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San Francisco Couple Says the Victorians Had it Right All Along

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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.


When you write about architecture in San Francisco, you hear a lot of unflattering things said about Victorians, mostly by people who want to justify decisions to gut, alter, or even tear down the homes that have become synonymous with the look and feel of the city. Common complaints include: "We don't live that way anymore" and "the house was a warren of small rooms."

Homeowners Jim Warshell and Gail Baugh have a different message: They say that, in terms of home creation, Victorian-era builders and architects weren't wrong. The couple owns a large Victorian house in Hayes Valley, and they've spent the past 12 years restoring it to perfection. "As far as we can tell, the Victorians, at least in this house, got just about everything right," Warshell says.

Their home will be just one of the residences on view during the The Storied Houses of Alamo Square Home Tour by the San Francisco Victorian Alliance. During the October 18th event, ticket holders will have the chance to walk through eight restored Victorian homes and an historic 19th century Gothic church. All net proceeds benefit historical preservation projects in the city. Today we take you inside one of those houses, where (if you didn't look too closely) you might think it's still 1884.

↑ In perhaps the most San Francisco story ever told, the couple spotted the house while they were walking in the Bay to Breakers race. The home next to it was for sale. Acknowledging Warshell's love of old homes, Baugh pointed out the house on the market. "He said, that one is nice, but look at the one NEXT to it," recounts Baugh. A few years later, the home that caught his eye went on the market, and the couple pounced on the opportunity.

↑ "The good news was that virtually everything in the house was intact," says Warshell who even then was a restoration/renovation veteran. "The bad news is that it was in pretty rough shape." At the time, Baugh's view wasn't so rosy: "The project scared me to death," she admits.

↑ And it was no small project. The house has more than 5,000 square feet and ornate details. This was not a weekend task. But, after more than a decade of work, Baugh is a convert. "The house has been an endless source of joy for us," she says. "And that's why we agreed to share it on the tour."

Photo by Patricia Chang

↑ Warshell says that they never seriously considered modernizing the home by changing the layout, although he allows that they did have brief thoughts about moving a few walls and taking out a sink just off the dining room. "But because we lived in the house while we planned and remodeled it, we ended up not making that mistake," he says. "As we experienced the house, we realized that there was a reason it was built the way it was, and it dawned on us that they got it right the first time."

↑ For example, that small sink off the dining room: It's there so that guests can quickly wash their hands before a meal. Warshell and Baugh considered making it a powder room. "Then we noticed that the hallway allowed people entering the house to see all the way to the back," Warshell says. "If we had closed it up, it would have blocked the sight lines."

↑ The man who commissioned the house, Asa Fisk, is seen here on the left. According to The Storied Houses of Alamo Square by Joseph B. Pecora, Fisk was a financier from New England. He hired architect Edward Hatherton to build the house for his family (Lydia Fisk is seen on the left) on the lot next to where the house stands today. In a move that some would say proves that things never change in SF, Lydia had the home relocated to its present site to make way for a three-flat building she used for rental income.

↑ The Fisks had the home built with Cuban Mahogany woodwork, detail-rich tile surrounds on every fireplace, a ballroom, and a rooftop plant conservatory. Warshell that the fact that many of these items could not be obtained or affordably built today were guiding factors in the restoration, but he notes that their motivations are also rooted in eco-consciousness. "The greenest thing you can do is use what is in your house. It's a recycling thing," he says. "Landfills are full of cabinets and furniture that is removed simply because it isn't in fashion."

↑ To make what was existing work, the couple keeps the decor close to period perfect. Many of the fixtures (such as the woodwork, tile, and gas-and-electric lights) are original to the house and almost all of the furnishings are vintage or antique. If an item isn't authentic, at least it isn't jarring.

Warshell says he used the colors in the tile surrounds as a guide for the hues in the rest of the house. "Each fireplace has beautiful tile that was obviously carefully selected," he says. "We thought those could be our road map."

↑ No map was necessary for the dining room, where they discovered what they believe to be the original colors while stripping off the paint. It's done in shades the Fisks might have enjoyed: burgundy and green.

↑ There are a few concessions to modern life. Although the kitchen is in what is close to the layout it had at the time of its construction, there is a wall oven for Baugh, who is an avid baker. Baugh and Warshell also succumbed to the idea of remote-controlled fireplace inserts for effortless and clean gas fires.

↑ In the Victorian age, the ballroom was used for dances complete with music from a small orchestra. Today, the couple hosts community meetings and parties here, including an annual gathering that has roots in the past. Baugh says that when Asa Fisk died, he left many handwritten notes detailing his loans to people in the community. His son Arthur (a Republican who served as both Speaker of the Assembly and San Francisco Postmaster in the early 1900s) forgave the debts after his father's death and held a party where the notes were incinerated. The current homeowners pay tribute to that act by throwing a solstice party where guests are asked to write things they wish to leave behind on slips of paper. The notes are then burned at midnight. "We are told it really works!" says Warshell.

↑ Both Warshell and Baugh say the conservatory on the roof is one of their favorite elements of the home. From the plant-filled glass room, Baugh has been documenting the fast-changing city skyline with photography. She says that although the city is morphing before her eyes, the conservatory is original to the house and today looks much like it did 120 years ago.

↑ Warshell says that the families who lived in the house prior to them assisted in the renovation by carefully preserving the home. It is the couple's hope that the next owners will do the same. "Since much of our joy has been sharing the house with others, we hope it remains a very open place embracing, welcoming, and educating as many people as possible," he says. "Since this is the objective of efforts like the Victorian Alliance house tour, may it appear on many more in the future."



· The Storied Houses of Alamo Square [Victorian Alliance]

· The Storied Houses of Alamo Square by Joseph B. Pecora