Bay Wash

Originally published in 
With a presence in three centuries, Christi Azevedo’s Victorian survived the quake of 1906 and served as a laundry before its rebirth as a well-lit hybrid of old and new.
Azevedo House

If there were a theme song for architect Christi Azevedo’s rehabilitation of the crumbling 1885 abode she purchased in San Francisco’s Mission District, it would have to be “Love the One You’re With.” Instead of an extreme makeover, the self-described modernist undertook a thoughtful refurbishment—preserving trim, retaining the layout, making furniture from framing lumber excavated from the site, and fabricating new elements as needed. Musing on the Victorian hybrid that she shares with her partner, Katherine Catlos, Azevedo notes, “I think the world will look more and more like Blade Runner, where you have an old Chevy Nova as well as some crazy thing flying through the air. There’s room for both.”

When I first spotted this place, it looked like a haunted house—dark, broken windows, graffiti covering the walls. But it had a really good form. It’s not Queen Anne or Italianate but an Eastlake/Stick style that’s really boxy and straightforward. In its own way, it’s actually kind of modern.It’s funny, because I was looking for a warehouse with room for my metal shop and I ended up with a classic Victorian with seven rooms and an outbuilding. There are almost 1,600 square feet upstairs, and everywhere you look there’s a door to another room. Everyone said, “You should make this room bigger and tear these walls out,” but I resisted. I even left some details—like a stamped-tin flue cover dating from when the rooms were heated by potbellied stoves—as a reminder of how the house used to work. I felt kind of reverent.

After living in a warehouse, I actually found that this collection of little rooms had much more potential than one big space. We’re still playing with how to use them—right now they are offices, boudoirs, and a yoga room. But it’s good to have big and small together, so I opened up the back. I built the kitchen into the porch, and the old kitchen became the dining room. It was a little sad, because every­body fills in these old porches, and so this 19th-century laundry washing and hanging tradition is forgotten, but the new steel-and-glass window wall keeps a gesture of that openness. The integral stainless steel counter and sink speaks to my crush on old kitchens. Time was, you had a sink, a stove, and a worktable—very basic—so this is like a modern version of that.

We spend most of our evenings in the tiniest room, right off the kitchen. It was probably the maid’s room, and now it’s the media room because, well, it’s closest to the fridge. It’s the room everybody thought should be opened up, because it’s only eight by ten. But the ceiling is 11 feet high, and the proportions work, so it’s cozy rather than cramped. I made the couch and the daybed, which I based on the Case Study daybed structure. I asked my neighbor, who’s an auto upholsterer, where to get those springy things, and he told me about this upholstery company that’s been in business since the 1850s, making buggy whips and stuff. I like how old and new come together in the architecture and the furniture. The fireplace in my office was covered in layers of white, green, and tar-black paint that I stripped. It’s enormously detailed, and the tile is mostly original. I looked at it and thought, Hmm, I don’t know…but what the heck.

The outbuilding was added in 1916. A friend found an old photo of it on Flickr with this very faint sign, “San Francisco New French Laundry.” The old brick boiler room surrounds our hot tub, and the wooden part is my fabrication shop. I love how history is embedded everywhere. There are rub marks on the concrete floor and doors from the laundry carts. The ground floor of the house used to be the tailor shop; I found a bunch of little rats’ nests down there made of string and buttons. Now I rent it out, so we’re kind of preserving the old live/work paradigm of the property.

During the renovation I became addicted to those gorgeous Sanborn fire-insurance maps that have outlines of all the buildings. Our house shows up in 1887, and it used to be the big kid on the block. Later, you can see the neighborhood giving way to more two- and three-story houses. After the 1906 earthquake, the fire somehow jumped this house; it was unscathed.

Sitting in the square bay window in my office, I like to look out over all the hubbub happening in the street. It’s definitely industrial; it took a little convincing to get Katherine to move here (I gave her the best room to placate her), but there’s always someone I can borrow a tool from, or a place to pick up some plumbing pipe. Living here has made me more interested in history and makes me think of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. He doesn’t propose a style, but looks at how spaces and people interact. I feel like a case study from that book.

When you build a house from the ground up, as I’m doing in Oakland for a client, you don’t mimic history; you let the technology guide you. But there’s a lot to be learned by living in these older houses and experiencing how the rooms are being used 100 years later. It’s like Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn—we’re always learning from the past.

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