By Mia Amato —San Francisco Examiner

The swimming pool looks as if sprang from natural stone, and that's the effect that designer-contractor David Kato and his client had in mind. But this pool was built within the shell of an existing rectangular pool. "It was definitely a 1950s-1960's type design," said Kato. In fact, it was a classic, installed for a Hillsborough family in 1948 by San Francisco's most eminent landscape architect, the late Thomas Church.

The entire garden is shown on several pages in Church's book, Gardens are for People, and helped popularize a suburban backyard style that spread across the country: designs with broad hardscape areas that could be quickly hosed off, and flowerless lawns that were easy to maintain. In this case it worked so well the garden remained basically unchanged for nearly forty years.

But the family who lived here did change. The children became adults, and their mother became a keen gardener whose talent for plants could no longer be confined by the sharp angled modernism that still surrounded the house. Kato was first brought in to redesign the austere front entrance into a vibrant rose garden. "At that time this was probably my third garden where I had worked around a Church design," Kato said. The backyard was done in two stages: first, the rehabilitation of the pool area; then the installation of a wrought-iron trellis that would frame the pool garden and integrate the pool area to an increasingly flower-filled landscape.

"We basically had to built an entirely new pool inside the old pool," Kato explained. His design was freeform and curvilinear, a natural lake that appeared to spring from three cascades of a stone waterfall that tanks up a raised spa before spilling into the body of the swimming pool. Plenty of swimming space remained, six feet deep at one end, three feet in the shallow part. "The swimming area is perhaps three feet shorter on the long end, and a foot and a half shorter than the width of the original pool," Kato said.

The pool has a standard gunnite waterproof lining, plastered over. "The type of plaster we used here is a gray and marble-like," Kato pointed out. "That gives it that deep water appearance, more like a natural lake. " Two giant boulders that appear to float on the water surface were anchored with steel rod pedestals to the bottom of the pool. The rocks themselves were positioned by forklift. The entire pool area is densely planted with grasses, perennial flowers and Japanese maples. On these hot summer days, the gardening maven swims there as much as she can.

"It's certainly a lot more relaxing under these circumstances, than just doing laps in a square pool," she said. "I'd always wanted to have a free-form pool, but it was not the thing you did at the time if you had little children." The inspiration for the waterfall and pond came from her own childhood, she added. "The two pools I learned to swim in were both in the Hawaiian Islands where I was brought up," she said. "One of them was made of lava rock; the other was part of a stream."

Kato retained some of Church's original pool patio -- one of the late designer's typical treatments featuring the exposed aggregate paving so unkind to bare feet -- but repaved and expanded other parts of the patio with smooth, saw-cut slabs of Arizona flagstone. Raised berms were gently sculpted around these areas, so instead of Church's single flat space, Kato created enclosed sitting areas. People reclining in the lounge chairs can overlook and interact with guests in the pool and spa, or pull away to a more private, but not inhospitable, quiet zone.

This flexibility Church himself might have admired, though he might have looked askance at the voluptuous display of roses, vines, perennials and flowering shrubs that now decorate the backyard. Where a simple tall hedge had once divided the pool area from the front yard, Kato and his client planned a magical passage of trellised ironwork, entwined with Boston ivy, clematis, jasmine and roses, that broadens into a semicircular arbor that embraces the pond garden. Even Kato admits the hefty trellis, with its supports of steel columns ten inches thick, looked a bit too industrial at first.

"Her friends would come by and say, 'What are you doing here, building 280?'" he recalls. "But I knew it would work." Three years later, vines and flowers have closed in to create a flowery bower where hard-edged landscape once prevailed. Some of the nicer touches are the outcroppings of stone that link and lead the way through the remaining lawn from the pool garden to the existing brick patio off the dining room. "Rather than have the pool as a kind of oasis," said Kato, "we wanted to tie it in to the rest of the garden space. So we sprinkled the waterwashed boulders around in a way that would connect the two outdoor seating areas."

One hundred tons of stone were used to complete the look. The finished garden is by no means low maintenance. A full-time gardener now helps tend to the perennials and roses, though drip lines and a modernized irrigation system keep the water bill within bounds.

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