By Brian D. Coleman | Photographs by William Wright
In an 825-square-foot Victorian cottage in San Francisco, this married couple lived together quite peacefully. Twenty-five years into it, they decided to make over the daylight basement for a master bedroom, modestly adding on to accommodate an en-suite bathroom. This doubled their living space.
The downstairs is done in Stick Style splendor, its cherry paneling based on a similar 19th-century treatment in the Sanford-Covell House in Newport, Rhode Island.
In the beginning, the modest 19th-century cottage was all the homeowners could afford. It would just be a starter house, they told themselves—something to resell in a year or two. Built in 1886 by Scottish immigrant carpenter George Gray, it was an unassuming residence for his wife and four children and had remained in their family until 1964. The house had a colorful succession of subsequent owners. The second operated a short-lived pillow factory in the basement; when the third owner flipped the house, he felt so wealthy he moved to Paris!
Perched on a steep hillside, the cottage had been solidly built of thick, heart redwood inside and out. Little had been changed over the years; the hardware was original, as was the paneled wood dado in the parlor.
The cottage began to work its charm on the couple who bought it. They couldn’t resist embarking on a series of improvements, all of them in keeping with the home’s original Victorian design. In the 1950s, the exterior had been covered with white asbestos siding and the front door painted hot pink—so the first order of business was to remove the siding, strip the door, and repaint the redwood siding in its original earthy palette.
AESTHETIC SUITE A second phase came much later, when the couple doubled their living space by turning the garden level into a paneled master suite. The daylight basement had never been finished, but it ran the length of the house and had plenty of potential. The wife had grown up in New England, so she had fond memories of cozy rooms finished in tongue-and-groove paneling. Working with Oakland architect Steve Rynerson, who specializes in historic restoration the couple had plans drawn that imagined the basement as a paneled, Eastlake master suite. An addition to the south allowed for a new 6½' x 12' master bathroom.
Walls and ceilings in both rooms were covered in panels of cherry tongue-and-groove boards framed by mouldings. All of the woodwork was cut, installed, and stained on site—a laborious process that took over a year. A rare, R. J. Horner faux bamboo bedroom suite, made of solid maple with accents of delicate bird's-eye and tiger maple veneers, was given center stage. Ornate gaslight-era lighting by well-known makers, including Philadelphia’s Cornelius and Baker, added to the room’s ambience. Reproduction fittings for the master bath—like the substantial, cast-iron 'Vintage' bathtub from Kohler—were chosen for practicality as well as period appeal.
The wife is an avid antiques buff and collector. Soon rooms began to fill with 19th-century carved furniture, museum-quality lighting, and collections of Victoriana, from unusual silverplate to carved marble paperweights and memorials. It was sometime about midway through the basement remodeling that the couple realized they were here to stay.
A SNUG KITCHEN The next project was the 145-square-foot galley kitchen. The space had been modernized with an overbearing row of white laminate cabinets and a cheap sink. White vinyl tiles covered the walls, and imitation brick resilient flooring overlaid the original fir. Having designed the master suite, architect Steve Rynerson understood his clients' vision: He would need to design a jewel box that celebrated the Aesthetic Movement period without defaulting to modern intrusions: no granite countertops, no stainless-steel appliances, no efficient food-prep stations set within miles of countertop. The room was torn down to the studs. Eastlake paneling was designed to envelop walls and ceiling. Under the strict tutelage of an English cabinetmaker, trim pieces were made and fitted on site.
The new cooking galley is simple and straightforward. Cabinets, made of the same cherry as the paneling, stretch to the ceiling, as they often did in Victorian butler's pantries. (See the photo on p. 20.) A tall rolling ladder on a rail provides access to uppermost cabinets. The design avoids making the room too perfect, too fitted—too modern. For example, utensil drawers were fashioned from an old tiger-maple violin case that sits on the table. An adjoining closet was returned to its original configuration, becoming a walk-in pantry for extra storage.
Colorful windows fitted with vintage Addison glass throw a rainbow of red, blue, purple, and gold into the warm wood room. A Sub-Zero refrigerator is camouflaged beneath fitted cherry panels. The La Cornue stove in royal-purple enamel is an elegant accent.
FORMAL ROOMS The high-ceilinged parlor on the main floor got the treatment it deserved. Already nicely fitted with wood and plaster trim, the room was hung with roomset wallpapers from Bradbury & Bradbury's Victorian ‘Neo-Classical’ collection, in a colorway that complemens the stone-grey paint chosen by previous owners. (The cottage has never had a formal dining room.) A tiny bathroom carved from a closet in an earlier era was transformed with marble wainscoting and classic ‘Italian Panorama’ wallpaper from Iksel of Paris. The original Crane soaking tub remains.
The husband cultivates species rhododendrons. The couple's terraced yard is planted with rare species, like the creamy-white and intensely fragrant ‘Hunstein’s Secret’, the saturated-yellow R.macabeanum, and the massive-leaved R.sinogrande. Like the cottage, the backyard is a small, lovely retreat.
Victorian Pressed Glass A great way to add 1870s–1880s detail to a room is with a Queen Anne-style door: one that’s partially glazed, with a clear center panel surrounded by a border of colorful glass lights divided by muntins. A glazed door will bring light into a hall or parlor, too.
Pressed and colored glass is readily available. These homeowners, however, used their collection of vintage Addison glass. Manufactured by the Mosaic Glass Company founded in Fostoria, Ohio, in 1889, the rainbow of pressed-glass “tiles” included cobalt, blue, amber, teal, dark aqua, amethyst, and clear. The firm moved to Addison, New York, in 1901 and changed its name, then declared bankruptcy in 1903. Addison glass still may be found on eBay; tiles run from $50 to $300 depending on size and design.