Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Love Shack, Baby: Jess Phillips and Maggi Reser take a break from their epic remodel to enjoy the back yard.
One Santa Cruz couple have been remodeling their house for almost a decade—and they're still happily married
By Matthew Craggs
When Jess Phillips and Maggi Reser moved their family into a new home in 1997, they knew they were going to need more room. The two-bedroom, one-bath house was too small for the couple and their four kids, so within a year they began remodeling. What started as a 1,000-square-foot house was to become a 2,670-square-foot dream home with two stories and an additional unit in the back yard. Now, a little under a decade later, they've finished construction. Almost, anyway.
From the street, the couple's home is now almost obscured by the massive garden that Reser has cultivated. Sunflowers with stems as thick as soda cans, rose bushes, lavender and a myriad of colorful plants drape the stone steps that lead up to the front door. Standing in the entryway one can see straight down a short hall, into the living room and outside, where another garden grows next to a koi pond. This perfect flow through the house was something that the couple accidentally stumbled upon.
The original front door of the house, which was built in 1947, was about five feet to the left of the spot where it now sits. The decision to move the door was a conscious one by the couple, and they had always planned to keep the wall that would sit right in front of the new door and place a washer and dryer behind it. But when Phillips tore the wall down to install the gas and plumbing, his wife had a change of heart.
"I walked in one day after work and just went, 'You can't put that wall back up. This just has to go right through. Now that I see it, let's just do that,'" Reser recalls. Without a wall the two rooms were now connected by a short hallway that provided an incredible flow through the house. These unplanned snags in remodeling are what Phillips refers to as "accidental feng shui."
"Building is all about momentum. It takes so long to get momentum up; the labor, the right materials, everything," he says. "You can go and cut loose and you get a lot done, but then you have to stop and slow down because this isn't right. It really pays off to be able to break and change if possible ... and that's when it works better."
Phillips should know. He's been a contractor for over 20 years. Contrary to what reality television would have us believe, remodeling a house is not something that can be wrapped up in an hour minus commercials. The past nine years Phillips has worked with his wife on their home whenever the time, energy and money would allow. Reality television employs hundreds of workers and a limitless pocketbook to turn someone's home into a dream; Phillips and Reser were just two people who spent what money they could, when they could. And over the long course of nine years—with no commercial endorsements—they created a dream home.
Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Inside outside: Phillips redid the kitchen with an island, recessed lighting, tilework and a new stove; the backyard landscaping was Reser's project.
Walking the Plank
Throughout the whole time, the family lived in the house, existing alongside the construction. As soon as a room was close to being completed, Reser and the kids would jump on it like devilish squatters. The teenage daughters would cover the half-finished walls of their bedrooms with tapestries while Phillips worked around them as best he could to finish the rooms. Before her room was completely finished, Cerridwyn, their then-15-year-old daughter, lived at the top of the stairs on the landing of the second story. At that point the second story consisted solely of the landing and a bathroom.
Even when the jobs got tiresome and dirty, Phillips and Reser never threw in the towel. For at least a year, the only way to reach the couple's new bedroom was by walking across a plank that traversed a muddy pit.
"I dug it by hand. The soil around here, in this part of Santa Cruz, turns into a milkshake in the winter. You had to bucket it out," Phillips explains. In fact, he had to redo the entire foundation of the home and the granny unit Reser's mother, Fran, had requested be built for her visits from Phoenix. "I spent about two weeks under this house," he admits.
But as hard as it is to believe, the family never tired of the endless construction, and the kids were grateful for the additional space—even if it meant sleeping in rooms without completed walls. Prior to moving in and beginning remodeling, the family had lived in a one-bedroom apartment for over a decade. Reser confesses that everyone was happy for a little bit of personal space. She goes so far as to say that their master bedroom, which is separated from where the children slept, saved their marriage—even if they had to walk the plank to get there.
Though the couple did hire someone to do the Sheetrock and electrical on the additional unit in the back, they did almost everything else. It was an experience that enriched not only to their living conditions but their personal lives as well.
"It crosses over, for sure. Nothing will test you like an expensive nasty remodel in the middle of winter. It'll really put you to that point," Phillips says, standing next to his wife in the kitchen.
"Well, first four kids," Reser replies as they both laugh at the inside joke that's only funny to parents. But as the laughter slows, Reser's voice turns serious. Like a single crystal-clear realization in the middle of a loud party, Reser turns to Phillips and speaks more to him than anyone else in the room. "He's pretty amazing."
Fables of the Reconstruction
Phillips' dedication and approach to the remodel has always been pretty amazing, even if his energy has slipped a little over the years.
"When we first started it was our first house. You're all jazzed. Whatever you do, you're loving it: 'I love digging this foundation by hand,'" he says. "I dug the whole sewer trench by hand. It was like 5 feet deep. No, really, it was like, 'Yeah, this is mine, this is my dirt.' Then slowly, it's like, 'I can hire someone to do that.'"
Despite sounding passionate about his work, Phillips insists that he's not. "Beauty is in the land. Buildings to me are ... 'meh.' It's more like a challenge to myself. I like to achieve the best quality that I can do and fulfill my responsibility in it.
