Tremaine Garden: A Mid-Century Modern Classic

The succulent garden surrounded the dining terrace on the upper level. A sundeck extended into the landscape and formed the roof of the entertainment pavilion adjacent to the proposed pool. Tree aloes, yuccas, and agaves punctuate succulents massed for color and texture effects

The succulent garden surrounded the dining terrace on the upper level. A sundeck extended into the landscape and formed the roof of the entertainment pavilion adjacent to the proposed pool. Tree aloes, yuccas, and agaves punctuate succulents massed for color and texture effects. Photographs by Russell Beatty

Russell Beatty’s photographs capture the Tremaine garden in 1970 shortly before the Tremaines sold their house. At that time, it was still under the care of its original gardener, Rudy Reyes. There have been numerous alterations to both house and garden in the past thirty years, and the property is now reduced to less than three acres.

Nestled within a seemingly natural landscape, the Tremaine house in Montecito (near Santa Barbara) was recognized the moment it was built in 1948 as a landmark in modern architecture and as a perfect example of the integration of structure and setting. Internationally-renowned architect Richard Neutra designed the house for Warren and Katherine (Kit) Tremaine. Its famous succulent garden also took its place as a unique expression of mid-century modernism. Designed by Santa Barbara landscape architect Ralph T Stevens a year after the house was completed, this garden featured masses of succulents planted for color and texture instead of as individual specimens on display. The effect was almost surreal—and nearly revolutionary for its time.

The succulent garden designed by Ralph T Stevens for the Tremaine house designed by Richard Neutra. Neutra’s use of cut native sandstone steps and native boulders linked the garden to the Santa Barbara region and to the house, where sandstone was also featured. Photographs by Russell Beatty

The succulent garden designed by Ralph T Stevens for the Tremaine house designed by Richard Neutra. Neutra’s use of cut native sandstone steps and native boulders linked the garden to the Santa Barbara region and to the house, where sandstone was also featured

Born and educated in Vienna, Neutra established an architectural office in Los Angeles in the 1920s following a brief career in Europe and employment in the United States with Frank Lloyd Wright. Both of the Tremaines were from wealthy, established families. They collected art and commissioned Neutra because they admired his cutting-edge modern work. The landscape architect for the project was Lockwood de Forest III, who was also from an established, art-collecting family (his father was the painter, Lockwood de Forest). Lockwood de Forest Jr, as he was known, had a reputation as the most talented landscape architect in town, and he was an innovator in establishing a regional identity for Santa Barbara. Like Neutra, he was a significant force in the transition to modernism from the historicism so popular at the turn of the last century. Neutra developed the Tremaine site plan in consultation with de Forest, whose 1945 grading studies included a survey of the existing trees in the proposed building area.

The house was hidden within sixteen acres of native coast live oak and California sycamore trees and approached by a long winding driveway. Rather than clearing the site of its vegetation so the building would appear as a pristine sculptural object (as was typical of modernism at the time), the trees were used to embrace and even screen the house. It was located against a mountain backdrop and spanned a natural drainage swale to an embankment retained with sandstone boulders excavated during grading. Another link to the setting was established through the use of cut native sandstone for the garden steps, terrace walls, and entry façade.

The Tremaine house was firmly modernist in plan and structure, but it interacted with the landscape more effectively than most modernist buildings. Indoor-outdoor relationships were established with expanses of glass, and heated terrazzo flooring flowed from the interior to the terraces. Distinct garden spaces related visually and physically to wings of the house that projected from the central living-dining core; the plant palette in each reflected the microclimates created by the surrounding trees. The west terrace extended the living room into the landscape for sun and views of the ocean and mountains. Underneath was an entertainment pavilion next to a proposed swimming pool and open “meadow” lawn bordered with shrubs (including native ceanothus). A breezeway through the pavilion led to a lush fern garden located in a shady “dell” (the former drainage swale) off the guestroom. The master bedroom suite had dramatic mountain views and was situated right in the oaks. A notch was cut in the cantilevered roof to bring a window closer to a tree trunk. We’ll probably never know whether this solution was de Forest’s—who had notched architecture for a tree about fifteen years earlier at Val Verde, also in Montecito—or Neutra’s.

A corner window in the master bedroom suite emphasized the feeling that it was situated right in the oaks. Other rooms in the house related to various aspects of the site

A corner window in the master bedroom suite emphasized the feeling that it was situated right in the oaks. Other rooms in the house related to various aspects of the site

A rock garden was indicated near the dining terrace on Neutra’s original blueprints, but early photographs of the house by Neutra’s favorite photographer, Julius Shulman, show an informal mix of low flowering shrubs and annuals here. De Forest did not render a planting plan, but, according to his son Kellam, who worked in his father’s office during the summers, this was not unusual. De Forest often ordered plants based on a plan in his head and supervised installation when they were delivered to the site.

Spiky blue kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae) and soft green zoysia grass (Zoysia tenuifolia) with aeoniums and other succulents for accent. Ralph Stevens also used kleinia to great effect in the “Blue Garden” he designed for Ganna Walska’s Lotusland in Montecito

Spiky blue kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae) and soft green zoysia grass (Zoysia tenuifolia) with aeoniums and other succulents for accent. Ralph Stevens also used kleinia to great effect in the “Blue Garden” he designed for Ganna Walska’s Lotusland in Montecito

A New Approach to Succulents

The gardens continued to evolve after the house was completed. De Forest died suddenly in 1949, and Ralph Stevens was called in by the Tremaines to redesign the planting adjacent to the dining terrace. They wanted something colorful that would require the services of only one gardener. Stevens was an expert on succulents, and he specified them here for their rich colors and relatively low maintenance.

