When you step inside a home designed by California architect Harry Gesner, your mind’s eye drifts beyond the walls of the building itself. His designs heighten your awareness of the sun, the horizon, the water, the overwhelming improbability of being perched on the edge of a cliff. This architecture is not egotistical, it is an homage to the earth itself.
When I was asked to bring my Salad Garden project to the Los Angeles Getty Museum, the first question was, where would it be situated? Scouting their vast grounds, we came upon The Scantlin House, tucked behind a row of trees just up the hill from the Central Garden. This house, now closed to the public, is a hidden treasure located in Los Angeles’ most well-trodden cultural institution. Built in 1965 well before the establishment of the museum, The Scantlin House was the only structure on this hilltop for as far as the eye could see. The ultimate bachelor pad, the swimming pool flowed from the patio into the living room, a magical grotto with a waterfall and a garden of lush ferns. This was a fantasy home without an of ounce pretension, atypical in a city that worships glitz. Desperate to know the history of this house and its creator, I began to research Harry Gesner, whose life story is as wild as it gets. Harry was a stunt waterskier, an explorer, a ladies’ man, the inventor of a electro-powered sports car and a war hero. You can’t make this stuff up. I made it my mission to track down the architect and legend, who at age 90, lives in a house of his own design called Sandcastle, built on the most coveted stretch of beach in Malibu nearly 50 years ago.
I arrived at his front door, marked by a giant clamshell. Marlon Brando gifted Gesner this treasure many years ago, as they planned the development of the movie star’s private island in Tahiti. Harry and I spent the day talking about everything from our shared love of Japanese pottery to his 20 million dollar design to turn the garbage of Madisonville, Kentucky into compost in six days (that actually worked). From there the conversation turned to gardening. Once upon a time, Harry had a garden outside his door where he grew mostly horseradish. An unusual crop to zero-in on, I asked how this had come to be. Incredibly, it all began on D Day on the beach in Normandy, where Harry nearly lost his legs in combat. He was sent home on a steamship, and on the long journey back to the U.S. he came across a book on medicinal plants. He read about horseradish, how it grows and its various uses. He resolved to plant a garden as soon as he could walk again. Heroic stories aside, Harry happens to love the taste of horseradish, and has been known to spread it on everything and anything. With a bumper crop, so developed his rituals around harvesting the piles of spicy root — he wore his WWII gas mask to protect his eyes and nose from the noxious fumes and processed bottles and bottles of prepared horseradish to give to friends and to enjoy himself. So pleased by this visual, I promised Harry I would grow his favorite plant at The Getty Salad Garden, and invite him back to make salad with me in The Scantlin House.
Last I spoke to Harry, I asked him what he was working on and he replied, “I am re-designing the Los Angeles freeway system. The city doesn’t know that yet, but I am making great progress.”
Special thanks to Chopt Creative Salad Company for their generous support, The Getty Museum and most of all, Harry Gesner for inspiring me with his stories of the past and his vision for the future.
Director: Felipe Lima
Executive Producers: Jett Steiger, Lana Kim
Director of Photography: Drew Bienemann
Creative Director: David Jacob Kramer
Sound Mixer: Amanda Beggs
Editor: Sean Leonard
Colorist: Bossi Baker