Artist Leah Higgins grew up high atop a hill in Pacific Beach with sweeping views of Mt. Soledad, Mission Bay, Downtown San Diego, and San Diego Bay. The modest, Cubist-style house has a rich history, built in 1926 by architect Irving Gill for horticulturist Kate Sessions, who came to be known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” The two-acre property contains many mature trees and plants from Sessions’ gardens and nurseries: cedars, cypress, succulents, and cacti, as well as Torrey pines, rock pines, Podocarpus, palms, jacarandas, and eucalyptus. Sessions seeded and nurtured plants that were later introduced into Balboa Park. Although according to Higgins, Sessions only lived in the home for ten years, her legacy continues to grow.
Higgins’ parents bought the property in 1946. The couple hailed from British Columbia but moved to San Diego to escape the cold winters. Higgins, who was born in San Diego, remembers the house was surrounded by farms, horse stables, and flower fields. “The fragrance,” she recalls, “was amazing.” Although the property has since been developed and subdivided, the footprint of the original Sessions house is still intact. Higgins and her husband, Pat, a retired hospital administrator, have remodeled rooms over the years, bumping out an upstairs room for a master suite, converting a covered porch, enlarging the kitchen, and adding a granite counter and leaded glass cabinets. But the bones — and Sessions’ spirit — remains.
“My mom used to say, ‘Kate’s at it again’ when the floorboards creaked or when the fuse box went out,” Higgins recalls. Years later, Higgins’ own son, who also grew up in the house, “thought it was haunted with Kate’s spirit,” she says. The Higginses tried to stay true to Sessions’ spirit in other ways. The expansive grounds are filled with flowers, bushes, and trees planted long ago by Sessions herself. But the couple has added plantings that they believe the horticulturist would have approved. “I really became fond of her,” says Higgins. “We tried very hard to do what she would like by planting flowering trees and plants, and rose gardens, but nothing manicured. She wasn’t manicured at all.”
But the couple did build a feature that might have baffled — or delighted — Sessions. They added a 70-foot fiberglass tube that connects the master bedroom on the second floor with the swimming pool below. “The idea was to slide from the master bedroom right into the pool,” Higgins explains. But they soon stopped using it, fearing the tube would launch people too fast.
A talented artist whose painting Ben’s Tree was the juried winner of the 2020/2021 La Jolla Historical Society’s Secret Garden Tour, Higgins has her own studio on the grounds where she teaches art classes and paints on commission, whether portraits of people, pets, landscapes, or seascapes. Last month, together with artist Cherry Sweig and San Diego Coastal Art Studios Tour founder Dot Renshaw, Higgins co-sponsored a free, self-guided tour of nine studio homes and gardens in Pacific Beach and La Jolla. The tour, which included her home, featured dozens of artists and benefitted children’s scholarships at The Village Arts and Education Foundation of Spanish Village in Balboa Park.
The couple’s swimming pool and grounds will also be the setting on October 8 for Wine D’Vine, a dinner and fundraiser for Walden Family Services co-chaired by Jackie Helm and Kimberly Lee. Walden is a nationally recognized foster care, adoption, and youth services agency celebrating 45 years helping foster children and families. VIP tickets are $1,200, with sponsorship opportunities also available. 619.727.5897, waldenfamily.org