Berkeley, California-based landscape architect Frederika Moller met Mark and Blythe Harris after they decided to transform a derelict 19th-century girls’ camp into a family home in Mill Valley, California. The couple wanted the sort of nostalgic garden—with green swaths of lawn surrounded by leafy trees—that evokes memories of long-ago summers at camp.
This presented a challenge. “The first time I saw it, it looked pretty bad, with a front entrance that was sort of funky and off to the side,” says Moller. “In the front the garden was so constrained, because there is a steep slope up to the street. It literally felt like the slope was coming right into the house.”
As the house was being rebuilt (New York-based Gil Schafer and Mill Valley-based architect Barbara Chambers worked together on the three-year project), Moller began to re-imagine how to use the outdoor spaces. “With a project like this, I have to start by having an understanding of elevations and grades and how you’re going to get from A to B, because you have to get to the house and to the front door.”
Photography by Eric Piasecki courtesy of OTTO.
Above: The property sits below the elevation of the street. A staircase next to the garage guides visitors from the street to the house, past Royal Sunset climbing roses trained on wires against the garage.
“We pushed the grade back to give the house some breathing room,” says Moller, who landscaped the slope with a mix of perennials and shrubs.
“The house is smack dab in the middle of the lot, with not that much garden space in the front or the sides,” says Moller. “The biggest challenge was reorganizing the front garden, on which the living room, kitchen, and dining room all look out.”
Above: At the bottom of the steps is the front entryway. The cedar-shingled house is painted in Benjamin Moore’s Black with China White trim. Moller designed the stair rail to match details on the exterior of the house. “We picked up on Barbara’s design so the steps don’t look remote.”
“This is the original front door location, but previously the front walkway was off to the side,” says Moller. “We re-aligned the walkway to make it a straight shot to the front door.”
Above: The lower level of the garage has Dutch doors and opens onto a side garden. For the lawn, “artificial grass was used because there is so much shade from surrounding oak trees,” says Moller.
Above: The artificial grass is DuPont’s ForeverLawn, a fine-bladed turf with a tan thatch at the roots to make it look more natural. (Chambers has the same artificial grass in her own Mill Valley garden. See more at Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley.)
Above: London-based designer Rita Konig did the interiors, including the bottom level of the garage, which is furnished with a vintage bar and bar sink (the faucet is from Lefroy Brooks). The pattern on the floor is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Off-Black.
Above: Custom wooden window boxes are watered by hand; flowers are updated seasonally.
Above: Outside the master bedroom Konig furnished a pocket garden with vintage furniture (the wicker is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Off-Black) and flea market finds. A needlepoint ivy vine planted in the ground is trained in a diamond pattern against a painted brick fireplace.
Behind the sofa, a screen of fast-growing Arborvitae shrubs creates privacy for the neighbors.
Above: On the back of the house and off the living room is a deck with a wood-burning brick fireplace painted to match the facade of the house. On either side of the fireplace ivy in planter boxes grows up a lattice to create a solid green fence.
“The property has some beautiful oak trees and the luxury of the neighbors’ oaks as well, to give a treehouse effect to the deck,” says Moller. “You can see beyond the railing where we lined the bottom of the property with huge shrubs so you can go out on the deck and see trees but not the neighbors’ houses below. You feel like you are in a treehouse.”
Above: The clients, Blythe and Mark Harris (and children Olive and Freddie), sit on bluestone pavers that lead from the back of the house to a bluestone terrace.