After years spent inhabiting a series of stark, modern dwellings, it came as a surprise to the new owner of a century-old manse overlooking Berkeley’s iconic Claremont Club & Spa that she did, in fact, love classic homes. “As I began my search for a new property, my real estate agent forwarded me a listing for yet another modern house,” she recalls. “But as I scrolled down from it, I saw this one. I said to myself, ‘I think I like this, even though it’s unlike anything I’ve ever lived in.’ ”
Designed in 1915 by architect Willis Polk for structural engineer Trygve Ronneberg—who collaborated with Polk on many of San Francisco’s most famous 20th-century buildings—the abode retained much of its original splendor: Beaux Arts exterior details, tall ceilings, bay windows, elaborate moldings and a sun room offering views of the neighboring hotel grounds through arched French doors. “I loved all the details,” the homeowner says, “and realized that what I actually like is an old house.”
Interior designer Alison Damonte had a similar revelation when she explored her longtime client’s newly purchased residence. Although this would be their third collaboration, it was Damonte’s first time working with a traditional backdrop for this homeowner, allowing her to flex and discover a different set of design muscles. “When I walked in, I thought, ‘Wow! There’s stuff here to uncover,’ ” she says.
Like many old homes, this one had undergone numerous updates with mixed results. Some of the original wood flooring had been hidden under laminate planks, and recessed can lights were sprinkled across the ceilings. “It just wasn’t its best self,” Damonte notes. But such interventions were soon replaced with more period-appropriate choices as a renovation team led by general contractor Tom Warrington pulled up the offending floors, painted the kitchen cabinets, and installed new tile, hardware and lighting. “Almost the entire interior was painted, and we skim-coated the textured ceilings to make them smooth,” Warrington says. “The dining room required a perfect surface because there’s always light coming in through the windows and reflecting off the ceiling. After we painted it the luminous light green Alison selected, the effect was truly amazing: You feel like you’re underwater.”
More unexpected color choices—a celery-green vanity in a new Jack-and-Jill bathroom; bedroom walls painted the hue of a tropical sea; an acid-yellow chandelier in the sun room—set the tone for a striking cast of furnishings. “I wanted all of the pieces to have a story,” Damonte says. “It was also really important to find that sweet spot in terms of what kinds of things look good here: not cold, modern furniture, but items with a tactile quality as well as an emphasis on materiality and craft that bring an immediate sense of warmth.”
These new and vintage pieces, the latter primarily French and Italian designs from the 1960s and ’70s, include the sun room’s brightly painted ceramic side table by Reinaldo Sanguino, a piece the designer calls “an example of furniture that walks the line between fine art and functional.” It’s joined by a handblown-glass floor lamp by Carlo Nason, which demonstrates that “things from the midcentury can work beautifully in this turn-of-the-century house,” Damonte says.
Other objects are treasures from the designer’s personal collection, including a rosewood bar cart she found while vacationing in Rome and a lounge chair from a Barneys dressing room that she snagged when the San Francisco store closed. “I can’t help collecting, but I don’t have a place for everything,” she says. “When I find a client I know is going to respect an item’s heritage, I’ll sometimes pass it along.”
An appreciation for the story behind a piece has also driven the homeowner’s personal collection of contemporary art, in which photography features prominently. “I like images that catch a person in a moment and make you wonder what they were feeling,” she says, pointing to works by Ming Smith and Alec Soth that flank the living room fireplace. In the upstairs hallway, a painting of a cactus diverges from the theme but offers a colorful nod to her Arizona roots.
“This was such an intuitive project,” Damonte says of the eclecticism she’s created. “I didn’t get hung up on wondering if a piece was appropriate for the period of the house but instead asked myself if it was something my client would think is cool. By channeling her personality and style, we achieved this interesting mix.” It’s definitive proof that, when it comes to design, there’s always room for surprise.