Updating A Historic Palo Alto Home With Light + Airy Interiors


sofa in front of large...

In the family room, a sectional and swivel chair, both by Holly Hunt, gather around a custom walnut- and-leather ottoman fabricated by Andrew Woodside Carter. A Rose Tarlow Melrose House lamp and Elizabeth Eakins rug round out the corner.

mudroom and pantry with storage...

Serving both as a mudroom and overflow pantry, the side entry features Brown Felicetta Designs-fabricated cabinetry. The bench is a 19th-century antique from Obsolete, and the Malayer rug is from Tony Kitz Gallery.

Dining room with doors to...

The newly constructed great room opens onto the loggia and backyard. An 18th-century table from Lief paired with Gregorius Pineo chairs from Kneedler Fauchère define the dining area. The marmorino plaster treatment on the walls is by Willem Racké Studio.

primary bedroom with a high...

A light fixture by The Urban Electric Co. hangs from the primary bedroom’s vaulted ceiling. At the foot of the four-poster Quintus bed, topped with a Rosemary Hallgarten throw, are twin Holly Hunt swivel chairs. The artworks are by Nathan Oliveira.

primary bathroom with a colorful...

The primary bathroom features a waterproof tadelakt plaster finish by Willem Racké Studio and Carrara Bella marble mosaic floor tiles by Akdo. Behind the Victoria + Albert tub and beneath a Bill Armstrong photograph from Dolby Chadwick Gallery is a ledge designed to hold champagne.

lounge chairs around a pool

With an emphasis on entertaining, the backyard boasts multiple areas for lounging. Among the plantings are hedges of sweet bay, grasses, mature fruitless olive trees and agaves. Atelier Vierkant clay pots dot the grounds.

Despite its architectural pedigree, when a 1925 Birge Clark-designed house in Palo Alto hit the market, it didn’t sell right away. A real estate developer who toured the property early on was initially hesitant. “The only thing that had been updated was the kitchen, and that was in the 1950s,” he recalls.

But he decided to take a second look and ultimately became the home’s third owner, embarking on a major renovation. Given his line of work, he felt well positioned to do so. “My best projects have happened when I brought together the right team,” he explains. “In this case, I hired firms with expertise that made them right for this house, then helped ensure that once they agreed on a path forward, they could go with it.”

He tapped architects Catharine Garber and Jillian Langley, who have extensive experience renovating historic homes; interior designers Kristin Rowell and Bailey Peters; general contractor Pete Moffat; and landscape architect Collin Jones, whom the owner had enlisted for his previous abode in Atherton. The client’s directive? “I told the team that I would like this house to feel like one of those beautiful historic flats in London that has been updated in harmony with the architecture of the building yet feels contemporary in a way that is timeless, comfortable and elegant.”

Aside from a small addition, plus fresh coats of paint and stucco, the street-facing Spanish Colonial façade remains largely unchanged in accordance with city guidelines for historic structures. In contrast, the interiors have dramatically transformed, with dark, cramped rooms giving way to light, airy spaces. “If you walked inside, the only thing you’d recognize is the front door and the staircase location,” Garber says. “Other than that, it feels like a totally new house.”

With modern living in mind, the design team had to “figure out how Birge Clark would have created a home if he had been given different directives,” Rowell says. The loggia—enjoyed year-round—and the great room, for example, are now centered around entertaining. In the dining area of the latter, the designer paired an antique dining table with contemporary chairs. Elsewhere, she integrated some of the client’s cherished belongings, including a Biedermeier chest and art by Nathan Oliveira. “He’s appreciative of that old-new, high-low feeling—the mix that creates an interesting, eclectic vibe,” Rowell says. Along that same vein, Langley notes that “the window and door language” are a common thread throughout, with the new echoing the original. The idea is seen in the passages from the living room to the bar area and entry hall, where plaster details are reminiscent of the ornamentation found in one of the pre-renovation bedrooms. “We went for an understated approach with the hope that it would feel welcoming to the owner’s family and friends,” Rowell adds.

Should this be the client’s forever home, it was vital to have the spaces he regularly uses contained to the ground floor, including his sleeping quarters, the only bedroom suite on the first level. And, inspired by his favorite escape in Mexico, amping up indoor-outdoor living was a priority. The architects removed a garage that sat in the middle of the backyard—its replacement is now situated to the side of the lot—allowing the property to be reimagined.

Jones, who was involved in the site planning, conceived the hardscape and planting design. Amid a grid of grass and limestone pavers, a fountain is the “nexus of the whole backyard,” he says. A bocce court and pool flank the lawn, while the new open-air pavilion and pool house offer spots for respite. Jones then boosted the residence’s curb appeal with an oversize clay pot. Four feet in diameter and holding a Mediterranean fan palm, it is “an iconic entry feature,” he says. To complement the façade’s existing wrought-iron grillwork, he designed steel gates that are “cleaner and quieter, with not so many scrolls.”

One of the owner’s friends observed that “if Loro Piana built a home, this would be the place,” and he interprets the comment as a reflection of the dwelling’s simplicity and elegance. “No single thing is trying too hard to get your attention,” the owner says. “Instead, it all comes together in a wonderful composition.”