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The Curbed Solution: 56 Sotelo Avenue

The second installment of The Curbed Solution where we give completely unsolicited advice to properties on the market, above and beyond "tear it down" and without regard to expense. Our second unsuspecting victim, this time in Forest Hill. The first installment here.

Sunday, July 22, Open House Day. Our friend and co-conspirator CoCo picked us up. Early lunch (burgers and frites at Zuni) and then off to 56 Sotelo Avenue, a house in Forest Hill we found on the MLS. Four bedrooms, four-and-a half baths, $1,599,000.00. First, of course, we had to get lost in Forest Hill's charmingly twisty hillside grid. Seems that's what one does in Forest Hill, plus look for Maybecks.

Pros: The house was built in 1939. Exceptionally well maintained by previous long-time owners, graphic and greeting card designer Walter Gabriel and his wife. This is not a fixer. It's ready to move back into, if moving back into the last century is in your future.

This time machine is still arranged for social hierarchy. An intact maid's room off one of the vintage kitchen's two pantries, with a back stair going down to the laundry room in basement (and a laundry chute coming down from the upper two floors.) Mary Tyler Moore era vinyl wallpaper in yellow and white flowers completely covers the kitchen. Sunny! Another set of stairs from the foyer going down to an office/mail room. Most of the closets are lined in cedar. The baths are vintage but in exceptional condition. Off the front hall there's a cloakroom and half-bath. The front hall, living room and dining room are paneled in white-painted Douglas fir; an elderly neighbor reported the walls had been painted white for at least fifty years. Nobody smoked; not only is the semi-gloss paint in great condition (probably all that lead) but all the detailing remains crisp, not blurred by layers of old paint.

It's a hard house to pin down stylistically. The exterior's sort of French, with a central bay holding the front entrance, a small balcony, and big French doors under a shallow arched gable. The interior's very much a watered-down Monterey Colonial, a vernacular descendant of Francis Elkin's work in California, and in plan, not unlike the work of her brother, Chicago architect David Adler. The rooms are comfortable, and flow together, but there's also a lot of privacy. Wide-plank, random oak flooring, from trees we'll never see the likes of again, that just need to be waxed. The living room and front door open to a terrace secluded from the street, and there is no neighbor directly across.

Cons: The house is arranged on a wedge-shaped downslope. The garage is at street level, there are steps down to a patio and the front door. The lot continues downhill, fully exposing the basement. Not for eveyone, but provides an almost unobstructed eastern exposure. Small yard, somewhere downhill, may be too small to permit a deck. Neighbor's houses are only a few feet away on each side, although the windows are placed so there's a sense of privacy. The basement has three open exposures, but needs more windows, and needs work before it's really usable. CoCo and I agree- every light fixtures needs replacing (the originals probably got sold with the furniture.) More after the jump.
· 56 Sotelo Avenue [Frank Howard Allen via MLS]
· Open House Report: Drunks, Chandeliers and Fixers [Curbed SF]
· The Curbed Solution: 99 Ord Street [Curbed SF]
· Frances Elkins [Architectural Digest]
· Forest Hill [Outside Lands]

[Update: Sadly, we can find nothing about Walter Gabriel, the previous owner. Anybody?]

The Curbed Solution: There's a huge opportunity here to take this house and ruin it. It needs new heating ductwork, which would free up ceiling space in the basement. Upgrade the electrical. Put in a new kitchen and extend it into the maid's room. Unless you need a place to park the au pair. The baths could be entirely replaced. Or not. But otherwise, drop that crowbar. If your life requires recessed spotlights and floors embalmed in polyurethane, buy something else.

Cost: The house is underpriced, so expect some bidding, and currently there's no pest report. You could spend nothing. New mechanicals could cost as much as 100K for the entire house, but you wouldn't have to do it again. A new kitchen expanded into the maid's room, about the same. Beyond that, it's up to you.

Worth it? This is rare stuff- a vintage house in such good shape. Fine wine needs skilled decanting.


Ductwork, with labels!