The term “family tree” has special meaning in this Palo Alto abode. With an eye to the future, the owners created their dream dwelling where the husband’s childhood house once stood underneath a towering magnolia tree planted by his parents decades earlier.
Although the couple pictured children playing under the sprawling branches, living in the original 1940s-era residence posed significant practical concerns, such as a functionally obsolete floor plan and low ceilings that forced the 6-foot-8-inch-tall husband to duck his head while climbing the stairs. More fundamentally, they wanted to add their own chapter to the site’s story, one that spoke to their style as the next generation. “We decided to build a new, contemporary home where the old house stood,” says the wife. “There’s something powerful about owning who you are.”
Two kids and seven years later, the completed structure is unapologetically modern, but it’s also intimate and human oriented. Together with designer Patricia Del Gavio, architect Donald J. Ruthroff and general contractor John Suppes, the couple dubbed it the “Luminosa House,” using the Italian word for shining and brilliant. The ensuing design, engineered to infuse a warm, welcoming spirit into the family’s daily life, rings true. “The will to be genuine and organic was our beacon from the beginning,” says Del Gavio of the team’s approach.
Natural illumination is the most prominent feature. “It’s important for light to enter the spaces in as many ways as possible,” explains Ruthroff of his architectural approach. That led to the addition of numerous skylights, clerestory windows and large light wells to make the most of the sunny Peninsula weather. An atrium laced with twining vines “brings life into the house and provides a Zen-like environment” notes Del Gavio. Often serving as an impromptu camping spot for the children, “it lets them experience the outdoors while feeling safe and protected,” she adds. Sunshine also channels through the glass-encased stairwell, where open treads and glass railings ensure that light flows unimpeded through the heart of the house. At night, a dramatic floor-to-ceiling installation of wood-trimmed pendant lights floating along yards of cord brings another kind of inviting glow.
The overall layout pivots toward the environment, cultivating a relaxed indoor-outdoor atmosphere suiting the family’s lifestyle. “The nature of how open our house is feels like an invitation,” notes the wife. Oversize bifold doors connect the central great room to the backyard, where landscape architect Philip vanderToolen took care to preserve the site’s original trees, including the precious magnolia. Now family and friends can casually filter in and out during lazy all-day summer gatherings. More private spaces enjoy the same fluidity. The couple’s bedroom opens to a generous balcony where the children enjoy stargazing and learning the planets’ pathways across the sky. The results are permeable, interconnected spaces where family members never feel too far away from each other.
To reinforce this sense of openness, the interiors feature “a very neutral, soothing palette. Nothing too stark,” says Del Gavio, pointing to the warm white walls and natural oak used for the flooring and window trim, intersecting the omnipresent glass. Accenting the high ceilings are gold metal fixtures that catch the light, like the grand Sputnik-inspired chandelier in the living area.
Although there are sparkling notes of glamour, the home leans toward informality. Activities center around custom furnishings, such as the living area’s large sectional, configured so “all the family members can enjoy curling up together,” notes Del Gavio. In lieu of formal dining, the couple prefers hosting big family meals on the live-edge table, surrounded by chairs in the wife’s favorite blush hue. Throughout, natural wood and organic linens and cottons underscore a sense of relaxed ease. “There’s an effortlessness and efficiency to this house; every space has a function,” observes Ruthroff.
Through years of careful planning and construction, the residence became a poignant vessel of memories for the couple as it developed and grew alongside their family. Their eldest witnessed it all, from the freshly demolished lot to their very first Thanksgiving celebrations in the new dwelling. “There’s something beautiful in creating our own history and future here,” says the wife. “I’m grateful because our home feels like an extension of who we are and how we want to live our lives—open, light and connected.”