Every home has a history; some are short and straightforward, others long and full of character. For this grand San Francisco abode that sits alongside the Presidio Wall and enjoys marvelous views of nature, the latter is the case.
Built by a wealthy rancher in 1913, the residence featured opulent public spaces and simple, tucked-away rooms for staff—a common layout for the era. During Prohibition it even housed a hidden speakeasy on the lower level. Those sharp divisions of space led the current homeowners to seek help creating a cohesive layout while preserving the dwelling’s historic details.
“They said, ‘We have this lovely house in an amazing location—and we live in three rooms,’” says architect Karen Curtiss, who worked on the project with designer Catherine Kwong and general contractor Jeff King. Separate stairs that once led servants to their quarters prohibited a modern flow, and there was no easy way for the family to access the outdoor space, which was important for their two young children.
Curtiss set about reconfiguring the floor plan to establish sight lines to the landscape designed by Danielle and John Steuernagel from each room while simultaneously creating better movement from one area to the next. Now, contemporary, functional spaces complement the residence’s historical design. “It’s fine to look at and preserve history and then layer in our era and stories,” the architect says. “You don’t have to demolish one to honor the next.”
In that spirit, past and present coexist comfortably in the home. On the main level, for example, an impressive foyer recalls a bygone era with heavy ornamented millwork, original stained-glass windows and a graceful staircase. However, there are hints that this dwelling trends modern, including an ornate banister in an arresting black hue.
It’s a balancing act Kwong continues throughout the house. In the dining room, traditional embellishments include paneled walls, built-in china cabinets with cut-crystal door pulls and a ceiling covered with an intricate web of molding. The designer tempered the classic style with a sleek table and upholstered chairs.
Elegant crown molding and wainscoting—along with twisting Solomonic columns seen through the window—define the living room, so Kwong selected furnishings for the space that juxtapose the original style with present-day shapes. “In the everyday areas like the kitchen, playroom and bedrooms, we made it feel young and fresh—like the new generation living there,” Kwong says. “The more historic rooms retain their original character, but we used contemporary furniture to soften the classic layers.”
An open floor plan is a decidedly modern concept that would be at odds with the original architecture. Instead, each space now has large, framed openings that draw you into the next room. This layout makes the progression from the traditional areas to the contemporary spaces—such as the kitchen with sleek lines and blond wood cabinetry sans hardware—effortless. And now, from the breakfast nook, the family can easily continue out to the yard.
Curtiss designed the entrance to the lower level to be dark and mysterious, hinting at the past to be discovered below. As they descend, the homeowners come to a glass-encased wine room with a hidden bookcase door, a feature that simultaneously celebrates and hides the collection, Prohibition style. The original speakeasy bar—one of only 11 remaining in private residences in the city—retains its authentic wear and tear, a nod to its dissolute history. The furnishings create a comfortable space for entertaining, beckoning visitors to enjoy views of the Presidio or to move to the adjoining outdoor living space. The lower level is also home to the children’s playroom with a light, bright aesthetic and easy access to the garden. “Establishing these connections to the land makes this a family house,” Curtiss notes.
Walking through this classic abode, it’s easy to appreciate layers of the past rubbing elbows with elements of today. “From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I enjoy the contrast between modern and traditional,” King says. “I think it’s a great challenge for a good architect. And, in the case of the interior design, Catherine did an exceptional job of tying it all together.” Kwong notes the dwelling’s history continues because of the owners. “It’s a credit to them,” she says. “They respect the home’s past and the families who have lived here before.” Because they do, its long story continues with all the chapters intact.