Conjuring a sense of home in an unfamiliar country is no easy feat, but establishing new roots is something architect Jill Lewis has done often. The Seattle native has practiced her profession across several countries, from Italy to China to Argentina. Along the way, she designed various abodes for her growing family.
Three kids later, Lewis and her husband returned stateside, this time to San Francisco. With them came their trove of artisanal treasures and the design philosophy the architect had honed abroad: “No matter where you live, your home should be driven by context, culture and history of place,” she explains. “I wanted us to feel a connection here.”
Her vision became a reality when they found their quintessential San Francisco Victorian. Spared from the 1906 earthquake (and the subsequent fires that stopped just one block away), the dwelling boasts arched windows, tall ceilings and ornate molding. Its corner-lot location also made way for side windows that flood rooms with light, creating atypically luminous Victorian interiors.
Yet Lewis had no interest in executing a by-the-book restoration, an ethos shaped during her earliest professional years in Italy. “There, architects know how to do a modern intervention that still brings out the best historical parts of a home,” she says. Her own contemporary interpretation of San Franciscan Victoriana focused on accentuating the millwork, which required a partner deeply ingrained in the local vernacular. She found conspirators in brothers and general contractors Christopher and Jason Lennon, who understood the inner workings of this architectural style. Their team restored all the existing windows, doors, hardware and trim, even hunting down period-matching hinges “to keep the original aesthetics of the house,” Jason says.
The molding disappeared in the rear rooms, so matching pieces were crafted to continue the distinct Victorian language. Replacing the upstairs carpet, they installed oak planks to coordinate with the flooring downstairs and unified both levels with a rich espresso stain. The team also removed a few walls to streamline transitions between spaces. But notably, Lewis’ plan preserved the enclosed layout overall. “If you try to make Victorians open, you lose their essence,” she explains.
After fortifying the home’s historical core, Lewis leaned toward unconventional finishes to invigorate the period details. Think petroleum-black paint or graphic abstract wallpaper on the ceilings, which draws attention to the crown molding. Or harnessing the interior’s expansive heights by cloaking entire rooms in a single atmospheric hue, from the library’s twilight blue to the upstairs hallway’s foggy gray. Lewis nodded to the Victorian love of marble but eschewed statuary white for bolder patterns, like the living room’s black Nero Marquina fireplace and the powder room’s Amazonia vanity dappled with citrus-green markings. Meanwhile, a host of industrial and midcentury modern light fixtures hang from elaborate ceiling medallions. “I like to juxtapose these beautiful contemporary designs within classic buildings,” Lewis notes.
The traditional and unexpected converge in the kitchen, where more bold marble—gray-veined countertops and Nero Marquina herringbone floors—takes center stage while unlacquered brass imparts patina onto the minimalist fixtures and sink. Accounting for the old home’s uncommon dimensions, the brothers custom built the glossy black cabinets on site, doing “everything but chopping down the tree,” Christopher laughs.
The family’s past life abroad is still woven into their new abode, with pieces memorializing places and relationships. Argentina lingers in the creamy cowhide rugs, the living room’s classic butterfly chairs, and the custom dining table made of canella wood by Lewis’ favorite carpenter in Buenos Aires, who convinced her to have the top burned inky black, shou sugi ban-style. Her friendship with a Beijing furniture workshop produced her collection of contemporary Chinese tables and cabinets, like the armoires she adapted into grand bedroom nightstands. This mix of styles and materials produces an organic eclecticism that could only emerge from travel. “If we had never left the U.S., our furniture would probably be more elegantly consistent,” Lewis says. “But we’ve really embraced those idiosyncrasies, absorbing all the places we’ve lived.”
Indeed, her design imagination grows richer with each new family home she creates. “I’m no longer the minimalist architect I was 20 years ago when I left Seattle,” she confesses. “We’ve witnessed a lot of change, traveled a lot of miles, and have grown into a typical family of five with all the bright and dark, small and large moments that come with that. Our house reflects those contrasts. There’s a lot going on, yet somehow it all makes sense to us.”