A San Francisco Survivor Dresses Up And Down At The Same Time.
Among America's great cities, perhaps none so prides itself on being different as San Francisco. And in that department, San Francisco has plenty to be proud of: its topography, nearly as vertical as it is horizontal; its weather, which can vary dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, if not block to block; its incomparable collection of Victorian architecture. Partly owing to those same characteristics, custom builders in San Francisco face a scene that differs radically from most custom home markets in the country. Because this peninsula city's limited real estate was built out decades ago, virtually every project today is either infill or renovation. Its urban density means that most lots provide only one elevation with which to make a statement, unless you are building on a corner lot, in which case you get two. Depending on orientation, a window may frame bay or ocean vistas, breathtaking cityscapes, or an intimate close-up of the house next door.
Even in this most eccentric of American cities, though, certain houses stand out for the stories they tell. This shingled cottage, in the Sutro Heights district in the city's far northwest corner, tells a good one. It began life as the gardener's cottage of Adolf Sutro, a land baron and philanthropist who once controlled thousands of acres in the city, built parks and shorefront attractions—and an urban railway to serve them—and served as mayor from 1894 to 1896. Built in 1884, the cottage survived the great earthquake and fires of 1906 and predates not only the blocks of closely packed houses that now surround it, but also the road system itself. “There was no grid,” says architect Aleck Wilson; when the cottage was built, it was surrounded by sand dunes. Sutro devoted much of his energy to planting trees on his vast holdings, but after his death his descendants sold off the land for development. A residential district grew up around the gardener's cottage, which, aside from its wider-than-standard lot, gave little clue to its status as a neighborhood elder.
Elders are subject to the indignities of age, and by the time the current owner hired Wilson and builder James Chenney, the gardener's cottage had borne its share. The street entrance had been relocated to the north side of the building. The original clapboards were buried in stucco. The single-story interior had been diced into a jumble of small rooms. But the building offered several advantages beyond its colorful history. Its location gave the owner, an avid surfer, easy access to the beach. The building itself also had its merits. First-floor walls were posted at a generous 11 feet. The hip roof enclosed a spacious attic that, finished off, would double the living space and open up long views in three directions. Less obvious, but equally welcome, was a simple structural feature: long floor joists. The city requires that remodels leave existing floors and at least two walls standing. The original floor joists—32-foot 2x10s that stretched the entire width of the building—allowed for a plan that gutted every interior wall and raised the roof by 30 inches while leaving the original floors intact. “That's how it was a remodel and not a teardown,” Wilson says.
A third-generation San Franciscan—and second-generation architect—Wilson is thoroughly steeped in the city's architectural styles. His street elevation for this house owes much to an urban version of Shingle style that was popular here at about the time the cottage was first built. Exterior walls wear the familiar bleached cedar shingles; the roof retains its original deep, corbelled overhang; the trim is relatively heavy and painted a deep green. Simple, flat roofs at the main entry, dormers, and cupola nod toward Modernism without clashing with the building's earlier references. The interior, all new, reflects the owner's affinity for East Coast beach cottages. Its high ceilings and extensive use of painted wood trim and cabinetry suggest a somewhat formal old house that has been adapted to a more casual style of living. Distressed wood surfaces underscore that informality. The floors are red oak, nail-holed, checked, and worm-eaten from a former life as barn siding. Window seats and countertops recycle long, clear, 22-inch-wide redwood boards from the original roof soffits.
The new floor plans center on a generous U-shaped stair. This circulation hub, which Wilson likens to a courtyard, responds directly to the neighborhood's distinctive microclimate. “It's foggy so much out here,” Wilson says, “you can't have too much light.” The central stair hall funnels enough light from the cupola into the core of the house to brighten interior spaces even on the grayest days. Second-floor rooms grab some of that light through glazed door transoms and a high interior window in the secondary bathroom. At the first floor, the kitchen gets its share via a large, counter-height opening into the stair hall. The building's vertical scale furthered the quest for light. “The height of the ceiling kind of pumped up the scale,” says Wilson, who exploited that result with large windows set with their heads near ceiling level. A thoroughly integrated regime of wood trim establishes order among these elements. Strong horizontal bands—“datum lines,” as Wilson terms them—break up the tall walls, lining up window heads and leaving no confusion about where the first floor ends and the second begins. The ample headroom also led Wilson to use boxed-in ceiling beams rather than walls to delineate kitchen, dining, and living spaces. Chenney found low-or no-impact ways to economize on all that millwork, using MDO rather than solid wood for a flat-panel wainscot and paint-grade material for the custom cabinets. The semi-custom interior doors are all 13/4 inches thick for a satisfying heft, but fabricated out of cost-saving MDF.
In keeping with San Francisco tradition, the house presents a rather formal face to the street, but loosens up considerably at the rear, where it faces its neighbors across a patchwork of small, fenced backyards. “The rear elevation is totally informal,” says Wilson, who wrapped this end of the house in a veritable jungle gym of decks, balconies, stairs, and landings. To its back garden the house presents a broad stair—most of it with double-height risers, for sitting—and a landing. Four more risers reach a party-size deck with a built-in U-shaped bench. Above is the master bedroom balcony, from which a steel circular stair rises to a small deck at the height of the cupola windows. The roof deck was a bone of contention for the owner with his neighbors, who thought it a bit much, and with his architect. “I tried to talk him out of it, because I knew it would be highly expensive,” says Wilson, who, taking in the stunning views, seems to have reconsidered. Even before the job was complete, he concedes, the roof deck had proven its worth. “We always came up here during construction. There was always a desire to get up on the roof.”
No wonder. On surfing days the owner can climb up for a quick check on the breakers at Ocean Beach, four blocks to the west. The view to the north extends to Point Reyes, which arcs out into the Pacific some 25 miles from the city. To the south, one can look over the green tufts of nearby Golden Gate Park and follow a line of shorefront bluffs that disappear into haze toward Half Moon Bay. Chalk one up for the San Francisco exceptionalists. From this vantage point, there is no mistaking their city for any other on earth.