A redesigned historic house meets the needs of a modern family

Real estate ads often boast of “original details and condition.” But in the case of the old farmhouse purchased by Jon and Christine Curry, original condition meant one bathroom for a two-story house, no closets, and rotting foundations.

The Woodside, California, home was built in 1883. In those days, it sat on a 110-acre mule ranch. Over the years, the farm was sold off bit by bit, but the house changed very little. For many people, taking on a house that needs new everything―including foundation, roof, plumbing, and electricity―would be a daunting task. But for the Currys, it was a labor of love. “The house is on the State Registry for Historically Significant Homes and is called one of the finest examples of gothic Victorian farmhouses in the West,” Christine says. “But it was in very bad shape. Our friends thought we were crazy, but we thought the house could be beautiful.”

Because of state restrictions relating to remodeling historic structures, updating the home while preserving its heritage was a puzzle. Jon, a contractor specializing in historic properties, spent more than a year on the plans. “The trick was to capture every inch of space with little or no impact on the front of the house or sides, or moving the windows,” he says.

The new back porch with its whimsical chandelier adjoins the remodeled kitchen.

In order to change the footprint of the house as little as possible, the Currys added 65 square feet at the back―enough to put a small family room next to the kitchen. They also added a back porch.

The home’s second floor originally had four bedrooms but no bathrooms or closets. One small bedroom was converted into a bathroom as part of the master suite, and another bathroom was tucked between the remaining two bedrooms. A small laundry room was installed in a newly created hall closet, and closets were added to each of the bedrooms. Although the rooms became smaller, they’re more functional. 

When inspecting the house, the Currys were intrigued by a small square opening in the ceiling of the second floor. They discovered that it led to an attic. The couple widened the hallway to make way for a staircase up to the space, which they turned into a cozy guest room. The home has a steep roof line, so the Currys placed the bed in the center of the room, where it’s easiest to stand. They also installed a freestanding bathtub in an adjoining bathroom and tucked storage units under the eaves.

The Currys’ basic formula kept the design details true to the Victorian era while introducing modern accents in furnishings and accessories. “We love old things, but we didn’t want this place to feel like a museum,” says Christine, an antiques dealer and interior designer.

The original farmhouse was a utilitarian building without much molding or other decoration. Jon designed new moldings and trim, basing his designs on the kinds of moldings used on Victorian-style homes built in the late 19th century. He also had new doors custom-made that replicate the house’s original ones. And instead of drywall, he used bead board on the walls in many rooms to further enhance the vintage feeling.

Christine updated Victorian furniture by staining each piece the same color, adding light-colored upholstery, and mixing the antiques with modern pieces. The eclectic mix gives the interiors a more casual look. Window coverings are simple shades and curtains. The Currys removed old wallpaper and painted the walls in soft, neutral colors that make the rooms appear larger and brighter.

“It’s funny, because everyone thought the new moldings and fixtures were original,” Christine says. “They couldn’t believe we added them later.” 

Always check with planning authorities. Architectural review boards can tell you what changes are permitted. If a house is listed on a historic register, there usually are strict guidelines relating to any modifications to the structure. This can even apply to paint colors.

Emulate a period style. Refer to books on the relevant period and visit historic homes in your area for inspiration. Use appropriate enhancements, such as decorative molding, baseboards, and bead board.

Don’t be afraid of sacrifice. The space of a small bedroom might be better used for an additional bathroom and closets.

Consider building out attic/dormer spaces. These can be used for bonus rooms, such as a home office or guest room.

Buy retro-style tiles and fixtures. Accents such as subway tiles and farmhouse sinks in kitchens and baths reinforce vintage character.

Preserve architectural elements. Features such as old leaded-glass windows are worth keeping, even if they have to be relocated to another place in the home.

DESIGN: Christine Curry Designs, San Francisco, CA (415/307-3945)

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