A Good Home: A California Couple Find Their Dream Home

A couple of California retirees lift bales and mix up plaster for a home so warm and nurturing that they rarely want to leave.

| March/April 2003

  • A large bank of windows washes the dining room in sunlight during winter and fall afternoons. At night, carefully placed lights create a soft glow on the clay walls. The room is furnished with an old Spanish-style dining set and curio cabinet, which is set into a recess in a lime-washed wall. The recess’s interior was washed with lime colored with Venetian red and French yellow natural mineral ochres.
  • Much of the natural southwestern landscape was left intact as Susan and Saul Frommer planned their home on this property.
  • Says Susan of their California setting: “The whole reason we’re up here is for the natural beauty, so why scrape it all away?”
  • Susan and Saul Frommer spent many hours completing their home. The interior perimeter walls are straw bale coated with plaster, while the interior partition walls are a homemade lime plaster mixture coated with white lime wash.
  • Susan and Saul relax in the natural terrain surrounding their California home.
  • Bright morning sunlight streams through a living room window, casting a bold geometric pattern on the acid-stained concrete floor. The window ledge holds a Miwok tribe (central California) cooking basket, resting on a traditional Navajo rug.
    PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN DABROWSKI
  • The living room is designed to accommodate a large gathering of friends yet has comfortable corners where individuals or couples can relax, chat, or read. Susan weaves textiles on the loom in the corner.
  • The Frommers collected this old African milk jug on one of their many trips. It is graced by intricate beadwork and still carries the faint scent of smoke from years of use in the vicinity of a cooking fire.
  • Susan calls this guest bedroom “the cave” because it offers a cozy, nurturing feeling that offsets the large, open spaces in the rest of the house. In the evening, guests can open the window to the patio to enjoy the cool breeze, gentle splashing of the fountain, and the flowering epiphyllum cacti. The handmade cradle and pine chest belonged to Susan’s mother. Susan’s great uncle made the bows in the corner. She used them as a child but won’t risk stringing them now because of their age and frailty.
  • The front of the house features a portal, a Mexican/Southwest version of a logia or portico, which runs along its entire length. It encloses a patio surfaced with adobe pavers and native rock, a Mediterranean-style fountain, and a large collection of cacti, succulents, and other plants.
  • For much of the year, the Frommers and their friends take every meal possible on the front patio, under the portal. Here, they can enjoy the pleasant climate and a view of Susan’s lovely gardens and the oak-covered hills beyond.
  • Susan’s handmade tiles decorate the base of the walls in the common areas.
  • Bright morning sunlight streams through a living room window, casting a bold geometric pattern on the acid-stained concrete floor. The window ledge holds a Miwok tribe (central California) cooking basket, resting on a traditional Navajo rug.
  • Bright morning sunlight streams through a living room window, casting a bold geometric pattern on the acid-stained concrete floor. The window ledge holds a Miwok tribe (central California) cooking basket, resting on a traditional Navajo rug.

Susan and Saul Frommer have a long and admirable track record as environmentalists. Susan established one of the first native plant nurseries in southern California and is a well-known designer of native and xeriscaped gardens. Saul was curator of one of the finest entomology collections in the world, at the University of California at Riverside.

Upon their semi-retirement, the Frommers undertook the creation of their dream home in the chaparral and oak woodland hills of Murrieta, California, just a stone’s throw from the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve and the Cleveland National Forest. Naturally, the couple wanted a house that would be both attractive and environmentally sound. 

A home for the house 

“We chose this property mainly for practical reasons,” says Susan. “We wanted a place that was out of the valley so it would be cooler. We wanted a place where we could be surrounded by people who cared about the way things look, who wouldn’t trash the environment, and someplace with lots of nice, existing, natural vegetation. But it also needed to be within a reasonable distance of the university.” Treading lightly on the environment was an extremely important consideration. “For one thing,” says Susan, “it just makes economic sense. If you have mature growth that is suitable for a domestic landscape, to clear it out and replant is just stupid. The plants that are here grow naturally, so I don’t have to pamper them. They can be pruned up and make lovely landscape specimens, and they provide food and shelter for the wildlife. The whole reason we’re up here is for the natural beauty, so why scrape it all away?”



The original owner of Susan and Saul’s land had already cleared an area for a house that was never built, so the couple simply had to enlarge it slightly for their own home. “I was on site when this work was being done, and I threatened them with death if they strayed even a bit too far,” Susan laughs, recounting her admonitions: “Don’t touch that oak! Don’t bury those rocks! Here, let me dig up that plant before you go there.” Even more clearing was required after construction was complete to meet local fire codes. This was done by hand so that the soil would not be disturbed, which would have made room for non-native, invasive weeds. 

Good bones 



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