Paths, bridges, and staircases wind through the gardens and terraces of the property’s hillside yard.
  • Paths, bridges, and staircases wind through the gardens and terraces of the property’s hillside yard.
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Current Owner: Deborah Szekely

Listing Price: $1,945,000

Beds: 5 | Baths: 5

This week’s property is hidden in Mission Hills, tucked away along a dead-end street and shielded by a wall of towering bamboo interrupted only by an entry gate leading into the meticulously landscaped estate of health-and-fitness pioneer Deborah Szekely.

The residence began its life as a modest redwood cottage in 1914 before undergoing a series of modifications and additions so extensive that Pacific Sotheby’s International agent Janna Hernholm says that even the owner is left guessing as to what the original floorplan looked like. Eventually the home expanded to include five bedrooms, five baths, and 3724 square feet.

The top floor of the home serves as the public reception area, with a small office area by the stairs, larger living room and dining area, and a small galley-style kitchen with breakfast area more akin to what one would expect to find in a home much closer to what could be considered “entry level.” Nonetheless, Hernholm assures that Szekely’s chef does fine with it, accommodating frequent dinner parties for as many as 20 guests. She does concede, though, that the new buyer may want to expand into the adjacent laundry and storage rooms for extra space.

Outside lies a spacious rooftop view deck with a covered seating area and outdoor kitchen. An elaborate stained-glass skylight pierces the deck and looks down into a library area on the home’s second level.

Heading downstairs from the top floor, the stairs land at a second living room with adjacent library space. Two master bedrooms on this level each have exterior entrances; one has a private koi pond outside, visible from large bedroom and bathroom windows. A door almost hidden in the wall paneling leads to another office, once occupied by the late philosopher, psychologist, and author Edmond Szekely, as well as a third en-suite bedroom.

The Japanese tea room–themed meditation room occupies an outbuilding on the lower half of the property.

The Japanese tea room–themed meditation room occupies an outbuilding on the lower half of the property.

A narrow stairway leads down to the home’s bottom level, a large guest suite. Like the others, it’s equipped with a private bath — this one featuring an extra-deep Japanese-style soaking tub — and features an entrance from a secluded patio.

The exterior of the property is what makes the estate exceptional. Szekely spent decades terracing and landscaping the hillside, installing water features, statuary (not included in the sale, but negotiable), and a variety of flowers and other plants. Two gardeners working at the property insist its current (impressive) condition does no justice to the spring and summer months, when foxtails, magenta bougainvillea, white roses, and other blooms cover the grounds.

Much of the landscape design was aided by noted landscape architects Takendo Arii and Sarah Brightwood, Szekely’s daughter, who brought in additional exterior features such as a dark-bottomed lap pool and outbuildings including a small gym, a potting shed, and a meditation room styled after a Japanese teahouse.

The gardens continue down onto a lower level of the property, which includes two lots accessible from Eagle Street not included in the sale. The three lots included on Dove Street add up to just under a half acre of property in all, to which over a quarter acre could be added by acquiring the Eagle lots.

Owner Deborah Szekely is noted for founding Tecate’s Rancho La Puerta with her husband Edmund in 1940, one of the world’s first health spas. In 1958 she went on to establish the highly acclaimed Golden Door in Escondido, a boutique operation that continues to attract patrons willing to spend $7000 or more on a weeklong retreat. She also served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness for the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations.

3232 Dove Street | Mission Hills, 92103

Over the years Szekely has used her home for notable events, including benefits for the Old Globe theater in the 1950s and 1960s, parties featuring celebrity athletes (Szekely was third chair of the board running Jack Murphy Stadium), and events featuring politicians ranging from Pete Wilson to Nancy Pelosi. Guests of Szekely over the years have included Bill and Judith Moyers as well as George and Lenore Romney.

Now 91, Szekely told The Atlantic magazine in October that she’s purchased a smaller house nearby and plans to spend the next decade adding her stylistic touches to it.

The 3232 Dove property was previously listed for $2,900,000, with all five parcels, including the two on Eagle. After several months without a suitable offer, the property was re-listed in December for $1,945,000, this time only including the three Dove Street parcels.

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Wabbitsd Jan. 29, 2014 @ 2:03 p.m.

Thanks for sharing this treasure! Ms. Szekely is certainly an inspiration!


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