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Features-- The Donnell Garden kidney shaped pool which has been featured in numerous magazines is still in emmaculate condition after it was designed in the 40's era near Sonoma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2008

At 60, the Donnell Garden remains an icon of an era

By MEG McCONAHEY

Photos by KENT PORTER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

You know your home is not just another house when you open the Encyclopedia Britannica to "landscape design" and there's a picture of your family swimming pool.

But living in a legendary place is just part of life when you're a Donnell.

The three Donnell "kids" have been sharing that curvaceous pool -- an iconic symbol of post-War modernist design and the 1950s California good life -- ever since they were little shavers doing cannonballs into its cerulean depths.

Evoking the rolling hills surrounding it and the salt marsh ponds of the wind-raked Carneros plains below, that pool, with its stunning sculpture by Adaline Kent emerging like an iceberg out of the blue, made a huge splash when it appeared on a 1948 cover of House Beautiful magazine.

While it was not the first kidney-shaped pool, it was certainly one of the earliest and most famous, serving to popularize the "biomorphic" pool for the masses.

The pool was the centerpiece of a garden designed by Thomas Church, a Bay Area-based titan of 20th century landscape architecture who helped define the California look -- spaces created for outdoor living that were both sophisticated and informal. He was assisted by a dream team that included a young Lawrence Halprin, who went on to design The Sea Ranch, and George Rockrise.

"A good garden is like a really beautiful woman," Church wrote in House Beautiful. "It is the distinction of her bone structure beneath her fresh, delicate skin that sets her apart."

At 60, the aging Donnell Garden still maintains that exquisite bone structure.

It is regarded as one of Church's signature works, revered by scholars and students of landscape architecture and aficionados of modernist design who regularly make pilgrimages to the hidden hilltop ranch south of Sonoma. Although it remains privately owned, the Donnells have been generous in making the site, with its unfettered views south to the Golden Gate, available for special tours.

"I feel such a great debt to the Donnells in terms of preservation," said JC Miller, a landscape architect from Mill Valley. An expert who writes on midcentury design, he considers the Donnell Garden significant both intrinsically and because it foreshadowed the whole California 1950s look as early as 1948.

"I was just up in Napa for the annual conference of the California Preservation Foundation, which included a field trip to Donnell, and it sold out instantly," Miller said. "As a private stewardship effort, I can't think of anyone taking better care of a modern site than the Donnells."

Thanks to careful caretaking and the happy fact that original owners Dewey and Jean Donnell were never moved to "update" or remodel, it survives as one of the most intact examples of the several thousand gardens Church designed.

Jean Donnell, who studied biology in college and had a great love for plants, died in 1980.

When Dewey died suddenly of a heart attack at age 66, his three adult children were unprepared. He had left no provisions for carving up the 4,000 acres known as El Novillero. And he had just remarried, complicating and potentially imperiling the preservation of the garden.

It took several years to work out the legal details and reach an equitable plan for dividing ownership of the property among the surviving Donnells, who had a deep love for the ranch. It wasn't just a summer home but the place they grew up.

Bruce, the eldest, a former stage director for the Metropolitan Opera who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and the youngest, Sandy, a former Montessori teacher and Marin community leader from Belvedere, partnered on the house and garden. Their sister, Nancy Lily, already had her own home on the ranch.

But with Bruce so far away, it has really fallen to Sandy and her husband, Justin Faggioli, an MBA who has served in top positions at Ravenswood Winery and Niman Ranch, to maintain the property and the Donnell legacy.

"My brother and I felt the idea of selling it would have been pretty awful. I don't think I could drive by it if somebody else owned it," said Sandy, whose parents hosted the likes of the Sebastianis and Bundschus at big July Fourth pool parties. "So we decided we'd take it on. It's a burden as well as a blessing."

It is a large task to maintain any property of that size. But when it is considered something of a masterpiece, a modern day Monticello of sorts, the responsibility becomes even more challenging.

Sandy and Justin have taken great pains to leave both the garden and the house -- a modernist classic of open, indoor-outdoor design by Austen Pierpont -- intact, down to the fixtures and furnishings. They've sought out the best electricians, plumbers and other experts they could find. They have a live-in caretaker and a full-time gardener overseen by David Sheppard, who worked for years at Glen Ellen's Quarryhill Botanical Garden. Sheppard did extensive research on Church's work to maintain the integrity of the orginal layout and vision and has watched over the garden for a quarter century.

It appears like a pristine time capsule of early 1950s living and design. The lanai, with its rock wall and low bench extending through glass panels into the exterior landscape, still features the original fountain where the Donnell kids spun out "suicide" sodas using every flavor syrup in the cupboard.

The wild geometric wallpaper in the poolhouse looks impossibly new. The original monogrammed towels are folded neatly in cubbies. Even the canvas on the butterfly deck chairs is original. The elder Donnells insisted they be brought in every night.

A juniper hedge that edges the serpentine path from the house to the pool, marking the line between the formal landscape and the wildland beyond, is still alive. Other original plantings also remain, like a massive bird of paradise on the terrazzo and a thick carpet of Algerian ivy amid a second forested path between the house and pool.

The pool was recently re-plastered, and Sandy remains somewhat dismayed by the rough plastering of the famous Kent sculpture, which she intends to have smoothed out.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to maintain the native live oaks that were integral to the original design. A signature part of the Church look are the large expanses of green lawn. But the irrigation is hard on oaks.

They've lost only a handful of the grand trees, although many are struggling in various ways. They've experimented by replacing with young Quercus virginianus, a similar variety in appearance but more adapted to moist climates.

Pam-Anela Messenger, a landscape architect in San Francisco who knew Church and has studied and written extensively about his work, said the most important part of preserving the space is the overall design, and that has been done beautifully. Gardens naturally change over time as plants and trees mature or die out.

"Church didn't have any problem using imported plants," she said. "He wasn't a purist."

Meg McConahey, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com.

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