Casual Meets Formal
Sometimes the very things that make a house irresistible can also make it hard to live with. Consider the Queen Anne pictured here. In 2004, more than a century after it was built, its formal rooms and period details still beguiled, attracting the attention of a couple in search of a well-preserved Victorian. But when the operative word is formal and the time is now, there is bound to be a rub. After years of living with a dark kitchen, a tiny master bedroom, and no place for friends and family to gather spontaneously, the couple—parents of kids now ages 8 and 11, and frequent hosts of free-flowing, two-generation parties—longed to bring the house up-to-date.
Bringing Up the Back
They knew just where to begin: in back, where the Queen Anne's spirits sagged visibly. Indeed, when the house went up in 1896—the first on its block near San Francisco's Presidio—it proudly faced the street while turning its back on an inviting yard. Subsequent owners converted rear porches into rooms with few windows.
"Often, the classic San Francisco house has a disconnection to the garden," says architect Aleck Wilson, who was brought in to help nudge the house into the 21st century. That's especially true, he explains, when the front facade presents two stories and the back three, with the rear exit one level below the front door, as was the case here. A staircase connected the two floors, but it was dark and cramped, and anyone who did step downstairs and out back found the yard consumed not by a garden but by a three-car garage.
Shown: The new kitchen and great room marry 19th-century detail with 21st-century flow and function. An open work area set off by a walnut island was designed to evoke woodwork in the older, formal rooms at the front of the house.
Flow and Function
As Wilson toured the house, however, he was struck by its Victorian verve, right down to the foyer's faux-grained gumwood millwork, an 1890s substitute for more expensive redwood. Unlike many city dwellings, the house was detached, bringing in light on both sides and providing room for a narrow drive to the garage. He also noted that although the first floor had better-than-average flow—as the husband points out, "every room had two ways in and out, which is great for parties"—it was missing a key component of contemporary living: a friendly social kitchen at the center where everyone wants to spend time.
Shown: Distinct spaces within the open plan echo the small, formal rooms at the front of the house. The reading nook is framed by pilasters that are neatly joined to ceiling coffers.
Familiar Feel, New Look
Wilson soon realized he could gently extend and widen the house in back, adding enough room on each floor to create that missing piece, as well as a family room for watching TV and a proper master suite. Lots of glass would bring light into the back of the house, and repeating woodwork motifs would tie old and new together. "The owners wanted a new-world layout but with old-world detail," says Wilson, who began making an inventory of existing architectural elements that could be reinforced and replicated.
Though known for his contemporary aesthetic, Wilson has a soft spot for historic buildings and a deft touch with period details. "He is able to create a warm feeling while being light," says the husband, who learned about him through friends and liked what he saw in Wilson's online portfolio.
The architect sums up his mission in this case as "taking an old house with beautiful formal rooms and adding a clean addition."
Shown: The desk alcove is tucked into a recess where the chimney once stood. Further set off by a dropped ceiling, the alcove allows kids to do homework without disappearing upstairs.
Setting the Space
First off, the freestanding garage had to go, allowing the yard to unroll like a plush carpet. Wilson next proposed digging down 30 inches in back to have enough height for a comfortable family room that would open onto a patio stepped down from the rest of the yard. Above the family room would be a kitchen and great room and a deck, thus connecting the back of the house to the outside on two levels.
Alongside the family room there was just enough room to squeeze in a one-car garage. "Luckily they had that driveway," says Joe Singleton, who served as project superintendent for the general contractor, Plath & Company. "It meant we could get an excavator and a Bobcat back there."
Shown: In the original dining room, the nonworking fireplace became a more dramatic focal point after the tile surround was restored.
Soon, however, his workers encountered a sharp reminder of where they were: on land that was close enough to the ocean to have once been dunes. To prevent sand from filling the hole as quickly as they emptied it, they shored up the sides with plywood and moved quickly to pour footings.
Another reminder of the setting was waiting inside, where the original builders had mixed mortar for the chimney with what was close at hand. The salty sand proved corrosive: The chimney had to be removed brick by brick. Much easier was undoing the back of the house, where two porches had been cobbled into year-round rooms. "It was a very clean cut," Singleton says. "We just tore them off."
Once the steel-framed addition went up, the challenge was to finish the new spaces to "really fit with the feeling of the front of the house," says the husband. Drawing from a bag of visual tricks, Wilson created distinct spaces with period styling within the open plan, including a reading nook where kids and guests can retreat while staying within the cook's orb. Wainscoting, classic built-ins, and a coffered ceiling also help bind old and new.
Shown: The family room's gas fireplace is a direct-vent unit.
Today, the family "really lives in the new spaces," says Wilson. "And as the kids are now older, they can spend more time downstairs independently but not so far away—there's a new open staircase."
But the true test was a party the homeowners held for their children's school. "There must have been 80 people there, half of them kids," Wilson recalls. Yet traffic flowed from the front of the house to the back, then downstairs and up—plenty of opportunity to gather spontaneously in knots, clusters, and groups. It's a modern way of entertaining—and living—and exactly what the homeowners had hoped for all along.
Shown: Invisible from the street, the rear addition brings in light through oversize windows and French doors, and creates a link to the backyard that is reinforced by the deck off the kitchen and the patio off the family room.
The 1896 Queen Anne had a well-preserved front, but the back of the house was dark and dysfunctional. The addition, which required digging down 2½ feet, opened the house to the backyard and made room for a large kitchen and great room with a family room below. On the top floor (not shown), the master bedroom gained space and a dedicated bath.