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Hillside heaven

Flower power and formal fountains: Ingrid and Fernand Sarrat's Tudor home

Not many people can look at a suburban sports court and imagine an Alhambra-style water garden in its place, but Fernand Sarrat is a man of aesthetic vision.

"I first saw this house on the Internet, at the very beginning of Internet real estate listings," he recalled of his first view of his 7,000-square-foot Los Altos Hills home. "It had an incredible amount of square footage and great potential."

Three years and hundreds of remodeling decisions later, he and his wife Ingrid stroll their hillside garden, enjoying one garden room after another, filled with thriving roses, perennials, evergreens and tropical specimens. Indoors, their Tudor-style home's reconfigured floor plan combines formal elegance with comfortable family living. No outside walls were altered, but the rooms now flow harmoniously, creating an ideal setting for the Sarrats' collections of art, antiques and family heirlooms.

"I enjoy doing this kind of project because it's a creative challenge," Fernand said. "I like the nitty-gritty aspects because I'm a perfectionist and I'm there checking all the details. We have worked over seven of the eight houses we've lived in."

A former IBM executive, he most recently was CEO of two Silicon Valley companies. Born in El Salvador to parents who owned a fine furniture manufacturing business, he learned as a child to appreciate good design.

"I used to go on shopping trips with my parents to places like the Schumacher fabric factory," he said. Four years as an undergraduate at Stanford introduced him to the advantages of Peninsula living, but it was when he attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania that he met Ingrid.

"I noticed her in the audience when I was giving a speech at the International House," he said.

Ingrid was born in Delft, Netherlands, and grew up in the Boston area. She was an assistant college dean and an elementary school principal before becoming the mother of three daughters and moving frequently around the country as an executive spouse. The Newcomers Club of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills proved to be a pivotal force in her life after the Sarrats moved here in 1997.

"At the Newcomers, I heard about the year-long flower arranging course at Filoli, which I took, and I absolutely loved it," Ingrid said. "Then last fall I walked by Something Special on State Street, went in and talked to Carol Brudno, the owner, and started working there, which I love." This month, Ingrid enrolled in the floristry program at San Francisco City College to earn accreditation in her new profession.

"I'm taking her first class, too," Fernand said. "It's called 'Flowers and Foliage - I.D. and Care' and then I can build her a better cutting garden."

Ingrid and Fernand trace their love of flowers to their mothers, who are both still avid gardeners. So throughout the intense house-remodeling months, the couple relaxed by scouring Bay Area nurseries for choice plants. With the help of garden designer Mary Kaye of Los Altos and owner Chip Snouffer of A Touch of Grass in Cupertino, they created a garden plan for their hillside acre that offers garden rooms of different moods and plant materials.

"We've been blessed with people who really care and have really worked hard," Fernand said. But he worked shoulder to shoulder with workers to make sure each plant, each fountain, each paving stone was exactly where it belonged. He also insisted that the soil in every planting bed was mixed three times, so that everything grows with uncanny vigor.

"Here you see a collector at work," Fernand said. "Once you're a collector, you collect, and we wanted to make every room its own separate experience."

He's evidently never met a plant he didn't like, and his collections include everything from the ancient cycads (fern-like tropicals) to varied compact evergreens, species geraniums, bamboo, protea, euphorbia, roses and colorful lilies of all kinds.

With vistas of the backside of Westwind Barn and the green coastal hills beyond, the Sarrats' garden's most dramatic "room" is Fernand's replication of a famous series of fountains in the Generalife, a part of the Alhambra in Spain.

"This was originally a sports court," Fernand said, stepping down the broad stairway leading to a formal garden enfilade composed of a low central water runway studded with shooting fountains and flanked with rows of standard rose bushes. The area's original enclosing walls now cascade with billowing jasmine and climbing roses. To explain this delightful transformation, Fernand describes his second visit to the real Alhambra, when he bought a picture book with the best photo of the water feature he wanted to copy, and then came home to draw up his Los Altos Hills version with dimensions to fit the sports court.

Other water features on the property include several circular fountains, a rectangular swimming pool and a two-tiered pond system below the swimming pool's gazebo area. Surrounded by natural rock ledges, small maples and rock plants, the ponds feature satiny lotus flowers, water lilies, grasses and colorful koi. On the level of the lower pond, a Japanese-influenced garden offers several varieties of bamboo and peaceful sitting areas from which to contemplate the wilderness views in the distance.

Indoors, much of the remodeling consisted of opening smaller rooms into larger spaces and widening doorways into graceful archways. Everywhere, centrally-controlled mood lighting has been installed to highlight art pieces and working areas. A spectacular crystal chandelier in the front hall, purchased at Maria's antique shop in Los Altos, sets a formal theme for the main entertaining spaces, which include a large formal living room with planked wood floors and Persian rugs; a dining room with furniture made by Fernand's parents' craftsmen; and a family room with a heated marble floor. In a newer wing on the main floor, however, past another curving stairway, is the home's biggest surprise - a theatrical multi-media room, complete with a stage, built-in window seats and a mini-kitchen on one wall.

"It's been a great party room for the kids," Fernand said. "They use the stage for a DJ and dancing."

Upstairs, the master suite, once several small bedrooms, is now a spacious sleeping and sitting room, with soft golden walls, white carpet, and down-filled couches, adorned with paintings, art glass and antique mementoes. It's the ultimate hideaway for busy parents, complete with lead glass windows, swagged window draperies, and a tower niche with a crystal chandelier. The adjoining his-and-hers bath has inspiring views of the hills and every imaginable feature, including a sauna built of white aspen, a steam bath feature in the shower, heated marble floors and a bathtub for two.

The home's previous owners (who built the house) had a large family, so there are still plenty of bedrooms to use for other purposes: Fernand's interest in photography has inspired him to create an upstairs darkroom, for instance.

With two of their three daughters through high school, Ingrid and Fernand are starting to imagine "life after kids" and the benefits of down-sizing. Having brought their large home and garden to a peak of perfection, there's a definite pull toward tackling another, smaller property.

"After spending four years at Stanford, for me, coming back to the Peninsula was like coming home," Fernand said. "We definitely want to stay in this area, but we think we could be just as happy in a smaller place."

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