Photo credit: Paul Kleitz
San Francisco gained traction as a destination in the mid-1800s, when hopeful men traveled west with visions of discovering major gold mines. Although most of those gold chasers never made their fortune on the precious metal, the Gold Rush marked the birth of a booming town, soon to be considered the Gateway to the Pacific. When the town was nearly demolished in 1906 by the infamous 7.8 magnitude earthquake, San Francisco shook off the dust and picked piece by piece up to rebuild. Today, San Francisco is the 11th most populous city in the U.S., according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Pieces of its proud past still stand tall amidst the city. One of the more recognizable images of San Francisco is that of its famous row houses. A couple years ago, a young family hired S.E.A. Construction Inc., San Mateo, Calif., to remodel a 1902 Victorian to fit the needs of their growing family.
Steven Albert, owner of S.E.A. Construction, has an impressive track record working on Victorian homes. “I started doing Victorians in San Francisco in 1983,” he remembers. “I grew up in them and love them. I guess they’re in my blood.” His experience and passion for these character-filled homes made him a natural pick for the job.
Although old houses emanate beauty from each nook and cranny, they are not without their challenges. The homeowners hired an architect to draw the basic plans for the remodel, and S.E.A. Construction handled the execution and finalized details such as interior design and finishes.
One of the biggest challenges Albert and his team encountered was that the whole house’s foundation was 8 to 9 in. out of level. To straighten the house, Albert and his team needed to lift it. “How? The one word answer is ‘carefully,’ ” he says. “The in-depth answer is a little bit at a time. You design a shoring system and lift the house an eighth of an inch per day or a quarter inch every other day to try to ease it back upright.”
This house was formerly divided into two apartments. “Many Victorians in San Francisco get split into two or three units for income purposes,” explains Albert. “This one was two units, and we turned it back into a single-family home for them.” The plans also dictated that approximately 900 sq. ft. of the downstairs garage be transformed into a rental unit. S.E.A. Construction redid the entire foundation and added the apartment while the house was propped in the air.
Because of making what was two into one and with the homeowner requirements, nearly the entire house was gutted and repurposed with the exception of the third floor, of which S.E.A. Construction saved about 60 percent, including some of the plaster and finishes. What had been the shower upstairs is now a water closet at the third-floor landing. The old water closet expanded into the old sink area to become the children’s bathroom.
“The challenges are in working with what you can and saving what you can, as opposed to just taking it all out. That’s not our approach,” Albert says. For example when the dividing wall between the units was removed, it revealed a beautiful staircase. S.E.A. Construction repaired it and matched the floor while adding new details. The entry hall received new closets with period hardware. A custom built-in sideboard faces those closets.
The upstairs nursery wall was adorned with an anaglypta wall covering that Albert researched and succeeded in finding a match so he could patch 5 ft. of it that had been damaged over time.
The home also had undergone many remodels in the past. “We had to take it apart piece by piece and figure out how to make it work,” says Albert. “By the time we were done, the interior was almost a full gut. We repurposed almost every room.”
Collision of the Times
Existing mechanical systems were worn out and in need of replacement. There was not even heat. Albert’s team installed radiant heating in the downstairs slab and throughout the joist bases of the upper floors. “We used more modern technology with the mechanical systems,” he says. “The homeowners were very concerned about being as green as we could. Cost always becomes a factor with that though, so we were as careful as we could be but used as much energy-efficient technology as possible at every turn.”
The desire to integrate modern technology and conveniences in an old home created an interesting juxtaposition. S.E.A. Construction managed to seamlessly blend modern attributes such as updated mechanical systems, audio and video surveillance, and Internet and media access while not detracting from the home’s character.
One requirement the family had was distinct children and adult areas. “They very much wanted their kids to have kid space and very much wanted the adult space to be very traditional and Victorian,” says Albert. “The kitchen has a bit of a transitional curve to it while functioning in a modern sense.”
That room features cabinet lighting, crown moulding, modern appliances and full-wood overlay panels to match the cabinetry that conceals the refrigerator and dishwasher.
The city of San Francisco also kept an eye on the design. “San Francisco was interested in making sure that we maintained as much of the original faade as possible, as well as return the part of the faade facing the park to its original look,” Albert says. “The house was still somewhat out of plumb when we finished it, so we had to frame a false wall to make that side of the house look like it did originally.”
Albert finds great joy in working with clients, which was no exception in this Victorian renovation. “I really enjoy their participation, working with them and finding solutions for them,” he says. Specific to the building aspect of this house, he enjoyed the challenge of a house full of unknowns. “It keeps us thinking day and night as to how to keep it on a reasonable schedule and how not to break the bank. Those are the challenges that got to us; that’s who we are.”
Jobs of any size, let alone of this magnitude, rarely flow well without a cohesive team, which Albert had. “I’d like to thank the entire team from design through painting and cleaning up,” he says. “Everybody had a hand in this. Everybody was involved in solutions, and everybody had tremendous pride in their piece of the whole, which is why it looks as nice as it does. The clients also need to be praised. They came in with a tremendous amount of risk, a tremendous amount of trust and a tremendous amount of money to make something like this happen. I’m always honored to be a part of it.”