St. Louisans transform their yards into amazing landscapes, outdoor living areas

William Motchan
A view of ‘Martin’s Marina’ — the pool and patio of Hiram and Cheryl Martin.

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

In the past year, if you’ve found yourself spending more time at home outdoors enjoying the fresh air in an outdoor living space, you’re not alone. A 2021 report by Fixr.com found that homeowners are investing more in outdoor living than before the pandemic. Many people are foregoing vacations in favor of creating a more livable outdoor space in their own backyards.

The Fixr.com study also revealed an increase in demand for outdoor kitchens and heaters, fireplaces and firepits, which can make an outdoor space comfortable for year-round use. Often a swimming pool is the focal point of an outdoor space. Landscaping is also a critical aspect.

If you are considering creating a home outdoor oasis, it makes sense to consult with a designer first and determine an overall concept, according to some Jewish homeowners the St. Louis Jewish Light visited.

Planning ahead

Doug and Esther Cohen have a beautiful two-story contemporary home in Richmond Heights. The one-acre lot also boasts an impressive multi-level backyard living space. Cohen, the owner of Douglas Properties, specializes in providing elegant finishes to homes, so he knew from experience the importance of planning ahead.

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“It’s important to have an architect help lay it out properly,” Cohen said. “We created the space in two phases. The covered patio was in Phase 1 and the pool went in two years afterwards, so we made sure it fit in well, with stairs leading down to it and retaining walls. 

“We had it all envisioned and the space was there. It was easy to pull the trigger once we could afford it. We began the original construction three years ago and the pool went in this year. We didn’t compromise—it just fit in like a puzzle. We knew we wanted to have a stairway going down to the pool. It was kind of ad libbed with a zig-zag pattern.”

Cohen said the unique design of the stairway from the house to the pool was borne out of necessity, since he needed to work around an existing retaining wall. Phase 3 is up next and will include a fireplace and pergola.

“As soon as the weather breaks, we’ll be able to get started on it,” Cohen said. “We use the space a lot. We eat meals ad have morning coffee out here, and my daughter and I spent a lot of time using the jacuzzi. We’re also getting a lot of use out of the pool right now.”

Martin’s marina

In Olivette, Hiram and Cheryl Martin often invite friends over on Sunday afternoons for a swim at “Martin’s Marina.” There’s no boat dock, but the Martin’s backyard pool and patio sit alongside a creek. There’s also a small bridge to enter the property from the main road. It was that serene setting that sold them on the house when they got married 1988.

“There was a concrete pool and a stone patio, and it was lovely,” said Cheryl Martin. “We would have people over and seat them at the stone bar and the barbecue pit, and we entertained in the space.”

Then in the mid-1990s, the creek was modified, and it impacted the pool’s drainage system. One night after a torrential rain, the entire concrete pool rose up out of the ground. It took the Martins two summers to re-install it, using a liner. The size is the same as the original pool—about 37 by 20 feet. They’ve made some adjustments, including expanding the patio over time.

The Martins are both retired teachers, but they were working when the moved into the home. With the summers off, they’ve routinely enjoyed their outdoor pool space for many years, often with friends and family. That included the lost pandemic year of 2020. It also is a perfect staycation retreat, even in a non-COVID world.

“Last year, we had friends with grandchildren, and they would call and we would schedule them, two or three times a week in the morning or afternoon,” Cheryl Martin said. “We love entertaining and really, I would rather not travel during the summer because that’s when we get the most benefit out of the space.”

Demand for pools is still high

A backyard pool sounds nice after several weeks of sweltering St. Louis 90° heat. Unfortunately, the pandemic has resulted in a drastic increase in demand for new pools and outdoor living spaces, according to Jennifer Hacker, director of marketing at Baker Pool Construction.

“At the height of the pandemic, traveling wasn’t even an option, so most people were desperately seeking ways to keep their families busy and entertained while stuck at home,” Hacker said. “It made the idea of creating a personal staycation destination extremely enticing. And because people couldn’t take their usual annual vacations, many families had the extra funds available to invest in home-remodeling projects.

“We went from receiving three to five bid requests per day to 20, sometimes even 30 per day. Demand has definitely slowed a bit since last summer, but it’s still much greater than it was prior to COVID. Right now, we have about a 14-month backlog for new construction.”

Hacker recommended homeowners weigh a number of factors when planning a new pool and outdoor living space.

“Wish list and budget are the most obvious considerations, but you also need to think about other variables such as timeline, municipality requirements, drainage and organic grades of land that exist in the yard,” she said. “Our designers also prompt new clients to take other important components – such as lighting, deck surfacing, hardscaping, and landscaping – into account. There’s an extraordinary amount of thought and planning that goes into these projects, but that’s what makes the results so rewarding.”

Smart design maximizes space

It’s a toss-up on who gets the most out of Jodi and Mark Blucher’s outdoor living space—Mark or the Blucher’s three dogs.

“Originally, it was a boring slab,” Jodi Blucher said of their property. “When we bought our house, it was a tiny ranch. We tore it down and built this house. Then to create the outdoor space, we called our builder and they got an architect for us who they felt would be good for the project. My husband always wanted something better, and he basically lives out here now.”

