the female pronoun happily to describe the villa] was my compensation. There was the garden, the clocks to look after, the period fittings I like restoring. Eventually, though, I snapped out of that mood. I saw myself turning into a house ghost. Now, this is really an old man’s house. I think of it as the paltry illusion of a hacienda. A tacky fantasy, I suppose, but endearing in its way.
“And Mount Soledad, if you want to know, is tailor-made for the old. At least, the misanthropic old like myself. Nobody knows anybody else, so you don’t have to spend hours yapping at the corner store with Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones. You can just fade away with good weather. The only thing I plan to do is place a telescope on the roof so that I can explore Venus. Venus, you know, is very clear from the top of Mount Soledad.”
Back on the faintly decadent patio, among the parrots, the bixia trees and the ostentatious thermometers, K lights up again and motions, with a rather imperial wave of the hand, to the other houses secreted in the side of the hill. “The only people I know here are old. Maybe that’s me. On the other hand, it’s possible we all came here to die. All the old doctors, I mean. It’s an appalling thought, but Mount Soledad might just be the living graveyard of America’s most successful doctors. Because everyone here is a surgeon or a doctor. Old surgeons in Spanish villas. Bloody atrocious, really.”
He inhales ferociously and rolls his eyes. As twilight falls, you can see them, the old surgeons, gathering around their pools, their barbecues, their wagging Great Danes. Mount Soledad is their repose after a lifetime’s hacking flesh and sewing up hearts. Or, in the case of K, stretching rich women’s faces behind their ears. Apart from the cicadas, a deathly silence soon falls over the place, and Venus indeed rises in the sky. K takes out an immense ring of keys. Before going to bed, he says, he has to triple-lock 13 doors. “Make sure you don’t print my address, or my name,” he growls, nevertheless offering me a free cigar as if to seal a gentleman’s agreement. “If you do, I’ll be dead in my bed by the end of the week. Locks or no locks. And then I’ll be a real house ghost.”
The minute hand of the lyre clock suddenly touches 12, and a hellish sound of barely concordant bells crashes through the quiet. Looking closely, I can see that the hour hand, a bronze arabesque, has come to rest suggestively on the Scorpion. At the same moment, the great iron Spanish lamps go out, and a dog begins to bark. K locks the door. And the house suddenly looks like a fairy-tale castle sealed for a thousand years.
Until recently, I had never heard of Mount Soledad. Passing the huge sugar-white crucifix at its summit on Interstate 5, I would think that Carmelite nuns lived up there, or some Baptist commune looking down with hostility at the Hollywood-Gothic temple of the Mormons below. Then came a feature in a spring edition of Vanity Fair on fallen financier Ivan Boesky, with a series of photographs of his multimillion-dollar home at the top of Mount Soledad, maintained by a family of Iranian housekeepers. Since my New York apartment is one floor below that of Ivan Boesky’s son, and I often spy the bedraggled white-haired Ivan loping up and down the stairs of 42 Bank Street, I had to wonder why, of all the places in the world available to a Master of the Universe, he would choose to live on Soledad. Surely not, as the article suggested, for the sake of his sun tan. And surely not for the privacy.
Mount Soledad, it is true, is one of the most haughty neighborhoods in the United States. And it’s suffocatingly quaint. Small, cracked tarmac roads weave their way arduously up the crests of canyons and through slopes of chaparral, rising between walls of bougainvillea, flowering tipi trees, and carefully planted jasmine. Spanish Colonial villas, mock Chinese pagodas, fake Indian palaces, wooden modernist chalets, Tudor mansions, and pseudo-French Provincial cottages line streets with names like Mecca, Al Bahr, Amalfi, and Capri.
The hill first became a gold mine in the ’20s. A real estate advertisement in the La Jolla Journal dated July 12, 1928, declares Ludington Heights, on one of the lower slopes, to be “Jewel City” or “The Gem Supreme,” and the north slope of Mount Soledad in general to be “the most beautiful part of La Jolla, adjoining the City Park, the Country Club and Country Club golf course.” It goes on, “The marine and mountain view is superb, unobstructable and free from sun glare.” Down below, it says, you see “never ceasing breakers.” And the estimable Mr. W.F. Ludington, the reader is told, is employing armies of engineers to make Ludington Heights “the most highly improved residential park in Southern California.”
