After spending a number of years in London, homeowner and designer Wendy Huck and her family returned to California and purchased an older house on a large, oak-studded property with the European idea of preserving the classic facade and creating a contemporary interior. Huck turned to architect Barbara Chambers to update the residence, but while studying the property, Chambers discovered a foundation composed of brick. In Northern California, this represents, quite literally, a number of stumbling blocks. “We’re in earthquake country, so an unstable masonry foundation is a big problem,” says Chambers. “Replacing it on top of remodeling the house would have cost as much as tearing down the building and constructing a new structure.”
Despite their initial shock, the Huck clan regrouped and readjusted their thinking. Together with Chambers, they decided to demolish the old house and start anew. The plan came with a fresh sense of liberation. “We realized we had complete freedom,” Huck says, noting that a blank slate opened a number of stylistic doors. “The city wouldn’t let us build a glass cube, nor would we do that in this neighborhood because it’s just not the right fit. But we could build almost anything that we wanted to from the ground up.”
Chambers helped define, shape and narrow that vision. “Our work is always based on classical principals. I envisioned an archetypal home with clapboard, something a bit East Coast in style,” she says. “But for this house, we modified traditional elements to bring them up to date.
We did things like orient the home to the south to maximize natural light while creating larger windows to let the sun in. The floor plan is open, but also maintains some separation in formal areas.” For Huck, this was an important point, as she favors the time-honored idea of a formal living room and dining room. Plus, more wall space meant more room for a growing art collection.
Interior details also took on a tradition-with-a-twist nature. “In a truly modern house, you wouldn’t have any baseboard or trims, and no recessed panels on walls and doors,” says Chambers. “In this house, we have all of these elements. But, while the proportions are classical, the profiles are simplified and cleaner.” The color palette–white with black accents–is a classic combination that runs throughout the house. To keep the white walls from feeling too stark and to add an organic texture, the architect chose wide-plank oak floors that are fumed, wire-brushed and treated with a light oil finish.
Huck chose a less-is-more approach when it came to furnishings, fixtures and colors. “The architectural details are so beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t want to cover them up or detract from them with a lot of color and pattern.” Gravitating toward a streamlined look, the designer selected several iconic modernist pieces, such as Hans Wegner Wishbone dining chairs and Eames molded plastic chairs with metal bases in the breakfast nook. With a deft hand, she combined these with contemporary silhouettes such as sleek sofas and midcentury modern-inspired armchairs in the living room.
Huck and Chambers agreed that the new home should focus on natural light. “None of the main spaces faced the grand yard on the south side of the house,” Chambers says. “To access the outdoor space, you had to go around the side of the house and down some crooked paths.” Now, French doors line that side of the new home, providing direct access and a healthy dose of California sunshine.
Through this amplified fenestration, you can see the work of landscape architect Michael B. Yandle, who started with what was there. “We began by reimagining the entire property, from the entry to the back,” he says. “There were some wonderful existing heritage trees, so the goal was to make it look like the house and property were built around those trees. The hallmark of my work is to create projects that look like they’ve always been there.” The garden design is simple and clean, making use of repetition of plant materials and trees. This lends a cohesive sense of calm and beauty throughout the property, from the arrival court to the rear terrace and great lawn in the back.
In the end, the design team turned a problem brick foundation into a positive. Although it wasn’t what the homeowners initially expected, they ended up in the house of their dreams–creating a pleasant surprise after all.