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A Century-Old Rowhouse Gets A Modern Update

The 1911 rowhouse was an eclectic blend of architectural details from the start. Now opened up for family living and finished with a charming mix of salvaged finds, it's ready to weather another century in style

A Handy Homeowner

Photo by James Carrière

Seeing a house through a remodel is dirty work, but somebody's got to do it. And at the San Francisco home of Jenna Miller Pelaez and her husband, Steve, that would be Jenna. "I enjoy the process," she says of tearing out old baths, squeezing in new ones, and mollifying crew members who threaten to walk off the job. Surprises rarely faze her. "I always need to be working on something," she says. A wiry blonde with energy to spare, Jenna steered her husband through the renovation of two condos and a house in the Richmond district near Golden Gate Park, adding kids Payton, now 7, and Aria, 5, along the way. "It was the worst house imaginable," she recalls fondly, "a water-pouring-through-the-ceiling kind of house." All went well until the work dried up, at which point Jenna homed in on this needy rowhouse across the street, its rooms small, dark, and dated.

Shown: Barn wood covers the floor and island base in the now-larger kitchen, a natural gathering spot for homeowners Jenna and Steve Pelaez and kids Aria, 5, and Payton, 7. Salvaged corbels accent the wide passageway that opened up the cook space to the existing dining room.

Kitchen sink, rohlhome.com; backsplash, walkerzanger.com; range, bertazzoni.com; fridge, jennair.com; island, heritagesalvage.com; stools, pier1.com; pendant, restorationhardware.com; cabinets, Gao's Group

Dull, Drab and Dreary

Photo by James Carrière

The dining room's original stained woodwork made the room feel dark.

A Sunny Disposition

Photo by James Carrière

Freshening it up with a coat of white paint—save for the cabinet doors—and facing the fireplace with white tile gave the space a light, bright look.

Chandelier, Wisteria; fireplace surround, Jeffrey Court

Fernando's Facade

Photo by James Carrière

Steve, who works in printing-technology sales and pretty much avoids all DIY activity, was a little surprised when his wife proposed that they take on a new project—again. Actually, Jenna concedes, "he was flipping out."

But even he had to admit that the century-old house deserved a little attention from a relentless salvager like Jenna, who has been known to hoard old corbels, closet doors, and stained glass "in case I need them someday." So maybe the double-hungs no longer went up and down—the house had other virtues, including a rich past.

It was built in 1911 by a developer named Fernando Nelson, who, like Jenna, was self-trained, focused, and broad in his tastes. Before retiring to a mansion nearby, he put up thousands of working-class homes, using

his magpie's eye for other builders' details rather than hiring an architect.

Nelson erected this house, along with a number of its neighbors, on the site of a former amusement park. It has a front-facing gable, tall banks of windows, strong horizontal trim, and entry stairs rising sideways to a glassed-in front porch atop a street-facing garage. When the Pelaezes bought it, the house held 2,336 square feet, with five bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, and beams formally boxed in faux-grained gumwood.

But as the couple stepped over the loose tiles on the porch floor, they could see work stretching out before them. Blue carpet camouflaged hardwood floors, and tall, dark wainscot dimmed the dining and living rooms. On the second floor, the baths sat back-to-back, with nary a WC on the first or third floors. The kitchen was divided between two rooms, with the sink area in an enclosed back porch where the washer and dryer also hung out.

A Posh, New Exterior

Photo by James Carrière

Rich colors and artfully tiled steps gave the tired 1911 facade a fresh edge.

Creating An Open Floor Plan

Photo by James Carrière

Yet, "even with all the dark woodwork I could tell the house had lots of natural light," says Jenna, who mainly envisioned converting part of the porch to a breakfast nook and painting everything white.

That was before the couple realized the one working fireplace needed a new flue and the furnace needed replacing. Instead of redecorating, "we spent that first year stripping wallpaper, pulling up carpet, replacing sash cords in the old windows, and repairing cracks in the walls," Jenna recalls.

Help arrived in the form of general contractor William Hom, joined by architect Julia Lui, who agreed to translate Jenna's ideas into applications for building permits. All agreed it would make sense to create the new kitchen in the old cooking space and open it to the dining room. Then, in one-thing-leads-to-another fashion, they hit on the idea of tearing off the back porch and grafting on an open family room where the kids could watch TV under the eye of whoever was at the sink.

To shorten everyone's steps, they would wiggle in a first-floor powder room and dispatch the washer and dryer to the second floor, near the kids' bedrooms.

Shown: Stripped maple floorboards and pale fabrics keep the living room airy. A stack of wine boxes with label holders serves as an end table.

Bed, curtains, pendant, and bath sconces: Restoration Hardware; accent pillows, Target; faucet, Rohl

Contemporary Charm, Vintage Zeal

Photo by James Carrière

The house had no master suite, so the couple decided to colonize the top floor, adding a bath and three skylights.