If K is correct about the physician population of Soledad, then Ludington Heights might provide the proof. A famous vascular surgeon does live here, and his abode is typical of the Spanish cottages built in the ’20s. Intimate white-washed walls, carved fountainheads, black wood beams, and heraldic iron screens. On a small lawn — nothing too ostentatious — a sundial sits next to a statue of St. Francis, the whole enclosed by gnarled pine trees. A Mexican maid answers the door, using her foot to keep at bay a slavering dog. The vascular surgeon is away, doing vascular surgery, the maid offers, but his wife is home, and she doesn’t mind showing someone around her house. For the sake of simplicity, call the lady of the house H.
The surgeon’s wife is resplendent in a Paloma Picasso belt and has one of those beautiful, slightly rarefied faces sometimes seen in provincial English stained glass windows. We go into an austerely elegant salon configured with various pieces of Mies van der Rohe furniture. “We used to live in a Mies house in Chicago and simply brought all the furniture with us when we moved to La Jolla,” she explains. “Then I mixed it with things I found locally, like that southwestern tiled table. The elephant we got in India. And the armchairs are European, of course. I love English tables. The Pembroke and the Sheraton there...couldn’t live without an English table."
The room, whose high, uncluttered windows look out over the canyon into which the house is built, is actually a cave of cosmopolitan gewgaws: a rug in the shape of a piano, a Mexican Tree of Life, a black marble table with a chess set, and a large, glossy doctor’s couch of black leather posed a little dramatically by the fireplace. It’s an interior with the feel of the country retreat of a Spanish aristocrat. Black iron, white plaster, subtle touches of azure and yellow tilework. But also the feel of a house with only a tentative sense of its own domesticity. There is a strange starkness in its labored order.
Outside, the garden slopes vertiginously downward as it follows the side of the canyon overflowing with silver dollar eucalyptus and Torrey pines and with ugly, middle-rent wooden units.
“It’s a disaster what they’ve done there. It really irritates me. Really.”
She peers with disgust at the nondescript boxes clinging ignominiously to the far side of the canyon. Their vulgarity, not even faintly disguised, seems almost implausible. “I wonder who on earth lives there. It’s completely baffling. And I’m sure they’re not poor. But then, I suppose they don’t have to look at their own houses, do they?”
We round a corner of the house to a flight of steps, and she points to cracks breaking open parts of the surface. “That’s from an earthquake in the ’30s. These old houses are like that. But then again, we had to have a Spanish Colonial place. It’s the charm. Where else in this country do you get charm? Not many places. Charm is priceless. This could be the best place to live in North America simply because of the charm. And Spanish is the ultimate in charm. It’s one of the few places in America that has a European feel. What’s more, all the houses around here are owned by doctors. It’s a doctors’ neighborhood, and so we feel at home. I couldn’t imagine anything unpleasant happening here. The only problem is the cost of tree tenders. That, and the odd — how shall I say? — tasteless neighbor.” She contorts her face into an expression of what can only be called territorial exasperation. “I don’t mean the doctors, of course.”
Back inside, the telephone rings constantly, La Jolla’s bustling social circuit bursting into the carefully construed solitude; and the tree tender, the gardener, and the maid, all speaking the same language, collide constantly around the White Mistress. “Keeping these old Soledad houses is a vocation, it really is. Nothing less than a vocation. It’s why many people on the mountain get obsessed with them. There’s no time to do anything else. No time at all. That’s why this house is not a house. It’s a lifestyle.” Of course, the rich always complain that being rich is a fulltime job. What with the antique door knockers to replace, the hedges to align, and the odd statue of St. Francis to maintain, time is on the short side. On the other hand, the houses of Soledad also seem to brim with a strange kind of excess time. Things stand still here. There’s no rustle of ordinary life, no acceleration and deceleration. The nostalgic architecture of the houses induces a facetious impression of timelessness. Never do you see even a lone pedestrian nosing about here, or at least not one without a dog to walk. As if the whole point of this fantasy neighborhood were to escape from, and resolutely deny, the hustle necessary to pay for it all.
