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Of History and Heartbreak
Erin Feher | Photo: Mariko Reed | March 8, 2017
A house on the beach survives a breakup and saves its soul.
When designer Mason St. Peter was approached about redesigning a nearly 130-year-old carriage house along the Great Highway, it seemed like a little slice of San Francisco history was about to be washed away. The diminutive 912-square-foot structure had started its life as a horse stable, sheltering the steeds of city legend Adolph Sutro. Eventually it was reimagined as a humble one-bedroom, one-bath residence, and later the hayloft was turned into a second bedroom connected by a plug-and-play spiral staircase. But the cozy coastal cottage straddled two lots, both with ocean views, so it was easy for the new owner and his girlfriend to start thinking bigger. Much bigger. “They wanted a three-story, four-bedroom, giant Sea Ranch–inspired type of house,” St. Peter says. “They were planning on having a family and wanted to just go big.”
St. Peter got to work on the design, even spending the weekend in Sea Ranch with his wife, Serena, to find inspiration. But not long after he presented the first set of plans, the client and his girlfriend split. The owner was still committed to the house, just not the grand plans for a palatial family domicile. “So we redid the whole design for a single dude,” St. Peter says. Client and designer, who had originally connected through mutual friends in the surf scene, jibed harmoniously on this second go-round, agreeing to update the home’s functionality and structural integrity but not completely change the aesthetic.
In the end, history won out—though renovating a structure from the 1800s that was built for horses, not humans, wasn’t simple. “The walls were overrun with rats’ nests,” recalls St. Peter. “And the existing structure was enough to hold up a barn, but it definitely wasn’t enough to hold up a house.” Wanting to keep the existing open plan without adding a bunch of columns and beams, St. Peter designed a complex new skeletal system for the house, most of which would be hidden within the walls and ceiling. “We didn’t want it to look like this strange industrial building, so we had to do all this insane structural engineering,” he says. In the end, the only new reinforcements that are visible are two posts and one beefy Douglas fir ceiling beam that runs along the length of the space. St. Peter filled the walls with recycled-denim batt insulation, which almost completely muffled the sound of rainstorms. “Before it sounded like it was actually raining inside the house,” he says.
The existing wood-paneled walls were an endearing detail but made the small space feel dark, so after a few conceptual attempts at saving them, St. Peter decided to just drywall the entire interior and coat the walls in Super Bright White paint from Benjamin Moore. “Holy shit, what a difference!” he recalls. “The space is so bright now. Sometimes even too bright.”
But wood would still get a starring role in the design, in the form of a dramatic floating stair lined in a book-matched, live-edge slab of elm to replace the small steel spiral stair. “I wanted to give him a beautiful open grand stair that you could see when you came through the front door, but didn’t lead your eye straight up the second floor—here you see something striking, but you are not immediately sure what it is,” says St. Peter, whose original design was a modern, mitered wood stair with clean lines. When he gave the commission to Luke Bartels of Woodshop in the Outer Sunset, “he suggested making it less sleek and using the live edge.”
Additional texture and color were added to the home’s white canvas with cement tiles in a vibrant blue-and-white pattern called Fez, from Granada Tile. St. Peter repeated the tile in the entryway and the bathrooms—both the existing bathroom and the bright and airy master bath that he added on the second floor. “I first saw this tile at the Intelligentsia at Sunset Junction in Los Angeles,” St. Peter says. “It was designed by Barbara Bestor. I just fell in love with the tile, and try to use it in everything I do. People are probably so over it, but I don’t care. It’s made in Nicaragua, but to me it really feels Scandinavian, and the cement gives a very specific kind of tactility.”
All in all, the house grew from its original 912 square feet to a spacious 2,400—not just due to the addition of the master bath and a garage, but also because some existing spaces, like the hayloft turned bedroom, are now included in the final tally. The exterior, which featured 12-inch redwood siding, was refreshed with svelte 4-inch tongue-and-groove cedar planks that will gray as they age, a subtle nod to the owner’s original Sea Ranch fantasy.
Says St. Peter, “By the time we were done, it was a brand-new house, but the original volume was pretty much intact.” And so was its spirit.
Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco