By Clare Martin | Photos by Kathryn Barnard
Robin Warner’s first impression of the 1908 Foursquare she now calls home wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Driving past the Nob Hill house, she had dismissed the boxy, Marblecrete-clad structure as “a 1960s apartment building.” A year later, while she was browsing real-estate listings online, the house popped up again, so she decided to take a closer look. Rambling through the vacant home’s backyard, she spotted a mosaic of a mermaid on a wall near the pool. An avid fan of all things aquatic (she counts antique fishbowls among her many collections), Robin’s interest was piqued. Peering through the home’s windows, she was amazed at what she saw. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s an old house under here that’s had a lot of horrible stuff done to it.’” Somehow, underneath all the misguided renovations, she could envision the home she’d been dreaming about for years. Two months later, she and husband Rich Moyer and their daughters, Chloe and Celia, moved in and got to work.
The couple’s first task was a big one: removing the Marblecrete (an exposed-aggregate stucco finish) that was decimating the character of the historic home. Robin had obtained a 1937 photo of the house from the Seattle Archives, and wanted to bring the façade back to its original wood-clad appearance, complete with leaded-glass accent windows and dentil band molding under the sills. Before they purchased the house, Robin and Rich had consulted with several friends in the homebuilding industry about whether the Marblecrete shell could be removed, and all had pretty much the same response: Yes, but we’re not sure how. “It was a project no one’s really done before,” Robin says. “The contractors we received bids from were just guessing at what it would entail.”
They chose Dave Lester of Codding-ton Construction, who tackled the project by breaking up large chunks of the Marblecrete with a jackhammer or power saw, then peeling it off with a crowbar. Beneath the Marblecrete, they not only discovered the original wood siding (which, unfortunately, was too damaged to save), but also the original window locations. (When the previous owners had installed the Marblecrete, they’d also covered up some of the original windows, and replaced the remaining ones with single-pane aluminum models.) Dave replaced the siding and windows with wooden elements that closely match the appearance of the originals. The distinctive dentil band molding under the upper story’s front windows had merely been boxed in by the Marblecrete, but all of the other original trim had to be replicated by Dave. “He had a huge respect for old houses and their craftsmanship,” Robin observes. “Someone else might have skimped on details like that.”
Finding the Foursquare
When it came to the home’s interior, Robin and Rich’s vision for the restoration was just as clear, guided by a binder full of magazine clippings that Robin had been saving for decades. “We travel a lot, so there were many architectural details from places like Europe, India, and Egypt that we wanted to incorporate,” Robin explains. “I also love when people blend old salvaged pieces into their homes, so I had a lot of pictures of that, too.”
To help bring their vision to life, the couple brought in Carol Sundstrom of Röm Architecture, a Seattle firm with plenty of historic restorations under its belt. “Robin had very specific taste and clear ideas of what she wanted to do,” says Carol. However, they had to work within a few parameters, keeping the newly restored window locations intact and retaining the home’s few remaining original features (mahogany-inlay flooring, up-and-over stairs in the entryway). “I took an inventory of everything Robin had on her dream list and developed a plan for the main level,” Carol says.
That plan included relocating the laundry room to the basement, freeing up space to expand the kitchen. In designing the room, Carol eschewed the traditional work triangle and instead configured the kitchen to flow from one work activity to another, with distinct areas for food prep, cooking, and cleaning.
Meanwhile, Robin set out on a search for salvage pieces to bolster the small collection of items she and Rich had accumulated over the years. Her first task was to find an antique buffet that could be turned into a kitchen island, an idea she’d pulled from a magazine. But finding the right piece proved challenging. “I had to do a lot of running around to find it,” she says. “A lot of the ones I looked at were too big, too small, or too long, but I finally found the right one.” To increase its workability as an island, cabinetmaker Jim Oates added an extra set of shelves to the back of the piece, carefully matching the design of the original. A custom-cut, ogee-edged marble slab tops the piece, leaving the buffet’s egg-and-dart detailing exposed.
On the rest of the first floor, Carol left the floorplan unchanged, but created subtle divisions between the rooms by adding traditional yet eclectic custom millwork. “The millwork really brings the period flavor into the house,” Carol observes.
She also added built-in shelves in the living room to house Robin’s various collections. The centerpiece of the room is a built-in bookcase with a tiled surround that houses both the fireplace and a cleverly disguised flat-screen TV. “They knew they wanted the fireplace, but also needed a place for the TV,” Carol says. “This puts them both on equal footing.” Inspired by old-fashioned puppet theaters, Robin found an antique Belgian church banner to pull down over the television when not in use.
In the basement, Carol again took cues from Robin’s salvage finds. The family room boasts a pair of French doors that Robin scored from a former neighbor years earlier. “He was redoing his house and getting rid of these beautiful doors,” she recounts, “so I said, ‘I’ll take them!’”
Carol also used a salvaged leaded glass window to lighten up the staircase, but unarguably the best salvage score in the basement is the Ming green double-drainboard sink that’s the focal point of the new laundry room, which Robin discovered while browsing online. “I was about to order a new white laundry sink, which would have looked fine, but I thought why buy new when you can have the real thing?” She located the green sink in the inventory of an East Coast salvage shop and had it shipped to Seattle. It sat on sawhorses in the front yard for a week as she tried to clean off orange paint flecks and other imperfections; she finally decided to have it recoated with an acrylic polyurethane finish carefully matched to the original color.
Joining the sink in the laundry room are cabinets from the original butler’s pantry, which were moved from the kitchen for better access to the basement stairs. “The pantry was creating this awkward little alcove at the top of the stairs,” Carol says. “You felt like you were going through a storage closet when you went downstairs.” Now, it’s become a much-more-useful linen closet.
The repurposed pantry is but one example of the ingenuity and whimsy that suffuses every corner of the house—just as Robin dreamed it would years ago when she was clipping ideas from magazines. “It’s easy to know what you want, but when it comes time to choose, you find that nothing looks right,” she says. “But Carol helped us pull it together so that it ended up being exactly what we wanted. I love every little detail.”Published in: Old-House Journal August/September 2010