Because she is so busy at the heart of this utter calm, H cannot talk for long. We go out onto the front lawn, and she points out a sunken bungalow at the end of Ludington Place. “That’s the house where David McWhirter and Oscar Madison used to live — you know, the couple who wrote The Odd Couple. That used to be the wild house of Soledad. Not anymore. And right next to it is the house where Victor Hugo’s great-niece used to live — she only died a few years ago. The house belongs to a doctor now. You should go in. It’s a curious place.”
Number 7782 is pastichey and quaint. A carved wooden church door hauled back from a Tuscan village, stucco ceiling moldings, and a mysterious, terraced Finzi-Contini garden with junipers and bird-of-paradise trees. The son of Victor Hugo’s niece was a movie producer who brought home icons for mother. And the Hollywood decor matches the architectural ethos of much of Soledad, which was bought up by producers as empty lots 70 years ago.
“In the 1910s and ’20s,” says Ray Brandes, a local historian, “studio heads sent architects to Toledo, Madrid, and even India to copy buildings for set designs. Soon stars and moguls began to build their own homes in the same styles — Iberian castles, Normandy-French Provincial, Moghul-lndian, and so on. The decor of the epic swashbuckler entered real life. In fact, movies were responsible for the Spanish Colonial style in Southern California, not Spanish colonials.”
Where, though, did this curiously unreal style come from? The answer lies in large part with one man, the early California architect (and fantasist) Richard Requa.
In 1900 Requa emigrated from Nebraska to La Jolla and in 1907 was apprenticed to Irving Gill, the foremost San Diego architect of the early 20th Century. Requa opened his own practice in the ’20s that gave him the materials to develop a fresh architectural language. Requa loved the Islamic designs of Ibero-Moorish and Andalucian architecture — the tile roofs, balconies, window grills, and wrought iron used inside and out. Back in San Diego, he began to put large windows into neo-colonial designs to lighten them and to pioneer landscaped gardens that would fuse with the building as an integrated whole. With such large windows, the landscaping became a visual part the interior space, changing the balance between interior and exterior that had pertained before. Soliciting the “People of Plenty" who had bought homes along the La Jolla shores, mostly wealthy mercantile families from the East who would use San Diego as a retirement or summer escape, Requa began to change the semi-urban landscape into one of decorous and sheltered Andalucian whimsy.
Eventually a circle of architects emerged, based in contract work in La Jolla, where they had the greatest freedom to experiment. As for Requa, his masterpiece is on Mount Soledad: the MacDonald residence, at 7329 Country Club Drive.
This mansion has a delicate interior courtyard with the typical Requa-esque Moorish fountain. A breezeway with doors that can be opened to the sea wind, a clever little fold-out chair hidden beneath a telephone stand. Wrought-iron handrails on balconies and inside staircases that subtly echo each other. Andalucian tiles on patio and steps. This 1932 mini-palace designed for mining engineer William T. MacDonald remains a perfect crystalization of early Southern California architecture. A style based wholly on sly historical fantasy and nostalgia. The relentless American quest for “charm.”
A little farther up the hill, in the direction of Via Capri, lies yet another of these dreamy mansions, but this time in the mock-Tudor mold. These Olde England beam-and-plaster heaps were immensely popular in the ’20s, and Soledad boasts several of them, some designed by Edgar Ullrich. Half-way through an English garden of Christman roses to match the mullioned windows and pointed gables, I am met by a plaster model of a white cat and, sitting next to it licking a paw, a real white cat indistinguishable from it. The two of them look up at me with cornflower blue eyes. Then a voice pipes up from one of the mullioned windows. “Vinegar! Come inside!”
A 50-ish woman in what might well be a Laura Ashley apron appears at her outlandishly over-English beam door carrying, of all things, a scone tin. Vinegar suddenly looks very sinister.
The owner, who will have to be named P, bought her house after a two-year sojourn in England. It wasn’t the actual 16th-century Elizabethan houses that impressed her, though, so much as the mass-produced imitations she saw everywhere in the doldrum middle-class suburbs of Surrey. They struck her as, well, charming. Charm without damp. “What I loved about the English suburbs was the historical styles of the houses. A whole street might be made up of Tudor houses, every one identical. But at the same time you could imagine being inside one of them and making it yours. They looked like real castles. Not like nondescript developments.”
