Taking Liberties

Originally published in 

Designed and built in 1878 for Judge John Murphy, a 4,400-square-foot white structure has, from the outside, the undeniable characteristics of a classic San Francisco Victorian. Stepped back from the street and resting genteelly at the top of a large hill, the house keeps a watchful eye on its neighbors and the city that surrounds it.

Liberty Street

Architect William McDonough often talks about once living in a house designed and built by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia. He speaks of the quality of light and the ease of movement within this colonial building constructed over 200 years ago. “It’s got good bones.” That’s the thing about architecture: When it is really good—that is, when it’s got good bones—it cuts through simplistic, stylistic stratagems.

In San Francisco, nearly 3,000 miles from McDonough’s Jeffersonian muse, a house with a skeleton both men would admire sits unobtrusively on a leafy street fittingly called Liberty. Designed and built in 1878 for Judge John Murphy, the 4,400-square-foot white structure has, from the outside, the undeniable characteristics of a classic San Francisco Victorian. Stepped back from the street and resting genteelly at the top of a large hill, the house keeps a watchful eye on its neighbors and the city that surrounds it.

That’s what attracted Jennifer Roy and her husband, Jonathan Nelson, when they found the house in 2003 after several frantic years of scouring the city for a home with a modern feel. “There really was nothing,” says Nelson. “When we saw this place, though, there was just something about it, but at the time, it took a little imagination.”

As it turned out, it would take more than a little imagination. The storied house had been through several incarnations and served a slew of different purposes, all of which had left their indelible marks. During Judge Murphy’s tenure, the large living room hosted Susan B. Anthony and the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement on the West Coast. In the early 1900s, Okies fresh from the Midwest used it as a crash pad. Not long afterward, Roy says, a dentistry school took over the property, subdividing it into three separate units for student housing. At the height of San Francisco’s naval build-up during wartime, the navy acquired the building and used it to house intelligence officers. The house changed hands again in the ’80s, when it acted as a place for wayward rock stars to hang their hats, occasionally hosting impromptu shows in the grand living room.

Perhaps because of its eclectic history, something about the place spoke to Nelson and Roy. “After nine years of looking,” Roy explains, “we bought the house in a matter of days.” Though the dental school had done all it could to kill the building’s original grandeur, 14-foot ceilings and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on every side of the house and in every room refused to allow bad design decisions to dampen the home’s mood. Despite the additions of carpeting, fake wooden wall panels, and criminal drop ceilings, the light-flooded space appealed to everyone who set foot in it.

Well, almost everyone. When the couple’s designer, Nilus de Matran, stepped in and saw what a mess it was, he said, “‘I don’t think you guys should buy it,’” Nelson recounts. “Obviously, it was too late for that.”

The transformation that lay ahead was, while not insurmountable, far from simple. Because of the house’s historic character, making it work was going to have to be strictly an inside job—none of the exteriors, including the windows, were to be manipulated in any way. “Jennifer and Jonathan have been architecture buffs for a long time,” de Matran explains, “and what they really wanted was something modern, something that would work with their lives today, which meant accounting for kids and a lot of visitors.” With three floors, eight rooms, and four bathrooms, space was not an issue, but reconfiguring it was.

“When we started to study the space,” de Matran says, “we started to see that this was not really a job of remaking it, but of stripping the house back to its original self, which was really a beautiful work of architecture.” What had served as three separate apartments now needed to be converted back to one house. “We simply had to do a little bit of deconstruction,” says de Matran, “before we could even consider any construction.”

First, the walls came down. “That is when we really began to respect and understand the house and what a find it was,” says Nelson. The couple, their architect, and their contractor began to appreciate the 19th-century craftsmanship—from the decorative door hinges to the fanciful window eaves and even the nail patterns in the hardwood floors—and set about devising a strategy for blending Victorian with modern.

Some rooms, like the living room adjacent to the entryway, were clearly meant to be left alone save for the refurbishing of the floors and the stripping of years of paint and wallpaper. Others, like the main kitchen on the ground level, needed complete makeovers. Despite being located right off the sun-fi lled garden, the kitchen had become one of the dingiest, darkest rooms in the house. It was obvious that this room
would need to be brought up to date and thoroughly reworked. “But,” says de Matran, “it still needed to work within the framework of the whole house. We didn’t want to create separate identities for each room, they needed to work together as a whole.”

Working with cabinetmaker George Slack, de Matran designed a marble-covered island with walnut cabinets to act as the centerpiece. “George did the cabinets at the new de Young Museum,” de Matran says. “He does exceptional work.” Expanding the previously boxed-in room allowed the breakfast nook to reemerge seemingly in the garden, capturing some of the spectacular sunlight that pours in throughout the day.

As much as the kitchen denies its history, the formal dining room around the corner readily embraces it. “Look at the fi replace,” says Nelson. “It is amazing. We didn’t have to do anything to it. We figured, if all these people who previously occupied the house, even the Okies who had squatted here, had such respect for this fi replace and room, we should too.”

Upstairs, de Matran converted what was once a living room into a master bedroom, a kitchen into a master bathroom, and a bathroom into a walk-in closet. “Again, the light and the height of the ceilings made these conversions relatively simple,” de Matran says. “The views from Jonathan and Jennifer’s bedroom are so fantastic that this was a great room even when it was a cramped apartment.”

Nelson explains that, for him, the main objective “was to have that view when I’m taking a bath and that’s what we got. It’s fantastic.” So good in fact that even five-year-old Jasper and three-year-old Jonas can’t stay away, despite having their own bedroom and bathroom just down the hall. “They won’t take a bath anywhere else,” Roy says. But the kids are onto something: Now that the family is fi nally settled in their strong, sturdy house with good bones, not only would they never bathe anywhere else, they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else either.

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