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Planned space of wild beauty

A California gardener makes a magical place around her home.

A fairy-tree mural is painted on the wall of Adea Rivers' room. "When I looked at the pictures of the house online, I told my mom, 'If we have to move, that's where I want to live,' " Adea says.
A fairy-tree mural is painted on the wall of Adea Rivers' room. "When I looked at the pictures of the house online, I told my mom, 'If we have to move, that's where I want to live,' " Adea says.Read more

As a gardener, Katrina Rivers dreamed of a home where she could see green from every window. As a mother, she wanted a place where her children could ride safely on their bikes. And as a writer and self-described healer, she yearned for a house with "magic."

Anyone who wonders whether Rivers could conjure such enchantment need only approach her bit of bohemia on Mount Washington, northeast of downtown Los Angeles, where twin griffinlike creatures greet visitors from high atop a Balinese door.

The two-acre lot is filled with wild beauty: aloe groves, bellflowers and ferns, a chaotic flurry of evergreen shrubs and vines.

Wind chimes, glittering beads and Moroccan lanterns hang with pleasing randomness from trees and windows. Bells dangle from doors. The aroma of lavender and jasmine blends with the scent of Chinese herbs brewing inside, while a water fountain and the rustling of palms create their own auditory magic - "like you are underwater," Rivers says.

Her children think of the place as a giant fairy garden. To others, it represents what so many people long for: a refuge from the frantic pace of daily life - an urban haven, inside and out, that might not be perfect or pristine, but does feel uniquely one's own.

Nearly three years ago, Rivers was living in upstate New York and struggling with the question of whether to move back to Los Angeles. To force a decision, she made a checklist for her perfect family home. Then the real estate agent from L.A. called. " 'This house is you,' she told me," Rivers recalls.

Her elder daughter agreed.

"When I looked at the pictures of the house online, I told my mom, 'If we have to move, that's where I want to live,' " says Adea, 12.

Thirty-five days later, Rivers moved in with her three children, two cats, five chickens, three dogs, assorted fish, and Pip Squeak the rat.

Although the property had the magic she was looking for, it also intimidated her.

"It's a lot of house, a lot of property," says Rivers, whose diverse clientele is drawn to her mind-body-spirit meditation workshops. "There was a lot of energy. So many people had left their mark in certain places. When I first moved in, I felt like I couldn't discard that."

She says the two-story traditional home was built in 1910 as a summer getaway for the governor of Nevada. Subsequent owners included a prop builder for MGM, who designed the terraces that meander up the hillside. The builder and his five sons left behind other artifacts: a spooky face that peeks out from one pathway and a much-cherished Buddha now surrounded by aeonium, flowers and candles.

The owners who followed were palm enthusiasts.

"When they bought the property in 1970, they envisioned an exotic, tropical garden," Rivers says. They planted rare seeds and seedlings, as well as enormous bamboo that still provides shade.

Not all of the house's history was so welcome. One evening, Rivers says, she awoke to hear kitchen cupboards banging and the piano playing downstairs. Rattled, she decided it was finally time to claim the house of spirits for herself: "I had to assert myself."

After "cleansing" the house, she painted its exterior trim a bright peacock blue. She commissioned artist Lola Duffy to paint a bright-red eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian sign of protection, over the front door and a romantic mural of the Egyptian goddess Isis on a sweeping side fence.

For the concrete patio, Rivers and her children - Lucy, 4, Lux, 9, and Adea - inset shells and other treasures from a family trip to Mexico. An angel depicted on the chimney in handpainted tile looks out over the garden. "She soothes the house," Rivers says, smiling.

"It is very much a place where people can go and feel balanced and get in touch with spirit," says friend David Elliott, author of

The Reluctant Healer

. "The place is a real statement about her and how she feels about beauty."

Some people might think Rivers' home to be singular in taste, but what makes the place interesting is how eccentric touches are complemented by design inspirations that many do-it-yourselfers would gladly rip off - unexpected details, such as the blue glass mixed with the simple pea gravel along the garden pathways.

The emphasis on indoor-outdoor living gives the old house a distinctly modern feel. One forgets about doors because none ever seems to be closed. The outdoor living areas are extensions of the house, furnished with all-weather rugs, Chinese lanterns, and a Moroccan table and chairs.

Likewise, the indoors are a reflection of the world outside: The downstairs bathroom is tiled with natural stone and pebble tiles. "You could be in Mexico," she says. "Or Costa Rica. It has such a tropical, foreign-vacation-place vibe."

In the bedrooms upstairs, Rivers broke from the natural look and went bold. In her bedroom, she mixed color and pattern by teaming pink walls with red flocked wallpaper on the ceiling.

"There's a belief that the bedroom is an expression of one's hidden self," she says.

In Adea's bedroom, Duffy painted a fairy-tree mural; shimmering pieces of white plastic were scattered on wet paint, so the pale-purple walls sparkle in the sunlight.

To link the kitchen with the outdoors and a nearby guesthouse, Rivers and two handymen enlarged the side yard and landscaped it. What had been a concrete slope is an elegant, terraced entrance with a mix of drought-tolerant plants.

Pieces of concrete found on-site were recycled, some as a bench. When the supply ran out, Rivers found more by placing an ad on Craigslist courting people who had broken up their driveway and were looking to unload the remains.

A meditation area was born from her desire for another place to hang out. On summer evenings, the family stargazes from what they fondly call "the sitting spot" - a wooden platform to which Rivers added a bench, posts of giant bamboo and shimmery fabric that cost $1 in L.A.'s garment district.

She doesn't think of her changes as a makeover, but rather as a tapestry started by all the people who came before her.

"There's always new threads I'm adding to it," she says.