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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Pool Be Gone - Part 1

By Jim Bishop.

By 2000, we had completed most of the remodel of the rooms inside the house. When we had started to do the remodel one of the original goals had been to fix the pool area. It had numerous problems. Most obvious was that all of the concrete block planters in the pool area had cracked and/or were leaning. The decking around the pool had some serious cracks including at one corner of the pool it had come completely detached and lifted from the pool leaving a large gaping gap that you could put your entire arm in. A previous owner had added buttresses to the backside of the pool wall and though it had a noticeable lean it seemed to have been stabilized. The pool was over one story below the house and access was out the downstairs back door across the veranda and down the set of stairs at the far west end. This is quite a journey to make when you are wet after a swim and you would be very cold by the time you got inside the house. By 2003, we had almost totally quit ever swimming in the pool. The pool was on the north side of house and had an eleven foot deep end. Also, it picked up the almost constant breeze off the ocean, so it was cooled by evaporation. We added a pool cover to help warm it and also slow down the evaporation, but it only received enough direct sunlight in the months of July and August to bring the water temperature up to the mid-70’s. There was a pool heater and we did try to heat it 80 degrees for a summer weekend. The heater ran for several days non-stop and the gas bill that month was several hundred dollars. We looked at adding a solar water heater, but since everything on the hill faced north, it wouldn’t receive enough sunlight unless elevated and we would look directly down on it from inside the house. I did occasionally swim in the pool alone at night and watch the SeaWorld fireworks, but after hearing about William Shatner’s wife dying while swimming alone in the pool and not being found for several days, I decided this wasn’t a good idea.

Of course, the worst problem was that the pool area was ugly, scary looking and noisy. Since the retaining wall that separated the pool from the house faced directly towards the freeway, the noise would echo off the wall and into the pool area. So even though you couldn’t see the freeway from the pool you could hear it. As a side story, the neighbors told us that when the pool was built in 1970 it was supposed to be much higher on the hill and closer to the house. However, it was installed while the owners were away and they had to dig much lower on the hill to find stable ground. Additionally, the fill dirt that was used around the pool was heavy clay that expanded and shrank with the rainy season which caused much of the cracking of the pool decking around the pool. When the city observed the clear cut on the hill they required that a 15 foot tall by 100 foot long retaining wall be built to stabilize the hillside. The neighbors said it was very costly, however, we have all the receipts for the work and it cost a total of $3000…maybe that was a lot of money in 1970. We also later found out that the rebar used in the pool decking was in direct contact with the soil causing it to rust which caused more cracking.

We toyed with several ideas to make the pool area smaller and shallower and more attractive, but in the end decided we really didn’t want a pool and all the maintenance it required. The pool was on the only flat area of property…which I was coveting for gardening space. So the decision to fill it in was an easy one. We decided that it would make a lovely walled garden and could be an area similar to some of the gardens in Balboa Park. We hired a landscape architect to put together a plan. However, after several iterations it was obvious that he didn’t understand our priorities and instead of hiding the freeway views and noise, his design ideas looked as though they would make them worse. We decided that what we really needed was someone that could design some good hardscape that matched the house style, creating a cohesive design. I didn’t need any help with plants or planting design and wanted to do that myself. So, we returned to the restoration architect, Marc Tarasuck, who had done the design for remodel of our house. We gave him simple instructions…hide all the freeway view and noise possible and create something that looked like it was built at the same time as the house. Marc had a bit more vision and ideas than we ever imagined and quickly came up with a concept that we had never considered. He proposed a 30 foot tower built against the existing retaining wall. The tower would be just outside the back door and contain a spiral staircase that led down to the former pool area. The roof of the tower would be tall enough to hide much of the freeway and hotel view from the existing kitchen balcony and dining room. Much of the pool area would be replaced by 13 X 13 outdoor room that we quickly dubbed the casita – Spanish for little house. Also against the pool wall would be a large fountain to further mask the freeway noise. The existing gate from the pool area to the garden would be replaced by a large Spanish-style arch. An new door would be added to the back of the pool wall to give additional access to the garden below. Most of the existing pool house, where the pool equipment had been, would become a storage shed. Additional storage would be added beneath the stairway. We would add a new balcony off the upstairs living room to take advantage of the bay view. An arched portico would be added under the balcony. All of the walls of the new construction would be extra thick to give the illusion of them being thick adobe.

As you can imagine, this was a lot to take in…but the artist rendering Marc drew was wonderful and it was hard to believe this could all be created out such and ugly pool area.

To be continued….

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