The inside of this house on Soledad has a post-Victorian magpie plushness oddly similar to the houses of reasonably well-off English grandmothers. There are, for example, those beaten brass plates with embossed scenes from the English Civil War that I remember from my great-aunt’s living room. And the ruby-glass fruit bowls. The orumulu candle snuffers displayed on a background of lilac wallpaper with vertical vine motifs. The vellum snuffbox with a picture of Bellona, Roman goddess of war, on a mantelpiece. And, most of all, those slightly smelly, high-backed wing chairs with floral tapestry covers and tasseled cushions. All lit by tall floor lamps with parchment shades depicting bloody scenes of 19th-century fox hunts. The only strange note is the Dresden china model of the Last Supper sitting on the same mantelpiece and next to it the row of tiny china viola da gambas with painted gold pegs. I seem to recognize these items from the garish curiosity shops on Girard Avenue.
“I moved here,” says P very politely, “from a city in the East [she carefully doesn’t say which one]. La Jolla struck me as very nice. But Mount Soledad was the best place to live here because of the atmosphere of the houses. You see all the beams I have here? That’s Old World detail. Americans don’t know how to build them now. Same with the doors. It’s such an un-American house...that’s why it’s charming. I think that back then the architects were giving Americans what they want, which is to not be Americans in some way. Not alien, but not American either.”
The kitchen is a riot of pinewood and chintz, Fortnum and Mason tea boxes, and shiny, fire-engine red cracker tins. There are dough rollers, suet bags, and tea-pots with rabbits’ ears. A neat shelf of herb pots and a jar of Liquorice Allsorts.
Upstairs, pink-and-white bedrooms doze in a sunlight filtered through assiduously pruned trellises of convolvulus. A teddy bear on one of the beds and a hot water bottle cover of chunky, multicolored wool on another. The simple pre-war bathroom is stocked with Body Shop lotions and nameless perfume bottles marked Lavender Surprise. The whole house radiates a feeling of some confident, self-contained wish to be elsewhere in spirit “No,” P replies, “I don’t want to be elsewhere. I just like something in my roots. Because my roots are British. Distantly, but there nevertheless. So to live in a Tudor house is comforting. There was one house I saw in England that I loved...Anne of Cleves’ house in Ditchling, in Sussex. Beamed houses have a definite melancholy about them. A feeling of being buried. And so sometimes, because I’m here alone, I think of Anne of Cleves. I wonder what she would have made of palm trees?”
We go into a tiny parlor with a wing table and painted china plates in wire brackets attached to the walls. Again, these evoke memories of other places. And there is a musty, faint odor, perhaps some disinfectant I have never been able to name, that brings back to me the gloomy insides of English mansions. The china plates show Holman Hunt-style scenes of the Holy Land.
“I don’t know where I’d move to from here. There isn’t another American city with a place like this. The illusion here is so complete. It’s not as if you had an American house or neighborhood with foreign influences. Here, it’s the other way around. And it feels complete. Mount Soledad is not going to change for a long time.”
A game of patience is laid out on the wing table, three or four cards turned up. P has a system, related to the mysteries of Christian Science, that enables her to see fragments of the future. She has a twinkle in her eye. “They told me yesterday,” she says gaily as she leads me back to the door, “that if 1 stay here, I’m not going to die. If 1 didn’t, I don’t suppose anyone around here would notice one way or the other. Except Vinegar.”
The white cat still sits by his model likeness. As I close the scrolled ironwork gate and look back up the red brick herringbone path, I am absolutely sure that it is the model, and not the other, that moves its paw.
The developers and real estaters have I not finished with Mount Soledad, however. On Soledad Avenue, the mountain’s newest palace has just gone up, a huge three-story
Italianate abode on the lot of number 1560, managed by the Willis Allen Company of La Jolla’s Wall Street.
In many ways it typifies the ideal house imagined by the wealthy of Southern California. The first precondition, now as in the ’20s and ’30s, is the complex of references to the lost Old World, a world that is archly recovered with oodles of Mediterranean marble, French limestone and, in this case, a forecourt of Italian cobbles.
