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A Look Inside the Penthouse at the Lighthouse

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The owner tucked his personal home under the famed dome across from Dolores Park

Patricia Chang

When construction finished on the Lighthouse (a 100-year-old church converted to luxury townhomes) at 651 Dolores Street directly across from Dolores Park, the 5,000-square-foot units were interesting, but what everyone wanted to see was the penthouse.

That home belongs to Siamak Akhavan, Lighthouse owner and principle designer. The 55-year-old seismic engineer admits, "The whole reason I did the project was to get my house up there."

That's a lot of trouble and effort, but Akhavan's payoff is an octagonal home unlike any other. His personal unit is built right under the former church’s slate-covered dome that was originally designed by Thomas Crim in 1915.

The two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite is accessible by a five-story spiral staircase, and it isn’t quite as spacious as the downstairs units. But what the home lacks in square footage, it makes up for in architectural interest. "It’s where Bruce Wayne would live if he owned the building," says realtor John Woodruff, who is listing the rest of the building's homes (the asking price for each is $6.49 million, save for one which is renting for $28,000/month).

The oculus window in this converted church now sits right above the living area in the penthouse.
In 1915, the oculus window sat high above the congregation of the Second Church of Christ Scientist. Now that the building has been converted to townhouses, it hovers above the kitchen and living area in the penthouse.
Patricia Chang

↑ The open loft’s exposed brickwork, arched windows, and picture-perfect view of the skyline and Dolores Park (so perfect, that if you leave your trash lying around it’s entirely possible that Akhavan will see you) are remarkable. But all you really notice on your first visit is the oculus, the most prominent holdover from the building’s past as the Second Church of Christ Scientist.

A section of the old church's ceiling floats over the living area of the new penthouse.
Step back, and you can see how it works.
Patricia Chang

↑ Originally the oculus was part of the church’s ceiling, but turning the dome into an condo meant cutting the whole thing off the top of the building in sections and then elevating it roughly 10 feet, both to give the place some ceiling height and also space to expose the windows. Now the oculus hovers like a glass UFO over the living room.

Patricia Chang

↑ It also conceals a secret: an octagonal upper loft, from which you can admire the spectacular web of century-old timbers and brand new reinforcing cables that tie everything together.

Akhavan was still in the process of moving in when we visited, giving the place a slightly Spartan look (most of the furniture has to be hoisted to the rooftop by crane and then carried in through the windows).

A church converted to townhouses uses old relics (like these steps to the pulpit) in new ways. The old steps now lead to a roof deck.
The former steps to the pulpit now lead to Akhavan's roof deck.
Patricia Chang
The entry to the new roof deck.
The roof deck

↑But he had already moved in several artifacts from the building’s church days, including one of the leftover pews (every unit has at least one) and the pulpit steps, which now serve as the stairs to Akhavan’s rooftop deck.

↑ Also on display were artifacts of a different sort, the fruits of Akhavan’s archaeological work. When he’s not seismically retrofitting modern buildings or remodeling old ones, he digs for ancient Persian artifacts, some of which end up in his private collection. Historical preservation was a constant preoccupation with the remodel of the Lighthouse.

"They [officials at the Planning Department] were picky, but they didn‘t really understand the building or a lot of the seismic issues or the inner workings of the retrofitting," he says. Case in point, Akhavan claims city monitors didn’t think elevating the dome was possible without destroying it. Akhavan proved them wrong.

Akhavan is responsible for another church conversion down the street at 601 Dolores (now the Children's Day School). He chose to make this church his home because, despite his globetrotting habits, he loves the city. "The Bay Area always speaks to me," he says. Now he's got a prime spot to sit and listen to it.

House Calls is 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.

Patricia Chang

651 Dolores St, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA

651 Dolores St, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA