Secluded hillside retreat offers couple the perfect mix of town and country

Pam Peña in the back yard of her Gilroy home.

Traffic whizzes by the car as it turns off of Hecker Pass Highway in Gilroy just past Santa Teresa Boulevard, but 30 seconds later, as the driver steps from the cab, the cars are inaudible. Instead, there is the chirping of birds, the soft gurgle of a fountain and the peaceful rustle of the wind through giant, gnarled old oaks, all of which the driver savors as she crunches over the pea gravel drive.

The home belongs to Pam and Richard Peña, who were married in its garden 20 years ago by its former owner, retired judge John Klarich, a family friend.

They bought the home from him when he decided he had become too elderly to maintain the grounds.

Built in 1949, the property was built to maximize its views, which reach beyond the trees to allow visitors standing at the kitchen sink or reclining by the living room fireplace to see all the way to Hollister on a clear night.

“It’s great at the Fourth of July,” said Pam, who said she could see the fireworks from Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister from her property.

Standing amid the yard’s original built-in planters, which brim with lush ferns, Pam points to the sentimental items she’s incorporated into the yard’s design.

She and her husband are avid boaters, and she’s created displays around the garden using items recovered from their trips.

One tree is decorated with bits of driftwood the couple has found, and another holds a growing collection of abalone shells they’ve brought home.

There are also family heirlooms of a sort – an old plow and wheelbarrow used by her husband’s father, a cactus from the home of a relative and succulents grown from slips that have traveled from home to home with the couple, all of them originating from the same plant at their first home.

Even the ferns in the yard’s giant, rectangular brick planters have a history here. They were grown from cuttings taken from the home’s original ferns, growing on the hillside below the house.

The home itself takes enviable advantage of the yard and its views, with gargantuan picture windows occupying the entire front.

“We get to see a lot of wildlife here,” said Pam. “There are lots of deer who drink from a small creek down in the gorge next to the house, and they like to eat the wild plums that grow on the hill leading up here. Sometimes we like to sit in the spa and watch them and the coyotes and raccoons, but toward the end of the summer, I know it’s getting dry, because I’ll walk around the corner and find them standing up here in my pond.”

Avid do-it-yourselfers, the Peñas have made many improvements to the home themselves, starting with a major regrading project when they bought the house in 1997.

The couple also retiled the back patio, constructed two pergolas on the property to add shade and space for Pam’s climbing pink star jasmines and built an extra-wide car port that doubles as an outdoor entertainment space in summer.

The carport can hold large dining tables for up to about 100 people, said Pam, who has tested its capacity with a variety of summer parties, most notably a wedding reception for 130 she and her husband hosted for two of his good friends.

One thing they didn’t change was the home’s retro appeal. Inside, Pam still uses the home’s original oven, a built-in just large enough for a single turkey.

She’s kept the 1950s-style oversized cabinets and made the kitchen’s fireplace a centerpiece in the room using a sponge technique to apint the brick hearth a mottled tan and white.

In the bathrooms, the couple kept the home’s original counters and backsplashes, all of which are made from molded plaster.

“I love all of its little quirks,” Pam said of the house, a definite break from her mommy years spent raising children in suburban planned communities. “It’s definitely an adult house. You wouldn’t want to be raising a toddler here. They’d hurt themselves all over the place, but we’re ready for some quiet, and this is the place for that.”

Moments later, back down the hill at busy intersection of Hecker Pass Highway and Santa Teresa Boulevard, a driver pulls out of the woods, her car merging with the roar of the traffic, still unheard at the Peña home.

If you have a special or intriguing home or garden, we’d like to showcase it in our Great Homes of the South Valley feature. Call (408) 842-9505 or e-mail [email protected] and tell us about your abode.

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