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Turning Back the Clock on a 1980s House, All the Way to the 17th Century

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Cindy Casey.
Cindy Casey.

Welcome to House Calls, a recurring feature in which Curbed tours lovely, offbeat, or otherwise awesome homes in the Bay Area. Think your space should be featured next? Here's how to submit.

Photos via Patricia Chang

One of the most mind-bending parts of visiting an unfinished building is the ambiguity of whether where you're standing counts as indoors or outdoors. Cindy Casey's SoMa living room inspires something of that awe, with high barrel-vault ceilings and column capitals cast by her late husband, Michael Casey, and a clay tile floor reclaimed from somewhere in Europe. The floor "would not be used indoors, but kind of goes with the feeling I want," says Casey, who is a writer and photographer. "They told me it was repurposed from a French chateau, and I think that sounds like a good sales spiel," she adds, pointing out a dog pawprint pressed into one tile and a rooster footprint in another, which suggest a more humble source.

For some 30 years, the Caseys ran a business, Michael H. Casey Designs, devoted to restoring buildings. Their home is full of stonework—busts, faces, griffins—and maquettes showing drafts of Michael Casey's work for historic buildings, such as the San Mateo County courthouse.

A row of contemporary houses built by architect Donald MacDonald in SoMa, after the 1981 Folsom Street Fire destroyed several blocks.
Though it evokes something older, and much funkier, the Caseys' house was actually built new, in 1989, by architect Donald MacDonald. Their block of SoMa, a little alley near Folsom, had been razed by the 1981 Folsom Street Fire. "When we moved here, there was nothing," says Casey. "Donald MacDonald bought everything on this street and started building." Originally, the Caseys' house was a carbon copy of the one next door, a little blue rectangle with tiered glass windows resembling a kind of postmodern Christmas tree ornament.

When it was built in 1989, the Caseys' house (left) looked just like its neighbor (right).
It was small, just 12 feet wide, and "you couldn't get more than four people in that house," recalls Casey, who likes to entertain, and was getting ready for a dinner party on the afternoon of our visit. "Frank Lloyd Wright was never able to design a kitchen, and neither was Donald MacDonald."

The couple began mulling a big renovation roughly a decade ago. Because the house isn't historic, the city allowed them to tear the house down to the first story, build out to the lot line, and build up. The trick would be to find a configuration that made sense with only 12 feet of width to work with.

A photo, from Casey's scrapbook, of the Italian inspiration for their home.
One day, on a trip to Italy, the couple found themselves standing in front of an unfinished building from the 17th century, built according to Palladio's plans. But only two bays out of seven had ever been built, leaving this comically tall—and lonely—structure, with nothing but air on either side of its ornate column capitals. "So it was column capital to column capital, and it was supposed to be seven [bays], but it stopped right there" with two, explains Casey. The proportions looked strikingly familiar. "We looked at that, started cracking up, and went, 'There it is! There's our house,'" she says. They snapped a photo and sent it to an architect they were working with. "It was just insane in that it was this tall, skinny place on this little [lot], and that's what this lot was," says Casey.

The couple designed the renovation themselves, with help from the architect for structural work. Michael Casey did the castings for the facade of the house, the columns, and the balcony. At the peak of the roof, presiding over the whole house, sits a bust of Voltaire. "We both always loved Voltaire," says Casey. "We had him forever, and we were like, "OH! We know where we're putting Voltaire!"

Casey's patio is porous, with stones set in sand rather than cement.
In all, the couple only added about 300 square feet, but pushing the facade out to the street captured enough space to make the living room usable. Upstairs, where there had been only a loft, they put in a real bedroom. The original master bedroom had been wedged in the back of the house, behind a tiny kitchen, but now there was room for a full-size kitchen where the bedroom used to be. The new kitchen is full of light, with custom wood cabinets as tall as the ceiling and a view into the trees. Birds chirped during our entire visit, and we almost forgot we were in SoMa. "It doesn't feel like the heart of the city," Casey says, smiling.

When Michael Casey died, in 2013, the couple had lived in the house for about a year with the renovation still in progress. "None of the front was on, none of the balcony that he sculpted or the tympanum, the Voltaire, the columns—he never saw any of that," says Cindy Casey. The most important part of the house was in place, though—the kitchen. "Michael could've cared less about front of the house," she says. "I'm sure he would have been very proud of it, but this is where he was in his element. He'd invite people over just so he could cook."

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