It was the perfect match: a century-old estate that had seen better days and East Coast transplants who could see its potential. Happily, the two found each other. The owners, who had watched friends transform their Gilded Age houses back East, were poised for the challenge of doing the same when they relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. But, given the state of the 1915 house they purchased, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. “You really had to look hard to see the true beauty of this thing,” says the husband. “One hundred years of neglect was pretty obvious.”
To get things started, the owner and his wife hired a team— architect Bennett Christopherson, builder Nick W. Ozier and landscape architect Jeff George—that was just completing a project nearby. But the couple quickly realized that they needed a designer sooner rather than later and turned to Maria Tenaglia. “We brought in Maria to help us control things from an appearance perspective,” says the husband. “She helped us establish a vision to understand the project.” Given Tenaglia’s background in architecture, she was perfectly suited to advise on all aspects of the extensive renovation that lay ahead as well as keep a cohesive and stylish eye on the overall aesthetic.
“We went from zero to 60 in literally 48 hours,” Tenaglia says, recalling the time between the initial consult and getting the project underway. “The demo, design and build-out were only 22 months.” An aggressive schedule, considering four levels had to be gutted and rebuilt to modern earthquake codes. That’s not to mention the changes necessary to suit this young family’s modern lifestyle. The structure had fine elements of Georgian architecture, along with ornately paneled rooms, decorative plaster ceilings and intricately carved moldings. Yet the layout was a less-desirable holdover from when servants occupied warrens of small rooms beyond the large public spaces. “We wanted to respect the inherent architecture but at the same time give it the new lease on life that it desperately needed,” Tenaglia says.
To meet that goal and stick with the clients’ strict timeline, the design, construction and architectural plans needed to evolve simultaneously for the 12,900-square-foot house.
While Christopherson collaborated with the husband to rework the floor plan, Tenaglia worked with the wife on a plan to express their contemporary tastes within a deeply traditional setting. “I said we were going to think about the furniture in a different way, and the backdrop of the inherent architecture will simply be that—a backdrop,” explains Tenaglia. When it came to selecting pieces, the designer kept to clean lines and modern silhouettes. She custom-designed a sofa for the living room and paired it with a sleek gold-leaf-and-glass coffee table and an Ironies chandelier. The streamlined forms of the pieces create the perfect foil to the room’s intricate millwork.
Taking cues from the wife’s affinity for color—purple, aubergine and blue, in particular—the designer alternated those shades with what she calls “neutral zones” of cream and gold throughout the interiors. Although the living room stayed relatively muted, the dining room’s walls are sheathed with a deep blue, and the library is brimming with jewel tones. In the latter, Tenaglia dressed a pair of custom wing chairs with purple fabric and upholstered a tufted sofa with chartreuse velvet. “I approached the furnishings with a modern point of view,” says the designer. “The pieces are bold, elegant and very practical. And with the dynamic use of color throughout, the overall effect is unexpected and unique.” She worked in tandem with art advisor Tom O’Connor, who added another layer of interest by curating significant modern works for the main level and lower-level ballroom.
Christopherson, meanwhile, produced a layout that eliminated small secondary rooms in favor of an open kitchen, breakfast area and family room on the main floor and bigger bedrooms and a large master suite upstairs. The gracious proportions of the ornate public spaces and elegant stair hall that branch off from the entry on the main level remained intact. “The flow of space between the public rooms was quite special, and we didn’t touch it,” Christopherson says, noting how the entry not only anchors the living room, dining room, parlor and conservatory, but is also on axis with breathtaking views of the city’s horizon.
For the reworked family areas, Tenaglia designed simpler moldings while keeping to the original proportions, and she updated much of the original trimwork with a creamy white paint. “Paint is the perfect medium for change,” she says, though it took a bit of convincing. “On the East Coast, dark paneling is more common, but from a Californian’s point of view, it just seemed too dark and formal for a young family.” But before the paint could be applied, samples of the original trim and moldings were set aside and cataloged so that they—and custom duplicates if needed—could go back in their place once Ozier’s team rebuilt the foundation, replaced the electrical and plumbing systems, and reinforced most walls. Ozier also kept, polished and reused many switchplates, doorknobs and other hardware. Unlike remodeling attempts in the house’s past, he says, “We were far more careful in constructing the house to pay attention to the original design and honor its intentions.”
Likewise, George nodded to the home’s history with rosebushes and citrus trees outside the glass conservatory— common garden designs for estate homes of this era—and he framed the entry with traditional spiral junipers and Italian cypress. But in the backyard, he created a modern-day playground with a boccie ball court, putting green and a large fire pit and conversation area. “That was the challenge,” George says. “Fitting in all of these contemporary uses, but also weaving them into the traditional aspects of the home.” The owners give high praise to the entire team for meeting that exact challenge. “It’s a real sense of accomplishment,” the husband says. “We’ve fixed this house for the next 100 years.”
— Jennifer Sergent