The View from Above
All the Rileys wanted was a garden just for themselves.
By Daniel Jost, Associate ASLA
Photo by Saxon Holt
From their yard in San Francisco’s hilly Twin Peaks
neighborhood, Irene and Daniel Riley have magnificent views of downtown San
Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge—views that they used to think were both a
blessing and a curse. One side of the Rileys’ front yard sloped down to their
driveway, and large groups of people would gather in their yard whenever there
were fireworks or an air show was in town.
“People were treating it like a public park,” explains Irene
Riley. “I didn’t mind them sitting there, but they left their beer cans and
made a mess.” So when they contacted landscape architect Richard McPherson in
2003 to redesign the front yard, the Rileys had only two requests: privacy from
the street and a flat lawn area where their nephews could play.
McPherson solved both problems, so the Rileys hired him to
redesign their steeply sloping backyard as well. Looking at the Riley residence
from the street today, it’s hard to appreciate what a rich and elaborate design
has been achieved on this small site. Hedges block your view into the front and
Beyond those hedges, however, are two beautiful gardens
designed in two distinct styles. The front garden is very formal and blends
with the architecture of the 1980s-vintage house. The rear garden is rustic and
free-flowing. Looking at the gardens, one might think they were designed by
different people, but both were designed by McPherson.
McPherson, who has been working in the San Francisco area
for more than 20 years, is currently a sole practitioner based at his home in
Oakland. He is best known as a Thomas Church enthusiast. For years, he has
helped keep Church’s memory alive in San Francisco. Until recently, he taught a
class for the University of California Berkeley Extension that gave people the
chance to tour residential gardens designed by Church. While he has cut back on
his tours, he continues to look to Church’s work as an inspiration for his own
design. The more he studied Church, the more McPherson realized how heavily
he’d been influenced by Church’s work. Like Church, McPherson treasures
simplicity in design and puts emphasis on scale. But it is Church’s concept of
unity that McPherson finds most appealing. In his seminal work, Gardens Are for People, Church declares,
“The unity of the whole scheme is advanced when the line and material of the
house are carried out into the garden.”
Sometimes Church unified house and garden by using glass
walls and creating a visual flow between interior and exterior spaces. He most
famously employed this indoor/outdoor flow in the Donnell Garden (1948). In
this design, a stone retaining wall in the landscape is seamlessly integrated
into the architecture of a cabana, designed with two glass walls. The paving is
continuous from one side of the glass to the other, and a wooden bench seems to
pierce one glass wall to provide seating both inside and out.
However, Church acknowledged that many traditional houses
did not lend themselves to this sort of unity. On those sites, Church worked
with the symmetry of the house and borrowed from the exterior architectural
detailing. This is the way McPherson approached the Riley residence. The house
was not built in the modern style and does not have any glass walls that would
enable visual flow between interior and exterior space; even so, McPherson’s
interest in tying together landscapes and architectural exteriors is evident in
his design for the front garden.
The Front Garden
“When I saw the style of the house, with its French revival
feel, I thought of the formal gardens from 17th-century Europe,” explains
McPherson. However, it is not the style of the house but the materials to which
McPherson was most sympathetic. The path leading to the front door was
originally brick, a material not found on the house, so he replaced it with a
slate pavement that matches the slate on the mansard roof. Where a barrier rail
was required atop a newly created retaining wall, McPherson specified the same
white cement balustrade used on the terrace in the back of the house. Even the
new front gate mimics an existing gate on the side of the house. Nearly every
material and every finish reference the house in some way.
True to French garden traditions, the front garden has
strong axial relationships. As you enter through the gate and walk up the front
path, your attention is first drawn forward to the fancy potted junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Spartan’) on
either side of the front door, and then your gaze is drawn to the right and the
left. On the right, a birdbath terminates your view. On the left, a female
statue titled Spring provides the
McPherson uses this statue to call out the excellent view
over the balustrade. The statue does not gaze forward but over her left
shoulder, her attention forever captured by the beauty of San Francisco Bay.
Finding a statue that looked in the proper direction was a challenge. When the first
statue he chose was delivered to the site, it was looking toward the street.
Apparently the photo of the statue had been flipped in the company’s catalog,
so McPherson chose a new statue that would acknowledge the amazing view.
To solve the trespassing problem, McPherson removed an
existing stairway and designed a retaining wall to eliminate the slope where
strangers had sat, creating a flat lawn area. In addition to providing a play
space for the Rileys’ nephews, the lawn area also serves as the smokers’ nook
when the couple throws parties. To prevent trespassing, the clients originally
requested a six-foot-high wall around the front yard, but after meeting with
the city, McPherson discovered there was a 15-foot easement on the street. If
they built the wall farther back to comply with the easement, this would have
drastically reduced the usable space in their front garden. The city had no
problem with planting in the easement, so McPherson suggested a hedge at the
edge of the sidewalk where they had hoped to place the wall.
McPherson is heavily involved in all aspects of his
projects. He prefers to work closely with the contractor and takes a serious
interest in how things are laid out and installed. As part of the contract,
McPherson lays out every tree and plant himself. For the hedge around the front
yard, he specified Prunus lusitanica
(Portugal laurel) from 15-gallon containers. He chose this shrub because a
number of sources said it would be resistant to the cold, windy, coastal
environment present on site. Five years later, the shrub looks healthy, but it
has not grown as fast as McPherson had hoped. For the first few years, it grew
only a few inches per season, but now, at around five and a half feet tall, the
hedge discourages strangers from entering the site, and it will soon block
views from the street.
