Local entrepreneur and unwilling reality TV notable Stephen Fowler has a plan to renovate one of the city‘s oldest houses.
"You can see that it doesn’t look anything like what you’d expect from a San Francisco Victorian," Fowler says of the house at 38 Liberty Street. "The façade was completely destroyed. We’d like to restore that, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through. And rightly so; the city has a right to that level of detailed attention, and it takes a long time."
City records date 38 Liberty Street to 1900, but that’s probably just a placeholder date from when the all city records were destroyed in 1906. Climb Real Estate advertised the house a few years ago and placed the date at 1876, one of a handful of extant pre-Great Earthquake houses in San Francisco.
Fowler bought the three-bedroom, 1,880-square-foot home on (two blocks from Dolores Park) in 2014, for a little more than $2 million. These days Fowler lives in Eureka Valley, but once upon a time he had a six-bedroom, 4,000-plus-square-foot home in Noe Valley. He sold it in 2009 for nearly $3 million, largely because it kept getting egged and vandalized.
2009 was the same year that both Fowler and his old house appeared on "Wife Swap," the reality show where women from different cities and backgrounds swap places and live with each others' families for a few weeks. "Wife Swap" producers presented Fowler as an elitist big city snob and paired him up with a Missouri woman from a rural background.
Viewers were horrified by footage of Fowler bullying and belittling the 37-year-old mother of four, and he was still getting hate mail and dirty looks years later. He's since apologized and said that he was trying to ham it up for the cameras. Some viewers speculated that, reality TV being famously unrealistic, he was coerced by showrunners into behaving badly. Others laid the blame squarely on the man himself, and sometimes took matters (which is to say, eggs) into their own hands.
With that behind him, Fowler wants to get it right this time. The original façade of 38 Liberty Street was covered over in stucco sometime in the ‘40s, spoiling much of its historic value. Fowler wants to restore the old façade. He’s also applied to add a deck, a garage, and a new rear addition, and to remodel the bathroom and the kitchen. Because of the house’s antique nature, he needs special permission from the Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Commission. A hearing was scheduled for today, but has been rescheduled for April.
Fowler frames his proposal as a way to save the old house from itself and undo the damage from 70 years ago. "They ripped everything off of this place," he says. "The city called it a ‘non-contributor’ to the neighborhood. My intent is to do something that adds historic value to the block. It takes a tremendous amount of time and money."
He says that neighbors have responded positively to the plan, but not everyone is on board. The anonymous neighborhood tipster who brought it to our attention characterized it as an effort to "gut it." Some neighbors threw up roadblocks to Fowler’s petition to expand his home in Eureka Valley a few years ago as well.
Whether this is just classic San Francisco renovation street fighting or part of the fallout from his ABC appearance is hard to say. We’ll update you on the house’s future after the commission hearing.