Something happens in a house that witnesses the passing of a century. Shaped by the years and souls that flowed through its walls, these abodes become more than the sum of their masonry by absorbing the spirit of who and what came before.
This was true for one young family’s home in Presidio Heights, originally built in 1926. As transplants hunting for a place to grow roots in a new city, they fell in love with the structure’s classical façade that should have had interior character to match.
However, that was not the case. In pursuit of sleek minimalism, a previous renovation had stripped the rooms of their vintage charm. “From the outside, you have this beautiful residence, but inside, you felt like you could have been absolutely anywhere in the world, because all the things that made that home truly unique had been taken away,” recalls designer Eche Martinez, whom the young couple recruited to breathe life back into the space. “We wanted to come up with a visual language that gave this home a renewed identity.”
Martinez first focused on bringing back some of the architectural depth suited to a house of its era. By luck, the entry hall’s spiral staircase with the original metalwork was left untouched. The grandeur of this surviving feature helped establish the tone for the rest of the finishes. Wooden surfaces were stained in a dark shade that the home would have originally had, including the doors and the bleached, beachy oak flooring used throughout. In the entry, Martinez installed a classic black-and-white checkered marble design that he calls “more appropriate for the vestibule of a house with this kind of historic prominence.” To ground the living room, Martinez and his team also created a vast new marble fireplace as a main focal point for gatherings.
The most dramatic intervention is perhaps the creation of the library. When the designer and the couple first walked into what was then a blank white box, “we knew we really needed to reimagine the space, as it was such a wasted opportunity,” says Martinez. “We decided to turn it into this beautiful, richly textured walnut library. We wanted it look like it has been here forever.” The new millwork became the ideal showcase for personal items, including a vibrant Kehinde Wiley portrait that Martinez nestled in a central alcove. “We actually built the library around that piece of art,” notes the designer.
Thoughtfully incorporating the family’s artworks proved essential for injecting personality throughout the property. “We wanted to make sure that we had some strong visual references for each room, so the art started defining the aesthetic of each space.”
In the living room, for example, the main seating area centers around a portrait by Spanish artist Salustiano, who uses the old Renaissance technique of crushing cochineal beetles to produce the work’s visceral red hue. A painting of such intense color called for an equally graphic palette, which the designer created with rich black sofas and a marble fireplace surround, punctuated by the wispy smoke- like pattern of the rug that defines the seating area.
Black walls and gold accents provided sharp contrast to the small Amedeo Modigliani etchings in the master bedroom. “They are beautiful, very subtle line drawings, so if we wanted them to stand out, we had to go all the way out there in terms of color,” explains Martinez. As a tongue- in-cheek nod to the classical sculpture so often found in homes of this period, he also placed a deconstructed, jigsaw Venus marble statue by Troika, a European art collective, in the entry—a piece which spoke to the couple’s witty side. “If anything, they never wanted to take themselves too seriously,” notes Martinez.
This spirit also guided the selection of furnishings and decor, which reflect a mix of contemporary, antique and custom items. “We wanted to create this narrative of a house that had been really lived in, with pieces collected by multiple generations under the same roof,” says the designer. This required hunting for unique finds, like the living room’s vintage matching Cassina sofas, sourced from two different dealers in the Netherlands. Some new pieces quickly took on sentimental value, like the dining room’s area rug that forms a pixelated map of Manhattan, where the family spent some memorable years together. For the secondary bedrooms, Martinez selected pieces “based on an imaginary guest we pictured staying there,” and one can imagine the refined visitor who might occupy the striking green, antique-filled guest room.
These details add up to a house that feels far removed from the impersonal shell it had become, now transformed into spaces bristling with character. “We wanted to make sure we could give this house a sense of being again,” says Martinez of the process. “It was really refreshing, helping a young couple build this home into a place where they can start a new chapter in their lives.”