"I like to do functional work for people, when they need something to help bring up their standard of living a bit. People here tend to have lots of money, some of them. You tend to do the more frivolous stuff. You stop doing stuff that people really need to have done. ... When you're fulfilling a little bit of community service, when you can kind of help people, I definitely have more of a passion for that."
What Phillips insists he would really like to do is get his hands on some land and build a small, environmentally integrated house.
Hints of their enthusiasm for the land can be seen throughout the house, where almost every room opens up to the outside. Fresh herbs and vegetables fill the gardens, and wood and ceramic tiles cover the walls and floors. Occasionally an uncovered electrical outlet or a dab of blue painters tape betrays the appearance of a beautifully finished product, but the couple insist that, these minor exceptions notwithstanding, their home is complete and they've enjoyed the whole nine years.
"I actually like the process, or I don't think we would have made it through this many years of remodeling. It's exciting to see something change, and we're obviously both into our home space. It's a creative outlet for us," Reser says. This is the house that Phillips and Reser built.
This is the home the couple has made together.
Obsession in the garden
The garden tour guide sheet lists Brenda Wood as "a pro at dealing with gophers," but it soon becomes clear that that's a sanitized version of what really goes on at this hillside property just off the Pajaro Valley. We are making our way down a fragrant row of rose bushes when Wood's daughter Lori whips out her mother's snuff sheet—a yellow tablet logging the, ahem, expiration of every gopher that has pointed its horrible, rapacious little snout in the direction of her roses since 2000. She's closing in on 400.
Macabee traps are the key, Wood says, one on either side of each gopher hole she finds. There's steel in her eye as she adds, "Any gopher that's dead is not breeding."
"See?" Lori exults. "It's a genocide thing!"
And yet each of the three dozen people enjoying spaghetti and salad in Wood's leafy courtyard right now would forgive Wood this trespass. For they, like her, are members of the Monterey Bay Rose Society, and they, like her, will stop at nothing to have gorgeous roses, be they tea roses, ramblers, shrubs, miniatures or blossom-laden floribundas. It's a fact: roses have inspired obsession in many of these otherwise mild-mannered people.
Wood, a real estate agent, has 150 rose bushes, each of them selected for its fragrance. Otto Lund, a soil scientist and the Society's chief Consulting Rosarian, which is roughly like being a priest, has too many ramblers to count in his Ocean View back yard, but this he knows: he has already started deadheading and will continue doing so until March. (Asked if he has ever considered hiring someone to do that chore, he snorts, "What, a mow and blow? They haven't got a clue! Nobody knows how to do it.")
And Janey (pronounced Jen-AY) Leonardich, club secretary, certified rosarian and mother of club president Adriana Leonardich, has—well, let me just tell you how many roses she has.
We are sitting in Wood's courtyard when I ask Leonardich if growing roses requires some sort of magic touch.
"No. You've just got to like it," she says. "It's how much love you're going to put into something without going overboard."
"What's overboard?" my boyfriend asks.
"Well," she says hesitantly, "I have 500 ..."
Clearly this is not a club for dilettantes, although they're probably perfectly welcome at the monthly meetings. The Rose Society, which some members claim is the most overlooked flower society in the whole county, has some prodigious regional talents. Karl Dost, who actually lives in San Jose, regularly sweeps the rose competitions at the Alameda, Santa Clara and even Santa Cruz county fairs, although he modestly avers that the only reason he won Best in Show in Watsonville last year was because Leonardich didn't show. "She's really good," he says.
Our next stop on the Society's annual garden tour, and the dessert station in the event's progressive dinner, is Paul McCollum's place in Aromas. His is a sprawling, rustic, comfortably unkempt garden where many of the plants have the appearance of a fancy hairdo in disarray. It's an easy place to stroll and get lost in groves of apple and lemon trees—and a place where, "if you stand still and shut your mouth," as McCollum says, "you'll hear all kinds of things."
He's talking about bees, and he's right. A few quiet moments among the roses, dahlias and zinnias and a second, better universe emerges. It's no accident that the bees are its harbinger. McCollum, like many of the Rose Society's members, grows his roses organically. All he applies to them is his magical earth mix—he's a master composter—cooked up in 18-bushel drums in the yard up behind his house from lawn clippings and wood chips.
The organic technique works for Lund, who says he'd have to drag in an orchard spray rig to reach some of his high-climbing ramblers. And it works for Wood, who figured out that "the more you spray, the more you have to spray." Now she tries to keep her rose bushes healthy by applying compost and planting alyssum, which attracts a fly that preys on aphids.
"If I see a black spot, I just live with it," she says, referring to the pox that gives some rose growers fits. "I don't like to spray anymore. It's bad for the environment."
Everything about the Rose Society—the shared obsession, the tips on pesticide-free abundance, even the almond tart and lemon cake enjoyed on Paul McCollum's sunny patio—works for Wood. Here, she's among her people.
"On Friday nights at the meetings you can hear a pin drop," she says, "because everyone's listening so closely, and I just smile because I'm thinking, 'Everybody here is just like me!'"