The plantings in general were a challenge due to the unique
conditions on the site. Since it is on the top of a tall hill overlooking the
bay, there is very little protection from the salty western winds that blow off
the Pacific. It is often very foggy. Due to the harsh environment, a few of the
plants have not grown as well as McPherson hoped, including the usually
vigorous Wisteria sinensis. However,
one planting has been surprisingly successful—the roses along the balustrade (Rosa ‘Flower Carpet Appleblossom’).
McPherson had worried that the fog would create problems for these roses, but
Irene Riley reports that in the five years since the front yard was completed,
she has had no problems with mildew.
The Rear Garden
The Rileys were so happy with how their front garden was
progressing that they hired McPherson to design their backyard as well. The
back garden would have a much smaller budget. The Rileys were willing to spend
about half of the $135,000 they spent on the front. “There was an immediate
choice not to match the style, because the cost would be prohibitive,” explains
McPherson. “The main concept for the rear garden was to create a meandering,
Before it was redesigned, the rear landscape was little more
than a weedy lawn, which was difficult to maintain due to its steep slope, so
the Rileys didn’t have much of a view from their second-floor terrace. To
provide easier access for maintenance and the occasional garden stroll,
McPherson designed a straight run of stairs and some stepped meandering
pathways. Some regrading of the site was necessary to create these paths;
however, a steep slope remains on most of the site. To provide a compelling
view from the terrace, McPherson approached the design of the rear garden “like
an artist painting on a canvas.” In his “picture” he uses the texture and the
color of the plants to create an overall pleasing design. While there was no
attempt to use native plants, the look of the garden emulates grassy meadows on
hilltops nearby. Most of the year, the plants are maintained unsheared to
create a “wild” feeling. The “picture” McPherson created has a frame. As with
the front garden, there are clear edges to the rear garden. To the east, the
edge is defined by the straight run of stairs and a row of oak-leafed hydrangea
(Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Alice’). A
hedge of kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium)
defines the northwestern edge.
A wooden bridge provides the main focal point for the design.
Originally Irene had wanted a cascade of water flowing down the slope, but the
Rileys decided against that due to the cost involved. When McPherson suggested
using a dry riverbed, Irene said she didn’t like the idea because a dry creek
bed was bad feng shui. Instead, they decided to use mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) to define the
line of flow under the bridge. When the photos shown with this article were
taken at the end of the season, the Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola) somewhat obscured this stream of mondo grass,
but it is clearly visible in the early spring.
A white concrete bench provides a second focal point. Many
people have told McPherson that the bench seems out of place, that it distracts
from the rest of the design. However, McPherson sees it in a very intellectual
way. He says, “I saw it as a folly, as a counterpoint to the organic, rustic
character of the rest of the landscape.”
The hedge at the bottom of the slope successfully masks the
view of the street below from a number of vantage points above. As mentioned
earlier, it also helps to obscure the rustic nature of the rear garden from the
street. This is beneficial, considering how strongly the garden breaks with the
architecture of the house. As the hedge continues to grow, it will obscure the
While McPherson designed the garden to be lower maintenance
by massing plants and limiting the number of species used, Irene Riley says it
requires skilled gardeners to tell the difference between plants and weeds. A
team of three gardeners stops by three to four times per month to weed the
garden, deadhead flowers, and clean the white concrete statues and balustrade.
They follow a maintenance schedule put together by McPherson that explains
which plants should be trimmed and what time of year this should be done.
The Rileys also take advantage of what McPherson calls his
“follow-on phase” and hire him to walk the garden with their garden crew
yearly. Every spring, McPherson checks up on how the plants are doing and determines
whether there are any plants that need to be replaced due to disease or
mechanical damage. This is not only useful in keeping the design intact, but it
also gives McPherson a chance to see what’s thriving and what’s not.
One lesson that the gardens at the Riley residence teach:
It’s not always necessary to stick to a single style when designing landscapes,
even on a small site. Thomas Church once warned his readers that “you cannot
have all the gardens you have clipped from the pages of House Beautiful and Arts and
Architecture.” Maybe you can’t have every garden, but the Riley residence
shows that when you keep these stylistically different gardens from being
viewed together, there’s no reason you can’t have two different gardens on the
Daniel Jost, Associate
ASLA, works for a landscape architecture firm in Las Vegas.
Landscape architect: Richard
McPherson, Oakland, California.
engineer on retaining walls: Lawrence B. Karp, Orinda, California.
Front landscape contractor: Carotin
Landscapes, San Francisco.
landscape contractor: Elliot Goliger, San Francisco.
Gardener: Eli Wadley Fine Garden Care, San Francisco.
Statue, birdbath, balustrades, bench:
Statue Factory, Brisbane, California.
fencing: San Mateo Artistic Ironworks, San Mateo, California.
Pots: A. Silvestri, San Francisco. Slate: Echeguren Slate, San Francisco.
Caps for front pillars: Napa Valley
Cast Stone, Sonoma, California.
Subscribe to LAM!
New | LAND | Annual
Product Profiles & Directory