As the layout was undergoing an update, the decor moved in a new direction too: one part contemporary metropolitan, one part vintage farm. After spotting reclaimed-barn-wood flooring at a store she frequents, Jenna knew she wanted that same nail-hole-ridden, character-drenched look for her kitchen and family room. Moving quickly, she went right to 'What is that? It looks like subflooring!'"

Shown: The master suite's stylistic mix includes reproduction light fixtures in the bedroom.

A Cozy Master Bath

Photo by James Carrière

Barn-wood wainscot, a wall-mount faucet, and a vessel sink give the master bath shabby-chic appeal.

Unconventional Upgrades

Photo by James Carrière

Hom had persuaded the family to decamp to a rental, but Jenna didn't exactly disappear. She popped in regularly, tackling thankless tasks, like replacing creaky hardware on glove-compartment-style cubbies built into the wall of an upstairs hall.

Shown: The homeowners refurbished the built-in cubbies on the second floor, and added salvaged stained glass over the door to the kids' bath.

Floor Plan: First Floor

Photo by James Carrière

The family room replaced a smaller enclosed porch, the kitchen was opened to the dining room, and a half bath and deck were added nearby.

Floor Plan: Second Floor

Photo by James Carrière

On the second floor, two baths were merged.

Floor Plan: Third Floor

Photo by James Carrière

The third floor gained three skylights and a bath.

Bold Woodwork

Photo by James Carrière

Chunky corbels enhanced with curved bases and a crackled faux finish frame the new kitchen-dining room opening.

Country Kitchen

Photo by James Carrière

An old wire-bottomed seedling tray keeps spice jars in line with dowels and eye hooks; mini clothespins display snapshots.

A Nifty Nook

Photo by James Carrière

A castoff cabinet, spiffed up with paint, wallpaper, and cup hooks, corrals keys outside the kitchen.

Salvaged Treasure

Photo by James Carrière

A Victorian-era front door slides on barn-door-style rails in front of the master bath; a curtain hung on the inside ensures privacy.

Crafting the Perfect Cranny

Photo by James Carrière

Another salvage-shop door drove the design of the extra-tall kitchen pantry, which has wiring that allows it to double as a hideaway for the microwave. The nearby memo board was made with 10 coats of magnetic and blackboard paint.

Hands-On Approach

Photo by James Carrière

When she wasn't struggling with misfit hinges and tilework, finding better spots for the skylights, commissioning a kitchen island, or devising a cool new palette for the exterior, Jenna was bird-dogging Hom's crew, raising eyebrows and compelling one of his Chinese carpenters to nearly quit—something to do with the placement of cabinet hardware. Also, not everyone shared her taste for salvaged goods. After producing a well-worn front door,­ complete with mail slot, and asking that it be hung on sliding rails in front of the new master bath, she says she had to override a head-wagging chorus of "Cheap. No good."

Then there was her prized pair of peeling corbels, which she envisioned nesting in the new opening between the dining room and kitchen. First she took them to a Victorian-millwork place, asking that it add rounded bottoms. Then, to match the old sections, "I gobbed on this crackling product and blow-dried it," she says. "William's guys were like, 'What are you doing?'"

But who could complain about a homeowner who invested so much of her own time, sweat, and ideas? Teamwork smoothed the redo's rough edges, and six months later the family was able to move back in.

Shown: On the second floor, the homeowners merged the existing baths and added a vanity mirror framed in barn wood.

Faucet, Grohe; medicine cabinet and pendant, Restoration Hardware; sconces, Circa Lighting

Smoothing Out the Kinks

Photo by James Carrière

Jenna is still counting the setbacks that turned into success stories. When a broken fumigator at the mill delayed the barn-wood flooring, she had to scramble to get the kitchen done. But this also allowed her to switch part of the order to wainscot for the master bath. Then all she had to do was honcho its installation; when the first try looked wrong, she waited until Hom went home, then took it down, pulled out a saw, and redid it herself.

From Setback to Success

Photo by James Carrière

In the end, the work crew came around, Steve agreed the barn wood looked good, and Jenna's light-filled decor helped her land a Best Living Room Redo award in This Old House's 2011 Reader Remodel Contest (July).

Indeed, it's not often that a year of dust and disruption ends so happily, with Jenna hanging out a shingle as a remodeling consultant while the rest of the family enjoys a chance to relax—at least for the moment. Other homeowners may dwell on the headaches, but not her. Pausing to sum it all up, she says, "I feel like this house is the one where all the surprises were good."

Shown: The salvaged tub refurbished with peel-and-stick silver leaf.

Shower fittings, Sunrise; tub finish: Mona Lisa Silver Simple Leaf, Speedball, Amazon.com