A Mission Hills Couple Enjoys "Refreshing" Surroundings
Two things strike you as you approach the Gillis residence on a quiet cul de sac in Mission Hills. First are the stately and artfully laced liquidambar (sweet gum) and magnolia trees that tower over the garden. Second is the riotous abundance of planting along the driveway and entrance walkway — a feast for the eyes of colors and textures and a hint of what lies beyond the entry gate.
Fran Gillis has always had an interest in gardening and might aptly be called a “plantaholic.” She describes herself as “the nursery’s best friend.”
“They know me on a first-name basis,” she says. She buys plants she likes and then they sit around until she has an epiphany about their proper place. Trial and error have taught her much about how well plants grow in a variety of light conditions, from direct sun to deep shade. Preferring to be in the garden rather than the house, she wants things to be lush and defines her garden style as “organized chaos.” With this kind of passion, she constantly changes plantings throughout the season.
Fran and her husband, Bill, are the third owners of the house they purchased in 1975. The grounds were formerly part of the William Templeton Johnson estate and formed the entry to the property next door. The original ranch-style home and Japanese garden didn’t make sense to them, so they redesigned paths and replaced a rotted wood deck with an outdoor living room that includes stone flooring, a rose-covered arbor and a fireplace.
The magnolia tree and some camellias existed, but Fran and Bill planted many other trees. A spectacular peppermint weeping willow tree next to the pool provides the perfect shaded spot for a hammock in summer. In December, Fran decorates the house with leaves from the magnolia.
Miguel Ramirez — who worked with legendary San Diego garden guru Sinjin and maintains the Gillis’ landscaping — laces holly, azaleas and camellias, as well as trees. Bill enjoys working in the garden as well, in the capacity of chief assistant.
San Diego history has permeated Fran and Bill’s lives in ways other than just living next door to the Johnson estate. Fran’s father was a prominent pioneer in the tuna fishing industry. Bill’s grandfather was a principal of the company that owned the Chicken of the Sea brand, and Bill and other members of his family held executive positions in the tuna industry dating back to the early 20th century.
Spring, summer and fall, Fran and Bill enjoy having their children and grand-children around the pool and entertaining guests at outdoor dinner parties, either in
the main courtyard or next to the pool under the awning-covered patio. Cups of coffee in the morning or glasses of wine at sunset are enjoyed on an elevated deck next to the pool that has a view across Mission Valley to the distant turquoise domes of the church of The Immaculata on the University of San Diego campus.
Story and Photography by Will Gullette