While perusing The Wall Street Journal one day, Stewart Owen spotted an intriguing house for sale. Perched in the Berkeley Hills, the home that caught his eye was a 1920s Mediterranean structure designed by renowned architect Willis Polk and built for local conservationist and real estate developer Duncan McDuffie. “The house had so much history,” says Stewart’s wife, Rachelle. The residence was well-known within the neighborhood, having been the site of numerous soirees and political fundraisers, but it had since fallen into disrepair. Seeing its potential, the Connecticut-based couple—who have roots in California—decided to step up to the challenge and purchase the house.
Because the home had been mid-renovation, about half of it had been gutted to the studs, but some key spaces, including the grand entry hall and expansive living room, remained mostly intact, offering a glimpse of possibility. Stewart and Rachelle yearned to return the home to its romantic grandeur while still making it suitable for a modern lifestyle. With that concept in mind, they called on the talents of husband-and-wife architect team Andrew and Kerstin Fischer, plus the married designer duo of Georgina Rice and Suresh Mirchand, builder Gordon Olson and landscape architect David John Bigham to see things through.
Kicking off the project, the architects took a thoughtful approach. “Our leaning was to preserve, protect and enhance,” says Kerstin Fischer, who, along with Andrew Fischer, studied old photographs and drawings of the house to get an idea of its original state. “We didn’t want to overwhelm the landmark building.” For the grand double-height entry, the architects added new finishes and a new front door but otherwise kept it just as it was. The central space leads into the dining room on one side and, on the other, the spacious living room, where the architects swapped the tile floor for one of white oak and restored and painted the ornate plaster and beamed ceiling. “This room is the most dramatic and defining element of the house,” says Kerstin Fischer. “We refreshed and lightened the materials to make it more welcoming.”
Although the southern side of the house retains its original layout, the labyrinth-like spaces on the home’s north side were reconfigured and opened up to the gardens. The architects, who selected all of the finishes in the remodel, added folding doors to the existing dining room, so that it now connects to a completely remodeled kitchen. “We oriented the kitchen so you could pass through it if you were out on that north side entertaining,” says Andrew Fischer. The kitchen flows into the newly created family room, and a new balcony connects both spaces to an updated library off the entry. “Before, this area was closed off with little windows, a little door and a small bay,” says Olson. “The balcony, stairs and glass are all brand-new but look like they belong there.”
With the architecture complete, designers Mirchand and Rice were tasked with appointing the spaces in a manner that would honor the architecture and create a serene environment. “We combined modern pieces with more traditional designs to create a unified and welcoming look,” says Mirchand. In the main living room, the duo devised an ordered way of breaking up the capacious space. “The room is very long and wide,” Mirchand says. “So we created three different areas. Each vignette looks different, but they’re all related.” The designers—who also have a showroom in the San Francisco Design Center and a separate workroom— anchored the space with two custom sofas, which they positioned near the replace at the room’s center. “We built the two sofas in our workroom with high backs to have an enclosed and intimate feeling,” says Rice. A scroll-leg desk by Formations occupies one corner of the room, while a sophisticated game table fills another.
For the dining room, the designers had custom metal cabinets made, and they selected furnishings to complement the updated library as well. For the latter, the duo designed a sofa with “the same curve as the replace,” Mirchand says of the piece, which provides a counterpoint to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. They then placed a hefty Rose Tarlow Melrose House table on one wall and paired it with industrial stools. Arched windows flood the room with light, which the designers augmented with curated fixtures, including Baker floor lamps. The architects installed walnut-clad bi-parting doors to section off an area of the room for a study, and the designers hung modern glass pendants to illuminate the space.
Given the architecture’s new indoor-outdoor connections, the gardens became even more important. Originally part of a larger parcel that was master planned by University of California, Berkeley architect John Galen Howard, the property featured a south garden sited by Polk and landscaping designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers. While some original elements remained intact, much of the grounds had been changed, and all of it was terribly overgrown. Bigham aimed to “replicate, rebuild or reimagine” the grounds, which included restoring a pergola and collapsing stone walls, creating a historically accurate plant palette, and reviving the Olmsted water garden. “One of the happiest moments of the project for me was when we turned the pumps back on and heard the water,” he says. “It was like playing music from the past.”
The collective work of the team resulted in the house, which was granted historic landmark status by the city of Berkeley, being returned to its original beauty. “People know and love that house,” Rice says. “It had fallen into a major state of disrepair, and the Owens were the perfect people to bring it back to life.”