Santa Cruz area resources for gardeners and plant lovers of all varieties
California Native Plant Society
The California Native Plant Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to the appreciation of California's native plants and ways to safeguard them through education and land stewardship. It also has an active habitat restoration program fueled by the energy and goodwill of volunteers. General meetings are held on the second Monday of every other month at 7:30pm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 1035 East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. See www.cruzcnps.org for info, links and upcoming events.
Friends of the Arboretum
Can't get enough Callistemons? Loopy for Leptospermum? The UCSC Arboretum, with its special collections of Australian and South African flora, welcomes new Arboretum Associates to participate in the annual fundraisers (principally the fall and spring plant sales and the November dried flower and succulents sale). Membership has its privileges, like discounts at local nurseries. For information call 831.427.2998.
The Gardeners' Club meets at 7pm on the second Thursday of the month at the Aptos Grange Hall, 2555 Mar Vista Drive in Aptos. Meetings include a speaker and the opportunity to ask experienced gardeners about especially vexing problems. The newsletter is mailed to members each month for $12 per year and includes information on upcoming events and activities as well as informative articles on gardening. The semiannual plant exchange is held at the Aptos Grange on the second Thursday of September at 7pm. For more information contact Dibbie Kindle (831.462.6296) or go to www.thegardenersclub.org.
Monterey Bay Dahlia Society
Heat Seeker, Arabian Night and Aurora's Kiss are all types of dahlias ready to be grown and enjoyed, and the Dahlia Society exists to facilitate that enjoyment. Meetings are held on the second Friday of every month in the Simpkins Swim Center Community Room at 979 17th Ave., Santa Cruz. A potluck dinner starts at 7pm and is followed by the meeting at 7:30pm. The Annual Dahlia Show, with many dazzling species of dahlias, takes place in September. Call 831.423.2365 or go to www.mbdahlias.org for more info.
Monterey Bay Iris Society
The iris, named for the Greek word for "rainbow," is a genus of between 200 and 300 species of plants with flashy and sometimes expensive flowers—bulbs can cost up to $80 each. That's why there's the Monterey Bay Iris Society: to provide members with a bulb-swapping network and the fellowship of others who understand iris obsession. Meetings are on the third Friday of every month at the Native Son's Hall, 239 High St., Santa Cruz, at 7:30pm. For more information, visit http://montereybayiris.org. The iris may be the state flower of Tennessee, but it is more than welcome and appreciated in California, too.
Monterey Bay Rhododendron Society
The rhododendron is the largest species of the Ericaceae family of flowering plants, with over 1,000 species, and the Monterey Bay Rhododendron Society knows all about them. Rhododendrons are widely used for landscaping and gardening because of their size (some grow 10–15 meters tall), structure and picturesque flowers. Meetings are held on the third Tuesday of the month at 7pm at the Live Oak Senior Center, located at 1777 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz. Call 831.685.2915 for more info.
Monterey Bay Rose Society
Love to stop and smell the roses? The Monterey Bay Rose Society specializes in making that possible. The Rose Society conducts monthly informative meetings, distributes a monthly newsletter, "The Bay Rose," and sponsors an annual show in June. Meetings are held on the last Friday of each month at 7pm at the Aptos Grange Hall, 2555 Mar Vista Drive, Aptos. Find them on the web at www.montereybayrosesociety.org or call 831.722.7958.
Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai
Want to connect with other tiny tree lovers? Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai is a great way to expand your knowledge of bonsai and have fun while doing it. Meetings are held on the third Saturday of the month at the Live Oak Grange, 1900 17th Ave., Santa Cruz, at 9am. Evening workshops, instructed by John Thompson, are on the second Wednesday of each month at the Aptos Grange Hall at 7pm. See www.gsbf-bonsai.org/santacruzbonsaikai/ or call 831.336.1166.
Santa Cruz Garden Club
The Garden Club meets the first Thursday of each month at 11am to hear speakers, visit gardens and discuss gardening tips and techniques. Meetings are held in the field or in members' homes, but the group breaks to enjoy summers without meetings. Knowledgeable speakers teach at each gathering. The cost of membership is $20 per year. For more details contact Bonni Bernardi at 831.438.0278.
Santa Cruz Orchid Society
The Santa Cruz Orchid Society welcomes any epiphyte lover to join its members in their pursuit of learning more about all things orchid and how to grow them in this area. Is your bumblebee orchid just not attracting male bees as it should be? Answers and tips abound on the first Friday of each month at 7:30pm at the Live Oak Grange Hall, 1900 17th Ave., Santa Cruz. Visit them on the web at www.dir.gardenweb.com to visit forums, view blogs and post a question to the "experts." 831.685.9430.
Watsonville Bonsai Club
Bonsai, which literally means "potted plant" or "tray scenery," is the art of artistic miniaturization of trees by growing them in small pots and containers. The Watsonville Bonsai Club meets at 6:30pm on the second and fourth Mondays of the month at Kizuki Hall, 150 Blackburn St. in Watsonville (across from the Watsonville High School tennis courts) to discuss these striking tiny trees. 831.724.9283.
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