At Home With Joy & Hugh Bancroft
Posted on September 4, 2019
“It was the light. I was drawn to this beautiful western light.” Joy Bancroft is surveying the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees in the backyard of her Rancho Santa Fe home. It is a golden light that casts a warm, almost other-worldly glow on everything it touches: the bows of a Chinese flame, a blue palm, tropical plumeria, and pots of fragrant gardenias. It is hard to imagine that the landscape was so much different when Joy and her husband, Hugh, purchased the property a dozen years ago.
The seller was the U.S. Justice Department. The property’s former owner was Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the disgraced former U.S. congressman, naval officer, and Vietnam ace who was then serving an eight-year prison sentence for taking bribes from defense contractors, as well as tax evasion, and mail and wire fraud. As part of a plea deal, Cunningham and his wife were forced to give up most of their assets. That included the sprawling, three-acre property, which from television news helicopters, looked very grand. In reality, says Joy, the house was a fixer upper — a bad take on the fictional Tara, a plantation in Gone with the Wind. The house had tacky entrance columns and a warren of small, dark rooms crammed with old furniture.
The couple set about revamping the house and grounds with Thomas Landry, the Los Angeles-based interior designer whom Joy credits for “extraordinary vision and talent.” The creative force behind the renovation, Landry opened up the interior, reconfiguring rooms by knocking down or adding walls. He also transformed the exterior, eliminating the columns and adding a courtyard at the entrance, and in the backyard, carving out stunning outdoor spaces where the Bancrofts live and entertain.
But it is Joy’s ever-evolving garden that is truly magical, a vast expanse beyond the backyard that she used to call “the pit.” The Bancrofts eventually filled the area with truckloads of dirt and boulders. Working with Landry and landscaper Francisco Cruz, Joy has created an enchanting space filled with water features, exotic plants, and myriad places to relax and reflect. “I wanted a garden where, no matter where you sit, you have a different sensation,” she explains.
Stone steps lead down to a pond where an armada of koi dart about beneath a canopy of lily pads. The koi, which Joy can hand feed, delight children who are frequent visitors. Guests also can take in the scene from a Moroccan swing overlooking the pond, or beneath the fronds of an immense Canary Island palm. Close by is a Zen-like sanctuary: a daybed shaded by a small gazebo, a tableau inspired by a recent trip to Bora Bora. Across the thick lawn, large enough to host a crowd, is a dining pavilion surrounded by palm trees, where friends and family gather on balmy summer nights. Throughout the property, there is the sound of water — whether from pools, ponds, or fountains — and the heavenly fragrance of flowers, from gardenias to star-shaped stephanotis. Joy selected blooms that release their aromas at different times, so the air is always filled with subtle scent.
The Bancrofts’ home and garden provide a peaceful counterpoint to the couple’s active lives filled with family (they have three grown children), travel, and adventure. The couple lives part-time in Aspen where Hugh is an avid skier. He also raced Formula cars (open-wheeled, single seat) and even designed and built “Bancroft Roadsters,” two-seater neo-classic cars that resembled automotive design from the late 1920s. Joy played polo for years with the San Diego Polo Club (along with son Colton), and now rides jumpers. Even the couple’s vacations are action-packed. In Tanzania, they rode horses at the base of Kilimanjaro, “flying along” amid herds of wildebeest, zebra, and giraffe.
The Bancrofts’ philanthropy focuses on military families and education. They fund the C4Foundation, named in honor of Charles Keating IV, a courageous Navy SEAL who died in Iraq. The foundation provides support and resources for SEALs and their families. The Bancrofts are especially involved with Pacific Ridge School, a private, independent high school in Carlsbad, which they helped found and continue to finance, creating the school’s first endowment in honor of Richard and Shari Sapp.
As we wrap up our conversation with a leisurely stroll around the grounds, Joy grows contemplative. “This is what started it all,” she says, pointing to a statuesque queen palm. When the Bancrofts moved into their home years ago, the neglected tree looked forlorn, with a skinny trunk and drooping fronds. But Joy couldn’t bear to cut it down. That palm, which survived with some TLC, inspired her to create the garden. “This is my heart,” she says. “This is where I live. Creating it and nurturing it is what I love to do.” Andrea Naversen
Photography by Vincent Knakal