The Blucher’s Olivette yard is, at .45-acre, average size. But through smart design, they’ve maximized the overall space. The backyard’s rectangular shape required some clever design work. There are several large green spaces, which the dogs love. The Blucher family is especially fond of the covered patio.

The roof is extended out from the house and has skylights to brighten the area. That section of the living space includes a high-powered ceiling fan, discrete speakers and lighting. All the components can be controlled from a smartphone. An outdoor TV is attached to a cantilevered housing so it can be raised for viewing and lowered when not in use. 

Just beyond the patio is a firepit and seating area. That comes in handy for cooler weather, as do the heaters above the patio seating area attached. That’s a feature that expands the Blucher’s outdoor living space to nearly four seasons.

“Even in really cold weather, like last January, we were sitting comfortably out here with the heaters on and a blanket,” Jodi Blucher said.

The timing of the project also worked to their advantage. It was completed in March 2020, just before the pandemic was officially declared.

“We were lucky,” Blucher said. “We spent a lot of time out here last year, although we did have to wait for our patio furniture because of backups due to COVID.”

Ambiance is the key for entertaining

When developing an outdoor living space, one key to consider is designing the space for entertaining friends and family. That means creating ambiance. Aaron Teitelbaum, owner of Herbie’s and Kingside Diner, offered some advice for making guests comfortable.

“One thing that’s really important for us is creating ambiance through lighting and music,” Teitelbaum said. “You want to have a nice glow in the nighttime scape that has a festive vibe. 

“It’s about the energy that’s created. We want it warm yet festive, which we achieve through lighting and music. We have speakers all through the patio, not just in one area.”

Teitelbaum also suggested investing in comfortable seating and high-quality umbrellas.

“At our restaurants when we’re looking at how to create an outdoor space, the first thing is how do you create comfortable seating,” he said. “We try to mix it up between soft seating and dining seating so we have both available for our guests. Having fans is extremely important, too, for the comfort level of our guests. And at the restaurant we have movable umbrellas. I would always recommend going for a good quality umbrella that can withstand the weather and the wind. With umbrellas, you get what you pay for.”

The outdoor dining space at Herbie’s in Clayton is functional in cooler weather, too, thanks to propane heaters and a two-sided tent installed last year to offer a COVID-safe environment. The outdoor seating and entertainment space is a good fit for a restaurant because guests seem more relaxed, Teitelbaum said.

“I feel like people have always been more comfortable outdoors,” he said. “They are much more patient, not as much on the go. You can see them kick back in the chair and relax. It really slows everything down.”

Elevations create outdoor ‘rooms’

Martha LaFata’s one-acre lot in Webster Groves resembles a mini-botanical garden. A number of elevations are covered with trees, plants and shrubs. That design, she said, creates different “rooms.” There’s a patio area, and behind one hillock, a grouping of flowering plants. In another area are LaFata’s beehives. It’s a true cornucopia for a nature lover. The space is also a good example of an evolving outdoor space.

“It’s been in progress for 42 years, which is hard for me to believe,” LaFata said. “Throughout that period was the birth of three kids and the loss of a husband. The couple we bought it from lived here for 27 years and they were botanists so there was already a lot here.”

LaFata often goes out to enjoy her yard early in the morning when it’s cooler, but the abundant shade from mature trees makes the space comfortable even in scorching midday St. Louis summer heat. She said one of the things she likes best about the space is the ability to create natural beauty through plants.

“I have an art and photography background, so I love the design process and I love being outside,” she said. “If someone is planning an outdoor space, the thing I recommend is that screening is crucial. I start with that. Typically, they say to start with the bones, but after 42 years I just added 12 tons of rocks to my garden.

“A garden is never finished, it’s never done, it just evolves, and if something doesn’t work in one place, you can always move it. Things keep changing.”

An eco-friendly place

Another habitat for bees, and chickens, is present in the unusual backyard of Maxine and Steve Mirowitz’s Westwood home. Their garden is eco-friendly and sustainable. The chickens provide an ample supply of eggs, and they eat kitchen compost scraps. The Mirowitz backyard houses up to 10 bee colonies. Those bees in turn pollinate their vegetable garden.

One prominent feature of the space is a water feature. A swimming pool was converted into a pond with a manmade bog that acts as a biological filter system. The plant material in the yard is made up of native species, which attracts wildlife while reducing the need for watering and pollutants like pesticides and fertilizers.

“More biodiversity leads to a balanced healthy habitat, which delights my gardener’s soul,” said Maxine Mirowitz. “I’ve always felt nurtured by my environment. I make it hospitable to all these beautiful things and in return they bring so much enrichment to my life. I don’t feel overwhelmed by being outdoors in what I created, because it’s my refuge. I feel appreciation and gratitude of a higher power, and when you’re out there, that’s what’s happening.”

The outdoor space also proved to be a welcome refuge during the pandemic, she said.

“It’s been my little oasis, and a retreat,” she said. “Every time I set foot in my space outside, I did not for a minute think of COVID. It just changed my whole outlook. I feel replenished, re-invigorated, restored. Even now, in the face of COVID, if I didn’t have my backyard, I don’t know what I would have done. It was my lifeline.”