The agent is a charming Israeli fellow who meets me in front of an old barnwood door inset with panes of beveled glass. It is strange to go into a house in which no one has yet lived, trespassing on the future. But it is difficult to imagine much domestic intimacy within this cold, haughty mansion built on a 20,000-square-foot lot, with its dozens of bedrooms and bathrooms, its hushed elevator, 22-foot ceilings, and powder rooms with antique candle holders on the walls. The agent, though, is genuinely in awe of the level of accomplishment in the finish and in the modesty of the $4 million price tag.
“I like to think of this as the ultimate affordable dream house. I mean, a house is not just a possession. It says everything about you. Everything. It literally is your life. You don’t buy a house in a place like Mount Soledad if you aren’t totally absorbed in the house itself. If it isn’t everything to you. There isn’t a neighborhood here, in the urban sense. So the house becomes the major focal point of your life. What do people here want in a house for four or five million dollars? Well, a view of the ocean. Masonry fireplaces. A cherrywood library. Ciaggenau ovens, a sauna and ballet bar in the gym. A whirlpool tub in the master suite. Marvin windows and 14-foot arched French doors. Solid oak flooring with herringbone center design. A grand salon like this. A wine cellar. The lot. Seen the 43-foot pool? A feeling of liberation...sky, sea, shoreline, mountainside. That, and the antique details that free you, if you like, from the present. That’s what Mount Soledad was always really about — turning back the clock. Escaping from the present.”
The imposing 1560, which some happy owner will probably soon name Casa de something or other, encapsulates half a century of Riviera mimicry that has made the Mount the way it is. We go into the elevator and rise silently to the second floor. The experience is eerie. Upstairs, the place feels like a New Orleans plantation-mansion straight out of Jezebel. You peer over an enormous balustrade into the gigantic, overblown salon with its limestone fireplaces and its vast arched window overlooking the Shores. Yet it is somehow impossible to imagine an actual ball taking place there. The place will never resound to string quartets and whirling couples, whatever the evocations of the deliberately anachronistic decor.
We wander through a dizzying array of bedrooms, bathrooms, and adjacent whirlpools, each as confusingly characterless as the last. “Basically,” our man says cheerfully, “this is perfection. Utter perfection. In a house like this you can live like a prince. That’s what it has been designed for, princely living.”
As a matter of interest, has anyone yet made an offer for the princely abode? “Well, no, not yet. I mean, we’re still in the recession. I suppose you could say there’s a shortage of princes right now.”
He laughs with a kind of nervous resentment and takes me back down to the ground floor, where we wander for what seems like an eternity around a kitchen the size of a football field. “Isn’t it amazing?” he enthuses. “Look, two sub-zero refrigerators! A Jenn-Air Grill...A Thermador warming drawer! An Ise insinkerator! Task lighting! There’s nothing better. It’s a kitchen with everything mapped out from A to Z. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Someone very lucky is going to be very happy here.” We go out onto the patio. Mount Soledad stretches up behind us, brilliant in the morning sun, the jacaranda trees and date palms glittering in a half-convincing simulacrum of the original Eden. In the distance is the Scripps pier and a curve of beach. The agent inhales with closed eyes, as if breathing in the purest air since Man stepped forth from the Garden. “For this location,” he sighs, “four and a half million is a steal. Mount Soledad is as close to Eden as you can get in Southern California. Well, Eden with sewage, that is. That’s why it was developed in the first place.”
Eden with sewage? Or for that matter, Eden MKM with vascular surgeons and Dobermans? Is 1560 the perfect house for San Diego’s local top-tax-bracket luminaries? Local estate agents seem to think that Soledad is as unpredictable as a property market can be. Carol Carey, at Prudential California on Silverado Street, handles houses all over the hill. “The houses start at about $700,000, which puts them within reach of a wide spectrum of people. But as for the million-dollar homes high up, they’ve become legendary in the rest of the country.
Maybe the rich like the idea of living on hills. It removes them from things. The houses are not all revival style or nostalgic. But I’d say that those are the best houses. The best built. And they go for the most money. The more money you’re spending, the more you want out of the present day.”
