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In 2000, Steven Baker had a simple, open-air playhouse built for his three kids, then all under 10. He and his wife, Melania Kang, would occasionally come out to the little gazebo to decompress at the end of a long day.

Then as the kids grew, the backyard getaway became like an abandoned house slowly deteriorating within plain and painful view of the big windows in their Fountaingrove home.

"It hadn't been used in years," said Baker, who with his wife owns popular neighborhood eatery Chloe's Cafe in San Francisco. "The doors were off. It leaked. Some windows were missing and it was essentially used as storage. There was lots of dust and cobwebs. It was a real eyesore."

But earlier this year, Baker was struck with an inspiration. With some paint and a bit of inspired creativity, he set about redeveloping that blighted corner of his yard into an outdoor room for reading, intimate conversations and occasionally a little nap on a sleeping platform he built himself.

It looks like a Chinese temple, with bright red walls and mustard yellow trim and resin dragons bought at an Asian grocery store affixed at the corners of the roof.

Baker is like a lot of homeowners who find themselves with abandoned or unused space in their yards. A gazebo is one way to make good use of forgotten outdoor real estate, by providing a focal point and shady refuge.

The word "gazebo" dates back to mid-18th-century England and is a mix of the English word "gaze" with the Latin word "ebo," meaning "I shall," according to the Amish Gazebo Shop, a major online purveyor of quality gazebo kits based in Pennsylvania.

It's an appropriate name for these little open structures that offer great 360-degree views of the garden.

Also known as summerhouses, screen houses, kiosks, pavilions, grottos, pagodas, pergolas and belvederes, gazebos are among the most popular of garden buildings.

Lori Bowden said when she bought her house in Santa Rosa the first thing she did was pour a slab of concrete in the backyard.

"There was nothing in that yard. No trees," said Bowden, a software developer. "It was just crabby grass. I used to go out and sit on the slab in a yard chair and imagine things being there."

The first thing she imagined was a gazebo. She ordered a kit from the Amish Gazebo Shop, which has a full range of kits starting at $2,000.

The fun part was customizing the space. Bowden made her gazebo purposely funky to suit her eclectic style.

"I had some friends come over and we all drank wine and hung out and I said, 'Paint whatever you want.' Now it's all different colors in different sections. It made it more festive."

The fun part was furnishing it. Bowden likes to make tables out of tiles and broken porcelain plates, and several adorn what has become her own little girlfriend getaway spot.

"My friends love to come over. We sit out there and have cocktails," she said. "The neighbor guys have a garage they call the 'He Man Woman Hater Club' where they hang out and play poker and watch sports while the girls come over for cosmos and margaritas in the gazebo."

It's a place where she can get creative. The furnishings are early yard sale, like refinished wooden deck chairs. There's a whimsical mobile with a tin plate and silverware hanging from wires, decor left over from a "hillbilly party."

Baker also sees his gazebo as an expression of his creativity as well as an homage to Melania's grandfather, who fled Communist China after World War II with a few dollars and dreams of becoming a doctor, a dream he achieved.

Baker created window covers that look like shoji screens using handmade paper from an art supply store, and refurbished an old brass lamp. He wrapped river reed and burlap around the base and made a new shade with the same art paper.

"The doors didn't have handles. They slid open and closed," he said. "So I cut pieces of black bamboo, drilled holes in them and attached them as handles. For architectural interest I added faux window dividers from strips of wood.

"I would like to tell people that the two ancient-looking scrolls hung by green bamboo are from a royal palace during the Ming Dynasty," he added, "but in reality they are $1.99 Chinese wrapping paper."

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</i>