Pure Folly: A North Texas home with a water theme park and a 500-foot-long lazy river.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when William Randolph Hearst was building his La Cuesta Encantada (Enchanted Hill), known today as Hearst Castle, the millionaire publishing magnate instructed architect Julia Morgan to fashion the California estate around a massive neoclassical Neptune pool — considered one of the largest residential pools in the world — alongside a bevy of outdoor structures, including an elevated tennis court, a zoo, and a mile-long, grapevine-covered pergola to shade guests on horseback from the noon-day sun. Although Hearst’s emphasis on the great outdoors was an anomaly in his day, the notion of turning the space outside your home into an extravagant backyard oasis has become a major trend with modern-day homeowners.

Outdoor spaces have moved beyond the lap pool, outdoor kitchen, tennis court, and gazebo; for some, those basic amenities are simply not enough to savor a summer afternoon in first-class comfort anymore. These homeowners want to appease their inner child by turning their backyards into year-round theme parks filled with everything from outdoor 3-D movie theaters and multilevel putting greens to spa grottos, sculpture gardens, tree houses — and even skate parks, baseball diamonds, and ice rinks. 

One homeowner in Boulder City, Nevada, converted his 1.5-acre site into a Depression-era mining town complete with wading pools, cave grottos, bridges with old-time water wheels, and weathered buildings scattered over hundreds of red rock boulders. Another in Scottsdale, Arizona, installed a 300-foot zip line and a custom train reminiscent of a Santa Fe railway car. Meanwhile, across the country at Alexander Julian’s 33-acre Ridgefield estate, the American fashion designer known for his boldly colored designs has enveloped his home in formal gardens, two enormous man-made ponds, an ivy-covered bridge, a tennis court, a greenhouse, and an expansive apple orchard — all the trappings of a New York Yankee in Connecticut. 
Beyond outdoor kitchens and nice swimming pools, homeowners are taking the backyard to a whole new

“Many of the things found in the yard these days are pure folly; you certainly don’t need them,” says Michael Booth, co-founder of the San Francisco-based design firm BAMO. Instead, he suggests, they are there simply to satisfy the environmental whims of their owners. Some are utilitarian, such as the hand-carved Chinese pavilion at the Marin County, California, olive oil ranch of former San Francisco Chronicle publisher Nan McEvoy, who uses the structure — totally incongruent with the surrounding buildings — for informal gatherings. Others, like a Patrick Dougherty installation of twigs woven into several sculptural structures (referred to by the children as fairy houses), simply exist alongside more practical features such as a chicken coop, an organic vegetable garden, and a solar swimming pool on two acres in the Bay Area’s Portola Valley. “The owners are very much into farm-to-table living,” Booth explains.

Although Americans have long relished their outdoor spaces, especially in the Sunbelt where indoor-outdoor living is the norm, nowadays designers and landscape architects say it’s becoming more about legacy for homeowners than financial liquidity. “I think a lot of people are looking to give something back to their families. Typically, these homes are all for the kids, friends, family. These are homes they plan on being in for years to come,” says StoneCrest Pools designer Doug Johnston, a Keller, Texas-based expert in “custom watershapes and aquatic architecture,” as he refers to his craft.

“The boundaries of pool construction since the 1980s and 1990s have gone to another level as far as design, engineering, and technology,” Johnston says, which has resulted in backyard installations that go well beyond swimming. To that end, he recently installed a full-scale water theme park in the backyard of one North Texas home, featuring 18 separate spray toys and a 500-foot meandering lazy river. “The property is a little far out, and the closest water park is a bit of a drive, so they wanted to create an environment for their kids and friends to enjoy,” says Johnston, noting that the same property also includes a 120-foot-long rectangular pool with 37-foot fountains set to the final note of a music selection, and an underwater surround-sound speaker system that allows crystal-clear music listening while doing laps. “It’s not a swimming pool. It’s an architectural extension of the house,” says Johnston, adding how the fountains in front of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas served as inspiration.

In Arizona, seven fire pits, a putting green, and a skate park are just some of the amenities in the yard of Mariana and Tony Kitchukov.
Leeann White
Landscape designers say that luxury hotels, and the pampering that comes with them, have fueled many backyard makeovers. A lot of these people (athletes, celebrities, corporate CEOs) spend their lives on the road, for business or pleasure, so they get spoiled staying at places like the Four Seasons, explains Rick Chafey, co-owner and designer at Arizona-based Red Rock Pools & Spas and Red Rock Contractors, a company specializing in million-dollar yardscapes. “When these guys come home from a trip, they want to be able to enjoy the same amenities with their families,” he says. Ironically, BAMO’s Michael Booth, who is responsible for a number of luxury hotel properties including the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, says it works both ways. “The hotels we are working with now have to design the room experience to be equal to or better because many of these people come from very elaborate homes, and we’re finding our challenge is to meet or exceed their expectations.”

Of course, the person who throws millions of dollars at a backyard renovation is not doing so with resale in mind. “It’s a non-financially responsible way to spend money; you’ll never recoup it,” says Chafey, a builder and “water shape designer” who is currently at work on a $3 million-plus backyard renovation that includes an oversize pool with levitating stone decks, 15 electronic fire features, and a 38-foot-wide waterfall, among other excesses. “It’s a little bit for show. But it is also about investing in where you live,” he insists.

Landscape excess is hardly new to Chafey. The 40-year-old designer gained some notoriety five years ago when he built one of the nation’s most elaborate and expensive residential swimming pools. The million-dollar space, located in the Gilbert, Arizona, backyard of clients Mariana and Tony Kitchukov, holds 170,000 gallons of water and is surrounded by five waterfalls, a kitchen, a living space with a towering fireplace, seven fire pits, a water slide, a putting green, a koi pond, and even a skate park for the Kitchukovs’ son. The entire project is integrated with Pentair IntelliTouch and Crestron, allowing complete control of fire features, pool cleaners, water features, colored lighting, underwater audio, televisions, and mist systems right from a smart phone or touch panel inside the home. 

“This is one of a kind,” homeowner Mariana Kitchukov told the Arizona Register when the project was completed in 2010. “You feel like you’re in a five-star resort, but you’re in your own backyard.”