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Inside Susan Madden Lankford's North County Ranch

The Smarts Farm founder restored an original Lilian Rice house to its former glory


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Behind the gates of a Rancho Santa Fe estate, nestled among the eucalyptus groves, lies an original Lilian Rice house that was in various states of disrepair when its current owners bought it in 1984. Over the years they restored the property to its former glory, while raising their three daughters and never missing the opportunity to instill in them the value of hard work. A place like this doesn’t run itself. That meant feeding the horses, raking the grounds, and shoveling manure before school. Today the girls are grown, but the seeds planted here have spawned a lifetime of inspiration—both creative and altruistic.

Left: The geometric grass design outside Susan’s home office. Right: An outdoor table setting by the stone house.

Susan Madden Lankford is the founder of Humane Smarts, a nonprofit that helps empower underprivileged youth through arts and other educational programs. One of the organization’s flagship projects is Smarts Farm, a 16,000-square-foot garden in the heart of downtown that offers classes, free events, and community plots for nearby residents. To date they have served more than 4,000 children, many of whom come from nearby schools like e3 Civic High.

The dining room retains much of architect Lilian Rice’s original design. The portrait on the far wall is of Susan’s mother when she was in her 40s.

“Learning to grow from seed and seeing where foods come from … there are so many lessons in the garden,” Susan says.

Such is the motto back at the ranch she shares with her husband of nearly 50 years, real estate developer Rob Lankford. Standing at the entrance, taking in the verdant scenery, it’s easy to see why Susan has made it her mission to share her love of nature with people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.

The living room features a custom steel bookshelf that houses artwork and mementos from over the years.

There are two houses, a larger two-story main house and a cottage that they call the “stone house,” both built in 1922. The six-acre property also has a cow manger, horse stables, hiking trails, intimate courtyards, and an arena with a plentiful vegetable garden in its center.

The main house sits atop a grassy hill and looks as if it were built right into the landscape. The structure still boasts many of Rice’s original architectural details, such as adobe walls, open-beamed ceilings, and tiled surfaces. Wood-burning fireplaces abound, both indoors and out. “I’ve made sure it’s stayed original ranch,” Susan says.

The billiard room is accented with copper and aluminum tiles.

Over time she has added color to nearly all of the formerly white walls. The dining room, a testament to Rice’s Mission-style influences, is painted a deep eggplant hue. The exterior is trimmed in a vibrant turquoise.

“Mom taught me the joy and love of color,” says Susan’s daughter, Polly Lankford Smith. (Smith is director of programming and operations at Smarts Farm.)

Left: A covered balcony showcasing the exterior’s colorful turquoise trim. Right: An intimate courtyard off the dining room.

Like in most homes, the kitchen is the heart. It tells the greatest story about Susan’s eclectic flair. (Imagine: puppets, birdcages, and a faux-evergreen garland with twinkle lights suspended from the ceiling.) She’ll proudly tell you the kitchen has no cabinets, redesigned with modern ranch life and big family gatherings in mind, including a tamale assembly line at Christmas. It’s here that many of the recipes for Smarts Farm’s café have been created and tested.

The horse arena encircles a garden with thyme, verbena, chives, and much more.

Susan loves this room. “The cow and goats are in view, the stone house is in view, the gas range is available, and my herbs are 20 feet from the door,” she describes. “I can write a screenplay under a 47-year-old parrot shouting out, have doggies wrapped around me, and loads of memories of my children coming and going through that old kitchen barn door.”

Oh yes, the screenplay. Susan is also a photographer, author, and documentary filmmaker—the kind of woman who cannot sit still. When we met her, she was rushing off for a phone call about said screenplay; a few days prior she’d hosted a group of fifth graders for a ranch tour and chuck wagon rides.

Although the Lankfords are technically empty nesters, their nest is anything but, thanks to continuous events like the one mentioned above and the ranch’s many animals: a cow, turtle, mastiff, Yorkie mix, menagerie of doves, three horses, two French donkeys, three parrots, three goats, and koi.

Left: Trigger, the family’s Belgian horse, once belonged to the local sheriff’s department and patrolled Balboa Park while on duty. Right: The Lankfords rescued their cow, affectionately named Cowgirl, from culling. She holds court with three goats, two of whom are pictured here.

With so much to tend and care for, it’s a wonder Susan has time for anything else. But such is the enigma and drive behind Susan Madden Lankford. In between discussing her “passion for solutions” and the greatest lesson her mother ever taught her (“Never be satisfied with your written word or mission. Press on.”), she stops to admire a strikingly abundant plant in her vegetable garden.

“These zucchini are absolutely glorious! Now that is successful.”

Susan Madden Lankford and her mastiff, Millicent, on one of the property’s shaded pathways
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