Farther down the hill, as it slopes gently toward the sea, is a spectacular curved street called Sierra Mar, a favorite of Hollywood tycoons in the ’20s. As you take the road down. Alligator Point comes into view, and the ocean spans the horizon, an ingenious piece of suburban landscaping. Halfway down lies perhaps Mount Soledad’s most beautiful period house at number 7755. A sprawling Spanish villa circumscribed by low stucco walls and landscaped gardens designed, it turns out, by the famous landscape artist Milton Sessions.
Four rings of the front door bell bring no response. But a minute later there is a sound of a hose at the side of the house, and the home’s tall, elderly owner, in golf slacks, ambles out holding a magnifying glass in one hand and a pair of cutters in the other. He looks me down with no surprise at all and says, “This damn creeping fig. It’s everywhere, and it’s our own fault. We should have put ivy up, but no, we had to put creeping fig, and now we’re being invaded. I hate creeping fig. It’s disgusting. A scum plant. If I’m not mean with it, there’ll be nothing left soon but a hill of creeping fig.” He takes me inside with a few more expletives directed at the abominable plant.
Inside it is cool and shadowed, a spare Spanish interior with heavy shutters and iron chandeliers. There are original vents on the doors, which open in as the door opens out. Under a spiral staircase stands a Moorish column and alongside it a line of silver dog bowls and four china geese in descending order of height. The effect is a little peculiar.
“The house was built in 1925, all Spanish and French Beaux Arts. I don’t know who the architect was, no one seems to. Not even at the La Jolla Historical Society. All I know is that in the Depression there was too much money around in a few hands, and people like John Rawlins, the guy who developed a lot of this area of Mount Soledad, could build what they wanted. The Rawlinses came from Iowa and bought three houses on Sierra Mar. They built this one, I think, right on the ravine. It’s an amazingly designed house. It has the warmest patio in California. No wind, angled for the sun. Eleven pairs of French doors. Shall we go out?”
It seems a shame to leave the salon, with its weird decor of William Ritschel paintings (a dour wagon on a misty beach) and its pseudo-stucco walls imprinted with trompe l’oeil patterns. The patio pool shimmers in the sun. The edge of a tennis court on slightly higher ground nestles behind lines of orange trees and flower beds. The whole has an untouched Lost Generation aura to it, an effect not carried into the living apartments, which are resolutely modern-American. We dip into the bathroom briefly to ogle the huge tub from Wisconsin and the little patio added “so that the dogs could have a bath whenever they wanted.” Everywhere, marble, arched windows, sudden vistas of sub-tropic hillside. We peer out over the clipped, emerald lawns of the front garden and the deep, wide ocean view beyond.
“We always lived near water and didn't care that much about the ocean view. But then we cut the hedges, and lo and behold, we have a view. I suppose that’s what was intended. And in recent years, I’ve become much, much more absorbed by the house. I spend most of my time trying to find out about it It’s my obsession, I suppose. The history of everything takes on a different meaning as you grow older. For me, even the history of those door vents or the fountain tiles or the tower have resonance. I want to restore the house perfectly...every detail exactly as it was. The house is the most beautiful thing I have. It’s a house you can happily end your life in. Isn’t that the definition of a great house?”
At the end of my visit, he takes me out onto the driveway and shows me the cunning perspectives of the gardens. His eyes are alight. He knows every inch of the terrain, every tiny mathematical nuance of the landscaping. The house has its ultimate master, one utterly fused with his property. There must be dozens of such places on Mount Soledad, sadly and discreetly buried in their luxurious gardens, lost in a netherworld. The whole mountain is so totally self-absorbed that this proprietal obsession is almost inevitable. It is as if the Mount could only end by driving its inhabitants subtly mad by virtue of its sheer preposterousness.
He shakes my hand and waves toward his splendiferous and improbable residence. “Isn’t that where you want to live when you die?”
It is surely impossible to imagine where you want to die. Must it be particularly pleasant? If so, then Sierra Mar is probably as good as anywhere else. Provided, of course, that you can stand your neighbors and afford the tree tenders.
And the owner of number 7755...might he also be a K, an H, or a P?
“Mr. Durbin,” he says with a nod. “Do call ’round anytime you like. I’ll show you my iron window vents. And the room at the top of the tower. The next time you come, the creeping fig might even be in retreat. And no, I am definitely, but definitely, not a doctor.”