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Majestic Montecito

Interior designer John Saladino’s estate gives new meaning to grandeur.

John Saladino, when first looking to buy his latest Montecito home, employed a code name to conceal his identity. The interior designer called himself Ross Marinus, a play on Rosmarinus officinalis, the Latin name for rosemary. “Everyone thought I was this Greek guy named Ross,” he says with a laugh.

It was a fitting way to start. Elegant but also comfortingly familiar, rosemary has been cultivated since Greek and Roman times, but its soft, muted green beauty remains timeless—a quality that Saladino has infused throughout his new home and garden. Indeed, while the actual house, a sandstone Italianate villa, is not even 80 years old (it was built by architect Wallace Frost in 1929 and 1930), it feels much more venerably ancient. “In my mind, I would say that the house is probably 17th century, and parts of the garden are pre-Christ,” says Saladino.

This is not cut-and-paste classicism, however. Saladino has made sure, down to the last detail, that every element and layer interlock perfectly. He built elevated stone terraces around the house to make it appear like the estate floats on a platform, an effect used by the Romans. Around 14,000 18th century Italian handmade terra-cotta tiles were brought in for a new roof. He planted more than 4,000 trees and shrubs in the 12-acre garden, including over a dozen 50-year-old Italian cypress trees.

“The making of this villa is a will to paradise,” says Saladino. “It’s the summation of all my knowledge, physically created here in this space. It’s my opus.” Saladino, who first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his clever mixing of the classical and the modern, lives here half-time with Betty Barrett, an interior designer and the woman with whom he shares his life. Says Barrett of Saladino’s passion for the home: “It’s not just a design project; he’s very emotional about the house.”

The entire “experience” of the estate is calculated to bring out an emotional response in guests as well. You enter the gates and proceed up a driveway that winds through a thick eucalyptus grove planted with shrubs and perennials in blue-gray and silver tones. “As you go up the drive, you have an opportunity to emotionally purge yourself of the reality of the street behind you,” says Saladino. “The final reward is not the house,” he adds. “It’s being released into Elysium with the view of the Pacific.”

To be sure, the house offers myriad rewards. A vestibule dedicated to Santa Barbara includes representations of the Saint as well as beach scene paintings by famed landscape designer Lockwood de Forest. The colors of the interior parallel those of the garden: silk-covered sofas in the blue-gray hue of agaves; walls painted a silvery celadon along with accents in the bold magenta of Saladino’s cherished Yves Piaget roses. Classical antiques (including a 2,000-year-old Roman tub in Barrett’s bathroom) pair effortlessly with modern paintings by such artists as Cy Twombly and Robert Cartwright.

While Saladino is a connoisseur of the past, he puts it together with a modern eye toward livability. That’s clear in the Tuscan farmhouse-style kitchen, with its sleek, stainless steel appliances and glass doors made with the narrowest of lead panes. “I love the juxtaposition of humble with rare; modern with old,” says Saladino.

At 10,000 square feet, the house is large, but the rooms are a mix of cozy sitting areas and bedrooms with just a few over-scaled spaces. “You can be grand when you want to be grand. When you want to cocoon, you can do that, too.”

Four years ago, when Saladino first looked at the house, it was almost in a state of complete ruin. Two hundred large rats had run of the place, and 20 dumpsters of rubbish had to be removed. Saladino replaced the home’s foundations, put in all new doors and windows, and paid to have a string of telephone poles sunk into the ground. A previous owner had painted the beautiful exterior stone peach. “It took six men one year just to sandblast the walls,” says Saladino, who admits the project quite nearly broke the bank.

But Saladino has always had a sense that anything is possible. He recalls first falling in love with California when his parents took him on a drive up the coast on vacation. “I was 16, and I had never really seen the ocean. I smelled the eucalyptus trees and thought I had one foot in paradise,” recalls Saladino, who grew up in Kansas City. “So I said to my late father, who was a physician, ‘Why don’t we move here?’ And he said, ‘We can’t. I have a practice.’ So I said, ‘Well, get a new practice.’” That didn’t happen, but in 1989, more than four decades later, Saladino bought his first house in Santa Barbara.

Happily for him, Saladino’s project is almost complete, save for a few additions to the garden. He calls the house Villa di Lemma, another made-up name. It’s a humorous nod to the many dilemmas he faced in creating his dream residence. “I believe that the longer the driveway, the hokier the name should be,” laughs Saladino. But old lineages don’t trump old souls. “This is like putting my heart on exhibit,” he says of his creation. “I just wanted California with a few ruins.”

Written and edited by Degen Pener.
PHOTO: Luca Trovato.

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