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The southern coast of France and the stretch of California from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border are both lucky geological accidents; bounded by mountains and ocean, both belong to that exclusive club whose membership comprises places that are truly gardens of earthly delights. Rancho Santa Fe, a village just north of San Diego and four miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, in the heart of the California Riviera, is one of those spots. Established in the early 1920s, it has long provided a welcome home, or sometimes homeaway–from–home, to those who crave the low–key luxuries of a semirural lifestyle not far from urban pleasures. (Residents have included Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Bing Crosby and Bill Gates.) If, like Marybeth and Jim Crowley, you have a yen to create your own little piece of France in America, there’s probably no better place to do so.
The Crowleys travel to France four times a year on average: to say they are Francophiles is like saying André Le Nôtre was a groundskeeper, or André–Charles Boulle a carpenter. The pair are also house hobbyists, having built numerous homes for themselves that they’ve filled with the French antiques Marybeth joyfully calls “our stuff,” which they ship Stateside trip after trip, year in and year out. Now, with the help of Brian Tichenor and Raun Thorp, of Tichenor & Thorp, a highly regarded Los Angeles–based architecture and garden-design firm, the couple has pulled off a coup de théâtre: a rambling homage to the pride of Provence, the late–18th–century bastide.
The Crowleys’ countrified stucco house, a six–year effort completed in 2001, overlooks four acres of landscaped grounds arranged as a series of outdoor rooms that provide wonderful vistas for people inside or on one of the residence’s terraces. “A Parisian house would have looked ridiculous here,” says Marybeth, “but a Provencal house looks very much like the vernacular.”
Rancho Santa Fe, a California historic landmark, has strict zoning guidelines that limit building styles to the Mediterranean forms that distinguish its own architectural heritage: tiled roofs and plaster, stucco or adobe walls characteristic of the great farmhouses and ranches of southern Europe. The original 8,824-acre land grant, the San Dieguito Ranch, dates to 1831; in 1906 the Santa Fe Land and Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railroad, purchased it to farm eucalyptus trees for railroad ties. That failed venture gave way to residential development, and construction of Rancho Santa Fe began in the early 1920s under the direction of local architect Lilian Rice, who designed several of the community’s earliest residences, as well as many of its public buildings and La Morada, now the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, a popular Hollywood hangout of the era.
The Crowleys’ love affair with France began long before they discovered Rancho Santa Fe, but they skipped the two–for–the–road Eurailpass and hitchhiking stage. As Marybeth recalls, “We got married when we were in college out here, and I wanted to go to France. All our friends were backpacking, but Jim wouldn’t do it. He said, ‘We’re working; we’re saving money to buy a house. When we go, we’ll go in style.’” A few years later, when the couple, who both grew up in southern California, where Jim is a businessman, finally took their first trip abroad, they were seriously smitten. As with most long–distance romances, they have kept the passion alive through numerous trips for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
At one point, when the couple’s two elder children were in college and their youngest in grade school, they investigated moving overseas. When that dream didn’t materialize, says Marybeth, “we decided just to buy French things and make our house more French,” although they hadn’t a clue how to buy antiques in Europe. An article in Town & Country roughly twenty–five years ago led them to someone in England who, Marybeth says, “would take you around, introduce you to dealers and handle getting everything shipped.” He put them in touch with a similar cicerone in France—eh, voilà.
“We started collecting,” continues Marybeth, “and Jim said, ‘I think you should open a shop.’” So she did, with partner Rebecca Van Dyke, in the Laguna Niguel design center. The venture lasted six years, “though I never wanted to sell anything,” she confesses. “I would buy things I loved and think, Well, if they don’t sell, I’ll bring them home.”
The Crowleys bought a new property next to their own (they eventually sold off the original). “There was an old house where our pond is now,” Marybeth explains. “We filled it with the antiques we didn’t have room for in our house,” including the boiserie rooms, antique floors, doors, mirrors, fireplaces and especially the exceptional fabrics and passementerie that give the new residence its particular charm.
Although they first contacted Brian Tichenor about the gardens for their newly acquired land, they soon asked him to sketch a façade for a house; the drawing closely resembles the residence that was ultimately built. Tichenor says, “I’d spent years obsessing about the gardens of the Riviera, especially those by Ferdinand Bac,” the German–born polymath who designed several of the Riviera’s more celebrated estates, including Les Colombières, in Menton. “Once I had the garden in mind,” Tichenor continues, “I knew where the house should be and what it should look like.” He went on to design a pool house and separate staff and guest quarters as well.
Tichenor planned the landscape from the outside in, establishing and planting the perimeter straightaway. But he conceived the two–bedroom main house from the inside out, using an axial plan that organized the rooms in an enfilade. The light–filled interiors are elegantly laid out to form public and private areas, all with garden views and most with garden entrances. There was time, says Tichenor, “to think about all the wonderful things the Crowleys had to work with and to assemble them often enough in my mind to really know and understand what we had. I keyed the proportions of the rooms to the boiserie.” Some of the woodwork was in wonderful condition, and some practically in splinters: “We restored it, but we left signs of age.”
What truly distinguishes the Crowleys’ house‚ and the Crowleys themselves—is the extraordinary effort they’ve made for the sake of authenticity, the delight they’ve taken in doing so and the pleasure they find in doing it together. From searching out and flying in antique roof tiles and floors to commissioning French windows and shutters to hanging antique drapes with period trim on period hardware, no detail has been too small to hold their interest. And each purchase seemed to lead to the next serendipitously. “Jim likes the big stuff,” says Marybeth. “And I like the big stuff and the little stuff.” All of which added up until, acknowledges Marybeth, the home “took on a life of its own.” That, in part, was the result of working with an architect whose vision was the same as theirs: to make a French place, not just a place that looked French. Soon the couple was buying 18th–century paving stones to make the garden walkways authentic as well.
The Crowleys’ greatest pleasure, however, derives from sharing their home and the bounty of their gardens with friends and family. Produce comes from the kitchen garden behind the pool house; cut flowers are from a magnificent and extensive rose garden. Meals are served outdoors as often as possible, on a loggia complete with a stone fireplace. Houses are meant to be lived in, and this one certainly is—down to grandchildren riding their bicycles indoors. Marybeth may be a trifle indulgent as a grandmother, but, she says, “These things are not fragile, I just tell them ‘Don’t break my figurines’.”
The couple is now working with Tichenor and Thorp on another house, in Pebble Beach. This one is in the Dordogne style. And the Crowleys are off to France again to shop their regular route. “You’ve got to have stuff in order for the house to start becoming itself,” says Marybeth. “So we’ve had to get to Paris to start finding a life for the house. It’s not the way most people do things, but it’s our way.”