The Sommer Home: A Secret Garden Under the Oaks
When you grow up in a place like New York City, home looks a lot different than it does in California. Home in the city often comes in the form of a cramped apartment with no backyard, no swimming pool or garden, and certainly no pets. Despite only knowing life within the context of apartment living, at just 11 years old, Donna Sommer had a very different vision for her future life and home, and it looked uncannily close to the future she has today.
Donna and Barry Sommer, both New York City natives who came to Visalia in the late ‘70s, live on several acres of land in Visalia, shaded by exactly 49 oak trees. When the couple first arrived in Visalia as young newlyweds, they were amazed at how much space they could get compared to living in New York City. In fact, just three days before Barry accepted a job in the Central Valley, they had settled into a small apartment in Queens with one bedroom, one bathroom, and absolutely no parking.
“In Visalia, we initially moved into a three bedroom, two bath, brand new rental house on a quarter of an acre, so we were like, how is this possible? It was cheaper to rent a large house here than it was a small apartment in Queens,” said Barry.
For Donna, the most unexpected culture shock came in the form of three consecutive weeks of perpetual sunshine. Never in her life had she lived three weeks without a drop of rain.
“Every morning I would say to Barry, ‘another sunny day,’ and he would be just as surprised as me,” laughed Donna. “One day I was at Sears, and I said to the cashier, ‘I just can’t believe it hasn’t rained!’ She looked at me and said, ‘Honey, it doesn’t rain here for six months.’”
It was at that moment that Donna realized they had moved to a desert. With plans of eventually relocating to the Bay Area, where they had friends and family, Visalia was never meant to be a long-term settlement. They even traveled to San Francisco every other weekend for the first two years of living here. With the establishment of great jobs, wonderful friends, and a good quality of life for their growing family, Visalia, with its wide-open spaces and everlasting sunshine, became home.
As Donna and Barry advanced in their careers, they purchased unchartered riverfront property in Three Rivers with the dream of building a home there. However, after the addition of two little ones and increasingly demanding lives, the idea of commuting back and forth between Visalia and Three Rivers each day became less appealing.
The couple searched for something closer to town that still provided a nature experience. While the natural landscape of Three Rivers would be hard to beat, they came across a property surrounded by 50 magnificent Valley Oak trees. To their luck, they only had to remove one tree to make way for their home.
“That was due to a really great layout from the landscape architect,” said Barry. “One oak tree was right in the middle of where our kitchen is, so we just had to remove that tree when we built the house. We typically call the property ‘49 Oaks.’”
Both hailing from the East Coast, Barry and Donna wanted to incorporate a Cape Cod style of architecture to their home’s exterior. Its design was also inspired by a colleague of Barry’s, who had just built an open concept home with bedrooms on opposite ends of the house. Another unique feature that struck their interest was installing a loft above the living space.
“As the kids got older, we figured there would be 100 feet between the kids and our bedrooms, so we liked that,” said Barry. “And we liked the open concept layout, which wasn’t very popular at the time in the mid-1980s.”
While the exterior of the Sommer home looks as if it belongs on the Eastern Seaboard, the inside resembles a mix of mid-century modern and contemporary design. The home’s sunken living room, wood-framed windows and French doors, unique asymmetrical vaulted ceilings, stark white walls, and teak furniture accents achieve a unified meshing of these two classes of design.
The complex, vaulted ceilings throughout the main living space may look like an architect’s masterpiece, but in a way, the design was a happy mistake.
“When they were framing the structure, it framed out like that, and we took a look at it and we thought, ‘wow that’s really interesting,’” said Barry. “The ceiling was supposed to come down from there, but we said, let’s just leave it that way. So these rooms have really complex ceilings with an interesting look that creates a lot more space in here.”
And while this particular “mistake” turned out to work in their favor, there were a few other bumps along the way that delayed construction. When their initial contractor abandoned the job three-fourths of the way through, Barry and Donna were forced to finish what was left. Barry took on a lot of the work himself when it came to installing cabinets, running the electrical, and even building most of the furniture.
“It was unexpected, so that was a lot of work and it sat for several months with nothing happening,” said Barry. “I’d come after work every day and do some work, but it was really dark because there was no one living back here yet…it was a difficult time to see the house not get built.”
A few other unique features include the spiral Douglas fir staircase leading up to the loft, the closed-off family room with a window overlooking the main living area, and a built-in fish tank that shares a wall with both the dining room and the family room.
