By DIANE BELL – COLUMNIST, San Diego Union Tribune
For decades, a seashell garden on Rosecrans Street in Point Loma has attracted curiosity seekers.
Strangers would walk up to the front door of the house owned by Frank and Elisa Mendes and ring the doorbell. They would ask about the “garden” — an intricate creation of seashells carefully cemented together in shape of exotic plants.
Frank died in 1997 at age 75 and, for years, Elisa continued to greet the surprise visitors and answer their questions.
Advancing age has taken its toll and, lacking the mobility of days gone by, Elsa stopped opening the door in recent years.
On March 23, the Portugal-born great grandmother turned 101. She lives with a caregiver now but still resides in the house with the seashell garden that she has occupied for 70 years.
Due to COVID-19, her family couldn’t have the big celebration planned to mark her 100th birthday last March and had to settle instead for a more modest drive-by salute. So this year, her extended family gathered to celebrate at her house and at the Point Loma home of her son, Dan Mendes, a retired tuna fisherman like his late dad.
The garden was Elisa’s husband’s idea and hobby after he retired from more than three decades of tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean, often in the Galápagos Islands region off the coast of Ecuador.
On his return from voyages he brought an assortment of shells — clam, periwinkle, limpet, conch, abalone — and coral, long before the Galápagos Marine Reserve was created to protect it.
Frank removed the grass and most plants from their front yard at 2022 Rosecrans St. and began constructing his work of art.
“He liked to work with his hands. He could build things and repair things and create things,” Dan says. “The garden was all in his imagination. He never drew anything. He just created it as he saw it in his mind.”
Elisa was content to let him pursue his passion.
“It was always a work in progress,” adds Dan. “We didn’t have to worry about watering the front lawn any more.” They also don’t have to mow the grass, although they do have to contend with an occasional light-fingered passerby absconding with a canister of shell “foliage” as a souvenir.
The fantasyland of mollusk bushes, flowers and cactus-like spires has been written up in newspapers, magazines and sightseeing brochures over the years as one of the most unusual U.S. gardens.
But the shell plants have begun to show wear — cracks, breaks and splinters — after 30 to 40 years in the outdoor elements.
Dan says a guy once approached him with an offer to lift up the entire garden and transfer it to a safer place inside his private museum in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t give him permission,” he says. “It would have left us with an empty dirt lot.”
Even after his mother no longer lives there, the house will stay in the Mendes family and, for now, its unusual garden will stay with it, Dan notes. “It belongs to the house.”
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