Oakland's landmark Ellen Kenna House is a massive 8,000-square-foot mansion with a wild history: According to the book History of an Old House, its first owner was the widow of a man killed in a Wild West shootout. She built the house in 1888 and used as her architect Augustus Laver, who also built the Pacific Union Club at the top of Nob Hill. The house was purchased three years ago by Steve Kopff, who paid $1 million and then put another $425,000 worth of renovations into the place, according to the San Francisco Business Times. He tells us that he financed the remodel by renting it out for catalogue photoshoots for companies like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. He's now put the mansion back on the market for $1.8 million.
We asked Kopff about why he bought the house and how he remodeled it.
Why did you buy this house?
"When I first became interested in moving to Oakland from San Francisco I was looking to buy in a nearby neighborhood. I passed on most of the homes because they had already been remodeled and all the original charm and character had been stripped out of them. The second this house came on the market I was obssed with it. I remember walking in and seeing the 12-foot ceilings and the oversized door openings and 10-foot tall windows and my jaw dropped in disbelief. I get to relive that a bit every time I see someone see it for the first time."
Why did you preserve the character?
"This house, as large and grand as it is, was built to be a simple Victorian. Some of the previous owners of this home didn't understand the beauty of her simplicity and tried to dress her up with over-the-top design elements that hid her true beauty. One owner adorned her as a bordello with red-velvet tapestries, dizzying wallpaper, and walls painted in clashing colors. My job was to strip back all the add-ons and let her character shine by using a subtle palette of colors and landscaping with a restraint of color. Now there is a sense of sophistication and the details of the house actually pop and stand alone on their own without the gimmick of painting them different colors."
Did the catalogue shoots inspire your design?
"It was fun to see rooms reinvented and take on different looks over and over. But I don't think it affected my aesthetic. If anything, in some cases the house inspired some of the retailers. Restoration Hardware, for instance, painted the entire first floor not their infamous RH Grey but the one my ex-partner had chosen that had a touch more brown in it. They also copied the same black we used to paint the staircase and used it to paint all their moldings in their studios for a period of time."
How did you get the idea to rent for shoots? Was it easy, or annoying?
"It had not even occurred to me when purchasing the house. A few weeks after the deal went into contract, I was approached by a location scout to see if I would be interested in letting Pottery Barn shoot in the house. She pointed out that having them shoot in the house would pay for the renovations I had planned. I jumped at the opportunity. And, as a home owner, it is quite easy. You just have to let the crew inside in the morning and they are out at the end of the work day. The house did all the work and paid for itself. The crews from all the different retailers become like family since they usually repeat their business once they have found a location they like."
Did the shoots really finance the remodel?
"Totally! I don't know what I was thinking when I bought the house on how I was going to pay for all the restoration projects. I think I was just so taken by the house and saw through all the ugly colors and mismatching patterns and colors and dove in head first. The income from the photo shoots even surpassed my own income from being a CPA, and I poured it all right back into the house to get her to this point."
Why are you moving?
"After spending the last three years restoring my home back to it's former glory, I felt the time was right to pass it on to a larger family or an owner who sees the value in the potential of all the different streams of income the house may generate."
· Ellen Kenna House [LocalWiki]
· Historic 8,000-Square-Foot Oakland Mansion For Sale [SF Business Times]
· Couple Uncover Oakland Victorian's Beautiful Bones [SF Chronicle]
· 1218 E 21st St, Oakland [Realtor.com]