“To have interior windows like that in the family room was really unique at the time,” said Donna. “We thought it would be great if the kids could have a room to hang out in where we could see them through the window, yet everyone still had their own space.”
Finishing the interior of the house was a labor of love, but it isn’t the only place where Barry has shed some blood, sweat, and probably a few tears. Over the years, Barry has transformed two-and-a-half acres of waste-high weeds into one of Visalia’s most lush and beautiful private gardens. From the canopying Ginkgo biloba tree in the front yard to the Dogwood and Flowering Maples in the back, it is a true “secret garden,” where every square inch has been thoughtfully and meticulously landscaped.
While the shade of the 49 oak trees can certainly be credited for a portion of the garden’s success—especially in such a hot climate—the real credit goes to Barry’s consistent potting, pruning, planting, and ultimately, passion.
“I’m out in the yard probably about 20 hours a week,” said Barry. “But it’s not work, it’s a passion. I grew up in the Bronx where we didn’t have a single flower, but I always had an interest. In college I had plants in my dorm, and whenever I traveled, I would carry plants.”
For Barry, the garden is a constant work-in-progress. In 2006, he spent a year apprenticing at Sierra Designs under Dan Veyna to learn more about landscape design. Through that experience, he had the opportunity to work on several Green Acres properties and has applied much of that knowledge to his own yard.
“Some people golf, Barry gardens,” said Donna. “What’s really amazing is that every bush and every plant that’s been put in this ground, he’s planted himself, and our oldest daughter helped him put in all of the Oleanders. There have been times, especially this time of year on the weekends, when I could just stay out here all weekend long.”
For Donna, the home they built together is a dream come true. Literally. Long after their home was complete, the couple came across an old grade school project that Donna had made in sixth grade. The assignment was an autobiography about her life, projected 20 years into the future. For the assignment, Donna cut out magazine pictures of what her house would look like one day—it was a Cape Cod style home in California with dormer windows and a fenced-in swimming pool with a cut out on the left side. Fast-forward to Donna’s present, and both her home and her life look eerily similar to the future she planned when she was just 11 years old.
“There were a lot of parallels like that when I did that project,” said Donna. “I wrote about a lot of things that you don’t really do in New York, like going skiing and having a dog and a pool. It was a great exercise to pull out after we moved here. I had totally forgotten about what my house looked like.”
Barry, who is a professional counselor and psychologist, says there’s a lot of evidence to show how setting clear and specific goals can be the key to achieving success.
“I think there’s real power in setting a vision for your future,” said Barry. “Successful people are goal setters, and Donna was a goal setter when she was 11.”
Donna and Barry are living proof that goals lead to success, both personally and professionally. Not only is Barry a psychologist at a private practice in Visalia, but he is also the Director of Advancement for the Lindsay Unified School District, a teacher for Tulare County Office of Education’s IMPACT program, and a professor at Columbia University in New York City. Donna serves as the Administrator for TCOE’s IMPACT and iLead program, and is currently the Executive Director for the California Center on Teaching Careers, which is a statewide digital platform based in Tulare County.
Over the years, the couple has also stayed busy hosting guests in their home from all over the world. Recently, they designated their pool house as an AirBnB rental, thanks to some encouragement from their youngest daughter who works at AirBnB in San Francisco. What initially started out as a restroom for their oldest daughter’s backyard wedding, has been transformed into a fully functioning guesthouse. The structure’s unique open shower and stainless steel spiral staircase are just a few of the features guests get to enjoy.
“The little casita is kind of modeled after our house,” said Donna. “If you look at the physical structure inside and out, it resembles this house. There is a sleeping loft and a spiral staircase that our son-in-law built.”
Perhaps what guests appreciate the most about their stay is spending time in the garden. And who could blame them? In addition to AirBnB visitors and wedding guests, the Sommer backyard has also played host to several fundraisers for Family Services of Tulare County and the Tulare County Symphony.
“Having the symphony here was a treat,” said Donna. “The best part was when they would come out in the afternoon to practice; I would just sit out on the deck and listen.”
Both Donna and Barry find a lot of peace out in their yard, whether it’s through gardening or simply relaxing under the arbor. In the midst of busy and sometimes hectic lives, there’s nothing quite like coming home to relax under a canopy of oak trees, surrounded by nature’s most beautiful works of art.
“When days are long, I enjoy coming home and being in the garden working,” said Barry. Donna added, “This place provides a calm that we wouldn’t be able to get in a big city if we worked as much as we do now. Coming home here after a long day at work or on the weekends is really a blessing.”