View from the dinning terrace across zoysia grass (Zoysia tenuifolia), aeoniums, and agaves to native coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia)

View from the dinning terrace across zoysia grass (Zoysia tenuifolia), aeoniums, and agaves to native coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia)

Stevens has been characterized as de Forest’s grumpy, unimaginative, former teacher and employer. While his formal designs certainly relied on tried and true formula-like layouts, his informal work allowed his flair for plant material to be expressed. A peerless plantsman (the son of pioneer Santa Barbara nurseryman R Kinton Stevens), he made significant design contributions to Lotusland (Ganna Walska’s estate in Montecito, formerly his father’s nursery), the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, and Casa del Herrero (the Steedman estate in Montecito). The free-form succulent garden that Stevens produced for the Tremaines surrounded the dining terrace and spilled down the sunny slope to the pavilion. Emphatic-looking Kalanchoe beharensis and tree aloes punctuated drifts of aeoniums and Mexican hen-and-chicks (Echeveria spp.) Spiky blue kleinia (Senecio mandraliscae) contrasted with soft billows of bright green zoysia grass (Zoysia tenuifolia). The swirling colors were more akin to a modern painting than to the succulent gardens of previous generations. Neutra met Stevens after the garden was finished, but Stevens’s name was omitted from Neutra’s 1951 book, Mystery and Realities of the Site, where the succulent garden is prominently featured.

Kit Tremaine was more articulate than her husband in architectural and other matters; she later became a writer, political activist, and generous liberal philanthropist. Correspondence between Neutra and her makes it clear that they quickly became friends who respected one another. The Tremaines were delighted with their house and its gardens, however, they did not always agree with Neutra and were not afraid to make their own decisions. The fern dell is a case in point. It is indicated on a de Forest plan, but it is not clear whose idea it was. It certainly was not Neutra’s; he objected to the tree ferns as ill-suited to the oak environment. The Tremaines, however, liked the cool atmosphere created by the ferns, and were pleased with the contrast between this shady spot and the succulents on the other side of the breezeway.

A breezeway through the sundeck-topped entertainment pavilion led to a lush fern dell off the guestroom

A breezeway through the sundeck-topped entertainment pavilion led to a lush fern dell off the guestroom

Neutra’s plans specified a swimming pool next to the entertainment pavilion, and a photomontage created by Shulman for publication made it look as if the pool was completed. In fact, it was never actually built to Neutra’s design. According to Shulman, the Tremaines were unhappy with the location that Neutra selected for the pool because it lacked full sunlight. Neutra felt the architectural relationship between house and pool was essential. When they finally decided to install a swimming pool in the mid-1960s, the Tremaines selected a local architect, Robert Garland, to design it and asked him to contact Shulman for advice on lighting for night-time entertaining. Shulman made a trip from Los Angeles, set up his photographic floodlights, and helped Garland determine a location that would be visible from the terraces. In 1968, just as the pool was completed, Kit Tremaine came to the realization that she was wasting her life on parties. She began devoting herself to social causes, the Tremaines separated, and the house was sold a few years later.

Neutra practiced landscape design early in his career and was more sophisticated about horticulture than any architect of his generation. The Tremaine house has been celebrated as one of Neutra’s finest buildings, but it is also a defining moment in modern landscape architecture. Instead of locating a machine-like building on the property, Neutra let the site shape the house, and the landscape design was treated as more than just its setting. Steven’s fabulous succulent garden was practically an afterthought. It is ironic that it has always overshadowed the understated elegance of the rest of the landscape design.

Thanks to Kellam de Forest, Julius Shulman, Russell A Beatty, Gail Jansen, Raymond Sodomka, Joel Michaelsen, many helpful Santa Barbara County archivists, and the archivists of the: Richard Joseph Neutra Papers, Department of Special Collections, University Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles; Lockwood de Forest Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley; AIA Santa Barbara Architectural Archives; Santa Barbara Historical Society Gledhill Library; Montecito History Committee; and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Blaksley Library.


For Further Reading

Anonymous. A Modern House Uses its Setting to Help Provide Luxurious Living. Architectural Forum 91 (September 1949):52-57.

Boesiger, W. Richard Neutra: Buildings and Projects, 1923-50. 4th edition. Zurich: Editions Girsberge, 1955.

Hines, Thomas S. Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1994.

Kassler, Elizabeth B. Modern Gardens and the Landscape. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday, 1964.

McCoy, Esther. California Landscaping No. 9: Succulents, A Rich Effect While Undemanding. Los Angeles Times Home Magazine. April 21, 1957: 16-17, 46.

Neutra, Richard. Mystery and Realities of the Site. Scarsdale, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1951.

———. The Significance of the Setting. Architectural Forum 91 (September 1949):58.

Padilla, Victoria. Southern California Gardens.  Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press,1961.

Streatfield, David C. California Gardens: Creating a New Eden. New York, London & Paris: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Tremaine, Kit. Fragments: My Path Through the 20th Century. Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1962.