By most measures, the weekend retreat architect Karen Curtiss and her family share with friends in Stinson Beach, California, is what you would expect of a sensitively renovated home. Except that the neighbors have wings.
“The butterflies get the ocean view,” jokes Curtiss, who goes on to explain that groups of monarchs use a stand of cypress trees behind the house as a pit stop along their migratory path every fall. Beyond this sylvan rest stop lies the Pacific.
Curtiss, her husband, and their two kids, aged 13 and 10, enjoy other perks of proximity to nature in Stinson, which lies some 25 miles north of San Francisco: Easy access to the beach and local hiking trails sold Curtiss and her husband on Stinson when they visited on their honeymoon some years ago. Dreams of a place of their own in the small town (population: 632) soon followed.
What the couple found was a 1958 kit home known to locals as the “shaky house,” so named for the thin stilts that support the back of the house as the ground beneath it slopes toward the beach. “My husband found it,” says Curtiss of their home, “and it was the cheapest house in Stinson. He said ‘there must be something wrong with it.’ But [in the listing] it looked okay.”
Looks deceived: When Curtiss found herself in the area again for work and decided to see the listing in person, she found the house needed a new foundation, a front parking deck had dry rot, and a renovation undertaken in the ’90s had left its mark in the form of Shaker-style red oak cabinets (you know the ones) and an inelegant stained-glass windowpane in the front door.
Other elements of the house, though, charmed. It sported a graceful butterfly roof (yes, another thing associated with the lepidoptera family), sat on a quiet, secluded site at the end of a winding drive, and offered plenty of space, indoors and out, for family gatherings.
This was essential for Curtiss, who had endeavored to find a place that would accommodate not just her brood, but also her friends and their child, too. “My friends were crazy enough to say they’d join us on this ride,” says Curtiss. The couples became friends when “our oldest children met at the park.” The families quickly formed a bond.
“Part of the impetus of [buying the house] was having a place where our group of friends could have Thanksgiving together,” Curtiss says. “We used to have these 30-person Thanksgivings at our tiny urban houses; one day we said, ‘we could just buy our Thanksgiving house.’” The couples did just that, and evenly split ownership over what is today called the “Thanksgiving House.”
Though the space clearly had potential, getting it to a place that looked more like their dream took mettle. “In my architect mind, the work we ended up doing was not very much,” says Curtiss, laughing. (Curtiss is the principal at San Francisco architecture practice Red Dot Studio.) “It was just cleaning it up, unlayering things, and opening [the house] back up,” she adds, modestly.
The “unlayering” paid off, returning the house to the simplicity of its original midcentury design—with small modifications for life in the 21st century. The floorplan, which Curtiss says was already “quite good,” was left intact: two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an open kitchen adjacent to the living room, on a single level. The house’s broad glass windows, which look out to the cypress copse in back and toward a neighbor’s house on one side, were swapped out for new ones, but left where they were.
And those dated kitchen cupboards? Gone. An Ikea kitchen suite, including a white Märsta cabinet system and a stainless-steel range and hood, took up residence in their stead, placed in front of a whitewashed plywood backsplash. Curtiss also bid farewell to the original floors, replacing them with white oak finished with hard-wearing Rubio Monocoat.
The flooring helps the high-impact space withstand so many residents and visitors. “We don’t have super plush carpeting; there are bean bag-y chairs outside that sometimes get dragged in,” says Curtiss. Living room furnishings are simple and versatile, like a perforated-metal lounge chair from Blu Dot and a durable CB2 sofa.
The living room also accommodates a giant wood-slab dining table, sourced by Curtiss and coated in butcher-block oil. The table’s size and heft was the best solution for big family gatherings and the occasional Red Dot Studio staff retreat (and beach clean-up day).
There was plenty of unlayering done outside, too. “[Our next-door] neighbors’ house used to be right by our deck,” Curtiss explains. “So we moved the deck to the back of the house, looking out at the forest.” And, to create a more seamless flow between indoors and out, “we changed the door configuration so you could walk from the front yard to the backyard” along a straight path.
Now, the backyard acts as a place of sanctuary and fun for the families and their guests—complete with barbecue, picnic table, and fire pit—not just enterprising monarchs.
With the renovation, Curtiss explains, “my whole point was making it feel like it was meant to be, instead of coming from a place of ‘what stamp am I trying to put on it?’ What stamp will life put on it?”
MT Development, Inc. (top stairs and railing)