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The Gift of a Garden

At the top of Alta Vista Botanical Gardens is a house. It was built by Paul and Martha Smitgen.

Paul Hilert Smitgen was born in Nebraska in 1897. He attended medical school at the University of Chicago. His wife, Martha Beyard Smitgen, hailed from Maryland. They moved to Los Angeles in the 1920’s where he practiced surgery. They lived in the beachfront neighborhood of Venice

In the late 1960’s they purchased the hill now known as Brengle Terrace Park. At the top, they built a 15 acre weekend retreat. The house was modern, with big windows, paneled walls and a natural stone fireplace.

The view from the windows is amazing. Looking north you see the Santa Margarita Mountains, often snowcapped in winter. Gazing west, across the valley to the horizon, you see the thin azure blue line of Pacific Ocean. Sunsets are impressive.

Paul and Martha loved the property. They enjoyed the wild life, coyotes, squirrels, ducks and rabbits, who shared the hillside. They tended the native plants and added a few favorite varieties. Martha’s germaniums, colorful and fragrant, have made a home in the flower beds and the along trails.

They cleared pathways meandering down from the house, perfect for strolling. Today, visitors can walk these Historic Pathways. Enter them from just below the back lawn.

You will encounter natural displays of black basaltic stone surrounded by Toyon and Crassus Tetragonal.

At a far curve of the path is Aborescence by John Dole. This abstract  sculpture suggests a tree’s limbs and leaves moving in the breeze.

The Smitgens lived their final years in the house. They had no heirs and chose to leave the house and land to charity. The City of Vista acquired the hillside, adding it to Brengle Terrace Park.

In 1999, the city designated the entire 15 acres as a public garden to be managed by a non-profit foundation. The Garden is self-sustaining through entry fees, memberships, rentals and fund-raising events. The foundation also receives support from local businesses and many wonderful volunteers.

For more than 20 years, the foundation has developed the hilltop, adding designated gardens with rare and beautiful plants. They’ve built patios, ponds and a palapa. They’ve installed more than 40 works of art.

It is a favorite destination for Vista residents of all ages.  I imagine the Paul and Martha would approve.


We are grateful to the Smitgens for this gift of a Garden!

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