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Written in Stone
House & Garden, September 2005

Architectural designer John F. Saladino fell under the spell of a wreck of a stone house hidden in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. That was 20 years ago, when he and his wife lived in Connecticut. Not another big house, she decreed. But after her death and his son’s wedding, Saladino decided to change coasts, buying a modern hideaway in Montecito, an area that has held his soul since he visited as a boy.

Four years ago, the stone house, by then more ruin than wreck, reappeared on the market. Most prospective buyers passed, unable to see beyond the crazy haze of peach, coral and cerulean blue walls, liver brown linoleum tile floors, and garish accents. None of that deterred Saladino, who felt fated to own the Tuscan-style structure of local stone. “I had a vision of a house with a large view,” he says. “This felt timeless; it could be anywhere in the Mediterranean world.”

He bought the place. In the first week, the work crew killed more than 80 rats, big ones. Over the ensuing months, the crew filled 20 Dumpsters with junk and rusting auto parts, clearing the wooded, 12- acre site, with its sweeping, tree-framed views of the ocean and the mountains. Saladino replumbed, rewired, and reroofed with thousands of rusty red antique Italian tiles. Working closely with two of the members of his design firm, architect Stephen Barlow and senior designer Naoko Kondo – a pair he can’t praise highly enough – he reconfigured the interior. They combined small rooms to make grand chambers. They turned nondescript spaces into cozy, cottage-like guest suites, each with a distinct atmosphere. They installed new windows designed as doors that open to the outside, and added skylights, allowing the daylight to dance through the house. Fully grown trees were placed on the grounds, and massive stone slabs were aligned for walkways. Flowers appeared, scattered about as if seeded by birds. Old stone walls stood straighter and longer, the new sections blending with the originals. At the edge of the woods,
Saladino planted two peach trees in memory of his parents. The result is the bewitching Villa di Lemma, with songbirds, an intriguing mix of plantings, and good-luck geckos scampering across flagstones and pebble-textured cement areas crafted to look well worn.

Miraculously, the villa feels as if it has been this way for hundreds of years, even though it was designed by the architect Wallace Frost in the first quarter of the twentieth century and built in 1929 and 1930. The home on the terraced hillside is his “opus” Saladino says.
“I feel very fulfilled here, very happy, very much at peace.” Never mind that an interior designer’s home is like a mechanic’s pet Mercedes, never quite finished. This is a place that engages all five senses, starting with the long drive up a twisting back road. Luminous gray-green bundles of low-water plants tumbles down the wooded hillside, heralding imposing gates. With the land cleared, there is room to appreciate each towering pine and eucalyptus. “The space between the trees is the most important part of the view,” Saladino says.

You go up the gear-changing grade, into the expansive motor court behind high stone walls. There’s a grace to the proportions, and an immediate sense of embrace that emanates from a home filled with the right things in the right place. The grand covered outdoor gallery, with its high exposed dark wood beams, heavy silk drapes felt-lined
to muffle drafts, and the pings of footfalls on stone, hints of the interior behind an unexpectedly low front door.

Saladino practices what he has preached for more than 30 years. He juxtaposes light and dark, old and new, classical and modern, which would exhausting if not manipulated so deftly. In an old structure augmented by new elements indistinguishable from the original, the interplay of opposites delights. In the opulent powder room, which he calls “the gossip,” there’s a delicate Venetian mirror and a Grotto chair next to a solid marble bowl. A Lilliputian fireplace, set off to the side of the entry, subtly pulls visitors into the palatial
drawing room.

To see the museum-quality Italian Renaissance chest there is to be tempted to touch its carvings that trace the labors of Hercules, to feel the wood worn by many hands. Somewhere in the house, danceable Italian pop tunes from the ‘30s are playing. As the sun struggles through the mist, its warmth releases garden perfumes: eucalyptus, heliotrope, lemon verbena. The soft colors of the agave garden set into white gravel and punctuated by majestic spineless cardoons momentarily distract from the plants’ sharp fronds.

Only one sense, taste, remains unfulfilled. That longing ends in the low-ceilinged kitchen, which, despite its banks of stainless-steel-faced drawers, cabinets, and appliances, insists it is absolutely Italian, right down to the seventeenth-century wooden apothecary boxes that Saladino bought from the celebrated New York antiques dealer Amy Perlin. The interior of each smells different – mysterious, medicinal, old. Lunch at a table with a view over the swimming pool to the canyon is simple and elegant: gingered carrot soup, chicken salad, and fresh berries over lemon pound cake. Saladino serves the brilliant orange soup in Japanese bowls glazed in his trademark periwinkle blue, gifts from a friend of many years. These human connections warm what could be chilly. “I see rooms
not as spaces that you fill with furniture,” Saladino says. “I see them as still lifes that you walk into. Yes, there are sofas, yes there are chairs, but the silhouettes are all the same – drums, cubes and rectangles.”

Saladino and his friends and their shared memories have taken possession of the place. He points out pieces purchased over the years on trips with friends. An ancient crewelwork hanging in the stairway landing is from a good day in Antwerp. A detailed map of Rom was purchased there during his student days; high-back William and Mary chairs are from London. A velvet saddle blanket from Turkey is draped over an upholstered rectangular table in the living room. Works by Cy Twombly and Robert Courtright and chunks of ancient Rome pale beside a silver-framed photograph of that most exquisite being, Saladino’s granddaughter “La Dauphina” during her first Halloween, in a pink pig onesie complete with snout, ears and an unseen curly tail. A bust of Sire Francis Drake, the first Englishman to see these parts, dominates the paneled dining room. With its circular table layered in antique linens and set with tall, narrow-necked vases holding an array of dramatic white lilies, this is a night room, hushed until candlelight. Sire Francis awaits bunny ears or a mask, something – Saladino’s still looking – to banish the creeps the bust gives his daughter-in-law.

That impish sense extends to his masculine suite with its grand Napoleonic-style bed. He manipulates the space with paint, and sets a double-wide door to frame a garden view. The early-nineteenth century grisaille paper folding screen depicts Napoleon riding into
Alexandria. The adjoining bathroom has stone walls and a counter and floor in Roman silver travertine. Josephine, be gone! The dressing room fittings are custom-designed studded Spanish leather, a reference to a man’s traveling desk in a guest room.

Saladino composed a celadon and gray suite for his friend Betty Barrett. With baby-soft wool antique Oriental carpets, heated tiles, a cushion of sedum in the attached meditation area, and smooth teak in the adjoining outdoor shower, it demands barefoot exploration. The textural riot explodes with velvets, rough-woven silks, and thick- lined draperies concealing fitted closets and chests in nooks lined with pumpkin-colored silk. Enriched with the barest hints of green and Thai pink, the fabric shimmers behind a chest-top tableau of perfume bottles and family pictures.

The images speak to the passage of time, of children growing up, of adults aging. In the real Shangri-la, that rich texture would be missing. Saladino’s version juxtaposes not only art with life, but real life with the designed life. “I wanted this to be a sublime villa in the sky,” he says. “I’m not just interested in shelter. This is my benediction.”