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Monday, October 4, 2010

A Sunday Surprise: The Harland Hand Garden

The Harland Hand Garden
September 27, 2010

I am not a gardener. We don’t even have a terrace. But I love to listen to gardeners talk about their creations. The one I know best is the garden that belongs to Paul’s uncle, Graham Cousins, near Lutterworth in Leicestershire in the Midlands. Someday I hope to interview him about his life’s work and write about it. When he came to visit us several years ago, he took a trip to El Cerrito to visit a woman named Marjory Harris and see the garden of the artist Harland Hand (1922–1998), which she owned at the time. He came back impressed.

On Sunday I wandered over to Shevlin Drive to see what looked like an interesting open house only to find that the famous garden was for sale. The house reminded me of Wurster’s modest little houses in Point Richmond. Simple and straightforward. I haven’t found out who designed the home, but it feels a little like Wurster’s mythical carpenter with good taste might have been involved. Who ever created the house made it a neutral background for a stunning view of the Golden Gate and what would later become one of California’s most interesting gardens. Apparently Harris renovated aspects of the house and garden but sold it in 2008 when she moved to the Inland Empire (where she is at work on another garden).

Entry to Harland Hand's House

High windows face the street

It looks like the garden may have been too much for the subsequent owners, a family with a young child. I only wish a garden conservancy or botanical garden could afford to purchase this treasure.

On a curving street of unremarkable houses (although El Cerrito has a large number of great midcentury modern gems), you come across a funny metal fence. A patch of stucco with a large black door (actually, a curious configuration of four pieces of wood) and two high windows offer very little to the street. Once inside the fence the visitor knows something special is happening with the boulders and fountain. The nearly blank façade gives you time to look around the first intimate garden.

Front garden

Living room fireplace with cantilevered concrete hearth

The view of the Golden Gate

West terrace

Garden from the terrace

Once inside you are drawn to the light and the view. There is nothing to impede you. You stand on the terrace and overlook the steep garden out to the bay. The modest house is almost forgotten as you look for a path down to the mystery of succulents, flowers, and stone. Or what appears at first glance to be stone. Indeed the garden was shaped by concrete that Hand mixed himself. There are paths, walls, stepping-stones, benches, and everywhere, ponds. He wrote an article about his concrete garden, which appeared in Pacific Horticulture in 1976. Over the years, the plantings seem to merge with his very personal reference to the Sierras.

The garden is over a half acre and holds three thousand species. There was hot afternoon sun, and welcome shade, filtered light, and leaves that shimmered. All shades of green and occasional bursts of color and scent. Crisscrossing the hillside until reaching “the cliff” and then finding a spot to have a rest, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the work that Hand, and later Harris, put into this. It is a kind of meditation or prayer. A joining of nature, design, and faith.

Out the bathroom door to the garden

Curving staircase from the terrace
leads to the garden

Concrete steps and ponds

A simple fountain and two pools

Another concrete pool and paths

The house at the top of the garden

There is a wonderful website created by Marjory Harris devoted to Harland Hand and his garden at www.harlandhandgarden.com.

If you are interested in the property, go to the realtor’s website at www.theharlandhandgarden.com.

1 comment:

Paul Crabtree said...

A nice tribute. I hope you sent it on to Graham.