Big Springs retreat known as ‘Monet in the Mountains’ up for sale

06/28/2014 7:00 PM

10/07/2014 8:14 PM

One of the Sierra Nevada’s most striking properties, known as “Monet in the Mountains,” is on the market for the first time in half a century for $3.5 million.

Big Springs Gardens is nestled in a serene valley below the 8,600-foot Sierra Buttes. It features a pond with water lilies and a bridge modeled after the famous span at impressionist painter Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France.

Big Springs lies along the North Yuba River and Highway 49 near Sierra City. It is both a private home and a public garden with a restaurant-style kitchen that serves meals on tables beneath the pines.

Wildflowers bloom in profusion. Hiking trails crisscross the hillsides. And a natural spring gushes hundreds of gallons per minute into waterfalls, brooks and a 1-acre trout pond where bald eagles snatch fish.

Surrounded by national forest, without other dwellings or roads in view, visitors often experience it as a kind of private Shangri-La.

“When you come up here, it’s so peaceful and tranquil. It’s away from all the strife in the world,” owner Don Phillips said. “People talk about the tranquility. They say, ‘I’ve never been so at peace in my life.’ ”

The property is a 50-year labor of love for Phillips, an entrepreneur, developer and former assistant dean at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He carved the garden oasis from a rough patch of woods starting in 1964.

Remarkably robust at 90, Phillips has put the property on the market for the first time because he has no heirs who can run it.

Phillips, who also has a home in Roseville, said he built his mountain house with the idea of passing it down from generation to generation. His son, whom he intended to leave it to, died two years ago, and his grandchildren aren’t ready to take over.

Five years ago, heart troubles convinced Phillips he would have to sell Big Springs, but surgery restored his health. He also weighed turning the gardens into a nonprofit foundation, but that plan didn’t work out, he said.

Now, Phillips is hoping to find a buyer who will cherish Big Springs as he has. He said he sees himself more as a steward of the land than an owner.

“I’d rather see it get into good hands right now,” Phillips said. “It’s time for someone else to take over.”

Real estate agent Alison Elder, with Chase International in Truckee, said Big Springs is a one-of-a-kind property in the multimillion-dollar market near Lake Tahoe.

“Even among high-end properties, it’s unique,” Elder said.

It could be a corporate retreat, or multiple families could buy it together as a vacation home, Elder said. With its restaurant kitchen, house and gardens, it has commercial potential, perhaps as a mountain inn, she said.

When Phillips bought the property 50 years ago, he wasn’t sure what he would do with it. A friend who had bought a ranch nearby and owned the acreage talked him into it and allowed him to make small payments every month.

For years, Phillips brought his family camping there. They parked along the highway and climbed past an old cabin through the brush.

“You walked and crawled over and under trees,” he said. “It was a dismal affair.”

In the 1980s, he built a half-dozen tent platforms, where he’d invite groups of friends to “camp in style.”

In 1987, he started work on the 2,800-square-foot main house, hiring noted San Francisco architect Jim Babcock to design it after rural homes Phillips admired in his native Illinois. The fireplaces are made from stones gathered around the base of the Sierra Buttes. Robins and bluebirds nest below the eaves of the wrap-around porch.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning views of the towering and jagged Sierra Buttes from the living room and master bedroom.

“You don’t have to lift your head off the pillow to see the Buttes,” he said.

Over the decades, Phillips cleaned up fallen trees and other debris on his property. He said he hadn’t intended to create a garden, but “whenever we got duff off the ground, wildflowers came up.”

He realized he could create a landscape like one of his favorite places in the world.

“I’ve been to Giverny so many times I could close my eyes and walk through the gardens,” Phillips said.

He cut paths to take in stunning views. He moved giant boulders to frame waterfalls. And he planted flowers by the thousands.

Monet shaped his famous garden in a simple country landscape. Phillips said he had less talent but a stunning natural setting to work with.

“In my case, I didn’t have the ability as a visionary, so God gave me a great site. I just had to clean it up a bit.”

About a dozen years ago, Phillips said he was on a trail and saw the pond, the house and the bridge and had a “revelation.”

“I said, ‘There’s too much here. It should be shared.’ ”

Today, Phillips welcomes visitors who pay $35 for admission and lunch buffets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and $39 for a Friday night happy hour and dinner with live music, a Saturday barbecue and Sunday brunch. The all-inclusive price for admission and meals helps support the gardens. (For more information and required reservations, go to www.bigspringsgardens.com or call 530-862-1333.)

Marianne Curry, a retired teacher from Grass Valley, had lunch with a group of friends Thursday. They tucked away grilled salmon, Swedish meatballs, peach cobbler and ice cream. Then they planned to hit the trails.

“We’re going to walk it off,” Curry said. “We’ve all eaten more than we’ve eaten in one sitting in years.”

Phillips said in exchange for hosting strangers, he’s received praise and feedback that keeps him going.

“I get far more in return than I give away,” he said.

As Phillips was getting up from his own lunch, Tom and Deanne Kelley of Penn Valley walked up and thanked him.

“This is heaven. This is magical,” Deanne Kelley told Phillips. “I would like to house-sit for you.”

Phillips looked at another visitor and said: “This is what I mean.”

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