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Patio rehab at Venice drug-treatment facility

August 10, 2010 |  7:04 am

Phoenix-House-Long-V The outdoor space alongside the Phoenix House drug-treatment facility in Venice is so green and inviting these days that beach-goers sometimes mistake it for a sidewalk cafe. It just goes to show what can be done with a little imagination, a volunteer crew and loads of donated plants and materials.

“The garden was just a patch of dirt where the guys took a smoke break, but the beaches are no-smoking areas today,” says Bruce Tobman, program director for the rehab center’s 53 male residents. “So now it’s a beautiful place with a relaxed atmosphere where they can sit outside. On visiting days, they’re out there with their families. The staff conducts one-on-one and group sessions there. And a few residents use the space to meet with their parole officers.”

Two years ago, Phoenix House applied to Big Sunday, a Southern California community service group that benefits nonprofit organizations, schools and others in need. The group granted the request for a new garden and matched the project with volunteer Sandy Koepke, an interior and garden designer based in Beverly Hills.

“I believe being outdoors in nature is healing,” Koepke says. “When I first saw the location, it was two sad little palm trees inside a bare metal fence. It was a place where the guys could be outside, but it was certainly not uplifting.”

So Koepke rolled up her sleeves and got busy. For more on the transformation, keep reading ...

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Koepke secured free labor and materials but ultimately tried to approach the project like any other job.

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 “I didn’t want it to be cute for just a weekend," she says. "I wanted it to be substantial and to last.”

Koepke's vision was to complement the rehab center’s vintage red brick and yellow stucco exterior using simple, do-it-yourself ideas executed with a pastiche of salvaged, recycled and cast-off items. The renovation started with a month of site preparation. Robert Brkich Construction of Monrovia regraded the 16-by-60-foot sloped strip of land into three levels and had flat concrete terraces poured. Then, over one weekend, 30 volunteers and 15 Phoenix House residents gathered to work and didn’t stop until they had created a little oasis by the sea.

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Artist Patricia Callicott installed fanciful tile mosaics next to the brick steps and on the step risers. A large mosaic of the Big Sunday logo, a heart in the palm of a hand, was inserted in the paving. The multicolored tiles were donated by Luna Garcia Pottery in Venice, Lascaux Tile Co. in Los Angeles, Native Tile & Ceramics in Torrance and RTK Studios of Ojai.

Other volunteers took 150 pink clay pots from Berbere World Imports in Culver City and stained the containers to make them look older. Broken tile was affixed with mastic to give them even more personality.

Echeverias, aeoniums, sticks on fire and scores of other succulents from California Cactus Center in Pasadena were planted in the pots, while Mexican sage, honeysuckle and trumpet vine went directly into the ground. Potting soil and soil amendments arrived courtesy of Kellogg Garden Products.

“Putting the plants on the perimeter softened the fence and was more in keeping with the neighborhood,” Koepke says.

FinialFurniture came from several sources, including a scrap yard in Vernon, where Koepke found metal armchairs. Pasadena Architectural Salvage in Pasadena chipped in old iron radiators that were welded together by Herrera Bros. Ornamental Iron Works of Los Angeles and then topped with a concrete slab to serve as a bench.

 The hunter-green fence was repainted black with a wrought-iron paint that produces a rusty patina. As a finishing touch, fence posts were dressed up with vintage hose bib handles as quirky finials.

Phoenix-House-Table-H“These Big Sunday projects sort of radiate good will,” Koepke says. “This one was really special because the residents and volunteers worked together. Many of the guys had construction skills we didn’t know about and showed volunteers how to do things. It was so much fun.”

By all accounts, the garden renovation was a rewarding experience.

 “The volunteers were so nice, open and giving. It showed us that there are people who care and want to give back,” says Sheila Monsod, a former resident (the center was co-ed until 2004) who returned as a senior counselor.

“With the fresh air, the plants and the energy of the beach activity, the garden gives our clients the impression that they’re included in society. They say, ‘This is really cool. I like this.’ They’re thankful to be shown something different” from incarceration.

So thankful, program director Tobman says, that residents have kept the garden watered and pruned. Some have even gone on to volunteer in subsequent Big Sunday projects.

-- Emily Young

Photo credits for all except fence post: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times. Photo credit for fence post: Emily Young.

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