Architect Ken Linsteadt was prepared to do whatever his clients wanted to update their shingle-style residence in Menlo Park. But there was one thing he simply could not change—the tilt of the earth’s axis. In other words: sunlight. The couple wanted a house bathed in sunshine like the wife’s childhood home in Provence, France. “It was a property that just didn’t get a lot of sun,” recalls Linsteadt. “The owners were reluctant to do anything because they were convinced that no matter what we did, the house would never get enough sun.”
Eventually, Linsteadt helped the couple find a different property. This one, in Los Altos hills, consisted of 3 hilltop acres boasting a dilapidated ranch house and plenty of solar exposure. Down came the existing structure and up went a kind of modernist bastide, a stone-clad manor house with a courtyard, red tile roof and drifts of lavender all around. “The owner wanted the bones of an old French provincial farmhouse, but she also considers herself a modernist; and she loved the steel windows she’d seen on other projects of
Mine,” says Linsteadt, who designed the structure to highlight elements of both aesthetics. “In a typical transitional-style home there’s a loose reference to various architecture styles—a dance between traditional and modern. But this is the story of a French provincial house tightly told and the stark contrast between very traditional and very modern.”
A big part of establishing a traditional sensibility was imparting a sense of age through the materials, including the massive exposed beams that define the ceilings in the main rooms. The aged timbers came from a salvaged barn in Pennsylvania Dutch country. General contractor rob smith and his wife, Jean, who served as project manager, worked with six carpenters during a four-month time period to fit and install the timbers. “We brought in some master beam fitters from Lake Tahoe, where they do a lot of timber-frame houses,” rob smith says. “They are highly skilled at rafter scrolling, and they handcrafted all of the cedar rafter tails, as well.” the builders installed a large sawmill on the property to cut and cope the timbers, and a temporary woodworking shop was set up in the garage to fabricate the rafter tails, doors and beams. The crew painstakingly plugged the mortise-and-tenon joint holes and then welded iron supports. When it came time to install, they laid out the frameworks for the ceilings and then hoisted them up with 16 manual material lifts one room at a time.
During the course of the 2 1/2-year construction projects, the owners made a significant change on the exterior. The original plan called for a stone tower standing amid the stucco volumes. But as the tower took shape, the owners fell in love with its 6-inch-thick fieldstone cladding. “The mason was amazing,” Linsteadt says. “He used this technique of bringing the grout to the face of the stone and then sandblasting it, so it’s less about individual stones than about the core rubble wall.” the texture proved irresistible to the owners, who asked that the entire house be done in stone.
While the stone unifies the exterior, the interior spaces are more defined. Linsteadt flanked a central section, which houses the living and dining areas, with a bedroom wing on one side and the kitchen and family room wing on the other. Adjacent to the entry, a stairway leads up to an office—in the original tower—and a large master suite, complete with a sleeping porch. Throughout the home, the owners thoughtfully furnished the spaces with clean- lined contemporary furnishings. These pieces juxtapose with humble interior surfaces—including imported French limestone floor tiles and a fireplace surround salvaged from a 19th-century house in France—drawing strength to each. Linsteadt infused a contemporary note with large steel-and-glass French doors that allow the living and family rooms to spill onto the central courtyard. “I like the contrast of the more substantial forms and the lightness of the glazed openings,” he explains. “It’s more modern this way, as well.”
Outside, the exterior stonework is echoed in the grounds, as landscape designer Nancy Shanahan chose angle-cut pea gravel on the driveway and round-cut gravel—that’s easier on bare feet—in the courtyard. To soften all the stone and to complement the rough-hewn walls of the home, Shanahan planted a narrow but deep palette of mostly drought-resistant plants—billowy ornamental grasses, red hot pokers, fruitless olive trees and, of course, plenty of lavender. “I wanted the landscape to root the house to the property,” she explains. “It softens the strong lines with large unfussy drifts that lend texture and movement.” on the south façade, she added an element that is both practical and ultra-French provincial: wrought-iron frames supporting canopies of willow to shade the interior from all of that beautiful sunshine.
By taking his cues from the site as well as sticking to a muted palette and the forms of the natural geography, the architect was able to “make the dialogue work between the heaviness of this rustic façade and the lightness of the modern design,” Linsteadt says. “This home looks like it’s been here forever; it’s a house to be reckoned with.”