Three Marin Families Master the Balance of Outdoor Living

1804 Burns Residence, Susan and Jim Burns’ Tam Valley Home, Marin Magazine

Play Ball

Amy and Darin Fierstein anticipated a short stay — five years max — when they bought a starter home in Mill Valley’s Sycamore Park neighborhood. But here’s what happened: they fell in love with the community, and after a bit of soul-searching they chose to build out rather than move out. Along with interior renovations, they decided to turn a sad-looking yard into a spectacular open-air rec room. “It was nothing but dead space,” Amy recalls. “Basically, a place to store the garbage cans.”

To make it all happen, they turned to the home’s interior architect, Kamala Mostert of San Francisco, and master gardener Kristin Flynn of Mill Valley. “Kamala designed the porch and poured concrete slabs and handled the built-in barbecue,” Amy says. “Kristin did pretty much everything else.”

Running the length of the fence is a 41-foot-long putting green. “You plug up the holes and it becomes a bocce ball court or a place to play corn hole,” Amy says. An outdoor ping-pong table is strategically sited on a raised wraparound poured-concrete patio fronting the sons’ bedrooms. Oh, and there’s a practice net for honing soccer skills. “With two boys and a dog living here, it’s all about balls,” she quips.

When the family isn’t throwing or catching something, they’re watching professionals do it on the home’s outdoor TV; the 46-inch screen is manufactured by SunBrite to withstand the elements. “We love it because you can leave it out uncovered all year and it’s completely fine,” Amy says. “Plus you never have to worry about sun glare.”

Weatherproof the TV may be, but its owners are not, so they mounted it on the wall of the new 250-square-foot covered porch. “We could have added this space to our home’s indoor footprint, “ Amy says, “but it was a way to blend our indoor and outdoor space.”

The yard is now the place where the neighborhood kids come to play, but it’s also a respite for Amy, Darin and their friends. A built-in bench and two Innit chairs placed around a gas fire table are a gathering spot for cocktails, and Amy, a jewelry designer, hosts frequent trunk shows in the new space: “I’ve entertained up to 100 people,” she says. “For a small yard it works surprisingly well.”

Let Me Entertain You

Marc and Marci Dollinger are active community volunteers. Between the two of them they serve on half a dozen boards. Given their passion for philanthropy and entertaining, they decided it made perfect sense to build a 100-seat amphitheater in the side yard of their East San Rafael home.

But first, a little history: the Dollingers moved into the house in 2007. “It was a bigger space than we needed,” Marci says. “But we purchased it with the idea that it could be used for community gatherings.” True to that intent, after settling in they notified their preferred nonprofits they were willing and able to host fundraisers, speaker series and other civic-minded events. Their calendar filled quickly.

The inside of the home worked beautifully for all that, but outside felt less inviting. “It was mostly a weed-covered hillside,” Marci recalls. “We had a small, flat area but we didn’t use it often, and it required tons of watering to keep it green.”

And then, as their younger daughter approached bat-mitzvah age, the idea of hosting this milestone in their own backyard began to take shape.

They reached out to design and build contractor Barry Cohen, owner of Moliver Landscape in San Rafael, for ideas on how to improve their yard. “He took one look at the hillside and said, ‘You really ought to terrace the entire thing,’ ” Marc recounts. They also decided to add a large fire pit and an outdoor kitchen.

Cohen’s plan was admittedly larger in scope than the couple’s original vision, but they warmed to the idea. “We also liked that the plan had a real summer camp feel,” says Marc, who’s a board member for URJ Camp Newman, now rebuilding in Vallejo after the Santa Rosa site was leveled in the Tubbs Fire last fall.

For their hardscape the Dollingers chose imported Jerusalem stone, a common material mined in and around the Old City and used in structures since ancient times. “You’ll see it in use all around Israel,” Marc says. “It was important to us that the space have a Jewish feel.” And while the amphitheater was complete a year ahead of their daughter’s big day, readying the yard for that large gathering went down to the wire. “We have a creek that runs through the yard, and we decided to build a bridge over it so that we had more than one way for guests to enter and exit the house,” Marc adds.

The party succeeded seamlessly, and the Dollingers have since hosted a steady stream of community events, from fundraisers to educational workshops, musical performances and countless other gatherings. At press time the amphitheater was the scheduled venue for the wedding of two Rodef Sholom congregants, whose love story began at a Dollinger-hosted temple event. “They met standing in front of our dishwasher,” Marci says with a laugh. And while there’s no Jewish proverb for such happenstance, Marc, a Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State, puts it this way: “If a couple falls in love in front of your dishwasher, they’re friends for life.”

Against the Wind

There’s plenty to love about Susan and Jim Burns’ Tam Valley home. One drawback, however, has always been its location. “It’s colder and windier here than in other parts of Mill Valley,” Susan notes. In fact, Jim adds, “it’s even colder and windier than if you were to go just a little ways down our street.” Given that less-than-stellar microclimate, the Burns family rarely spent time outdoors.

But six years ago, after renovating just about every indoor surface of the 1970s-era home, they decide to tackle the outside. After more than two decades in the house, “it was our last project,” says Susan.

The professionals they hired included Sausalito-based architect Barry Peterson and contractor Phil Kline, who’s helped with “nearly all of our interior remodels,” Susan says.

The goal was to create an outdoor room they could enjoy year-around — out of the rough hillside in front of the house. “The back of our house is even windier than the front,” Susan says.

Taming the front was no small task: it required an immense amount of concrete, and construction took nearly a year. Most of that concrete went into terracing the hillside and adding a stairway. The payoff for all those retaining walls: the couple more than doubled the flat space in front, and the reclaimed land made room for a cozy stone patio. “We also got rid of the cheap sliding-glass doors and added French doors for a more seamless transition between the kitchen and the outdoor space,” Susan says.

The centerpiece of the new space is a concrete fireplace with a plaster veneer, flanked by Brazilian ipe–wood benches. And to make it all habitable even in winter, the entire patio is covered by a pergola with a polycarbonate panel roof.

The results looked fantastic — and yet wind and cold still prevailed: it “still wasn’t warm enough out for daily use,” Jim recalls. Undeterred, he commissioned Gianola Canvas of Sausalito to create retractable sailcloth side flaps that make the patio fully enclosed. And at long last the Burnses outfoxed Mother Nature. “We are out here a couple evenings a week after dinner to sit by the fire, relax and enjoy a glass of wine,” Susan says. “It’s also a great space to sit and read.” With the flaps down and the fireplace roaring, the room now stays cozy 365 days a year.


This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “The Great Outdoors.” 

Dawn Denberg

Dawn Margolis Denberg has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years. Her work has appeared in top publications, including Wired, Shape and Parenting. She has also written several books for children including, The Men in Black Agent’s Manual The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. And, most recently, an episodic audio series for Tales Untold.