written by:
photos by:
January 19, 2009
Originally published in Modern on the Inside

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.

The exterior of this 1878 Victorian offers little insight into its new, expansive, light-filled interior. The house even keeps its solar-powered personality under wraps, with its panels tucked neatly­ (and unnoticeably) behind its low-pitched roof.
The exterior of this 1878 Victorian offers little insight into its new, expansive, light-filled interior. The house even keeps its solar-powered personality under wraps, with its panels tucked neatly­ (and unnoticeably) behind its low-pitched roof.
Photo by 
1 / 8
The walnut cabinets in the kitchen, which update and warm the space, were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.
The walnut cabinets in the kitchen, which update and warm the space, were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.
Photo by 
2 / 8
Homeowner Jennifer Roy takes advantage of her wired kitchen. LEM Piston bar stools by Shin and Tomoko Azumi; custom dining table; chairs by Ligne Roset.
Homeowner Jennifer Roy takes advantage of her wired kitchen. LEM Piston bar stools by Shin and Tomoko Azumi; custom dining table; chairs by Ligne Roset.
Photo by 
3 / 8
The master bathroom used to be a tiny kitchen in what was once a tiny apartment. The cabinets were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.
The master bathroom used to be a tiny kitchen in what was once a tiny apartment. The cabinets were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.
Photo by 
4 / 8
What was once a bathroom  now serves as a walk-in closet and Nelson’s office. The closets are from IKEA.
What was once a bathroom now serves as a walk-in closet and Nelson’s office. The closets are from IKEA.
Photo by 
5 / 8
Jonathan Nelson’s one wish for the master bathroom was for views from the Zuma tub. He got that and then some, and now three-year-old Jonas (pictured) and his older brother refuse to bathe anywhere else. The stand-alone faucet is by Lefroy Brooks from the
Jonathan Nelson’s one wish for the master bathroom was for views from the Zuma tub. He got that and then some, and now three-year-old Jonas (pictured) and his older brother refuse to bathe anywhere else. The stand-alone faucet is by Lefroy Brooks from the XO collection.
Photo by 
6 / 8
In the boys’ shared room, Jasper finds plenty of space to scatter toys. An original chandelier provides a reminder of the house’s past while muted orange walls plant it firmly in the present.
In the boys’ shared room, Jasper finds plenty of space to scatter toys. An original chandelier provides a reminder of the house’s past while muted orange walls plant it firmly in the present.
Photo by 
7 / 8
“In the living room,” Nelson explains, “we fell in love with the nail patterns in the floor and asked our contractor, John Hakewill, to follow the original pattern to a T. The floor was so well done originally, all the woodworkers would come in here and t
“In the living room,” Nelson explains, “we fell in love with the nail patterns in the floor and asked our contractor, John Hakewill, to follow the original pattern to a T. The floor was so well done originally, all the woodworkers would come in here and they couldn’t stop talking about how they hadn’t seen such a great floor—ever.”
Photo by 
8 / 8
The exterior of this 1878 Victorian offers little insight into its new, expansive, light-filled interior. The house even keeps its solar-powered personality under wraps, with its panels tucked neatly­ (and unnoticeably) behind its low-pitched roof.
The exterior of this 1878 Victorian offers little insight into its new, expansive, light-filled interior. The house even keeps its solar-powered personality under wraps, with its panels tucked neatly­ (and unnoticeably) behind its low-pitched roof.
Project 
Liberty Street
Architect 

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.

The walnut cabinets in the kitchen, which update and warm the space, were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.
The walnut cabinets in the kitchen, which update and warm the space, were designed by Nilus de Matran and fabricated by George Slack.

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.

Homeowner Jennifer Roy takes advantage of her wired kitchen. LEM Piston bar stools by Shin and Tomoko Azumi; custom dining table; chairs by Ligne Roset.
Homeowner Jennifer Roy takes advantage of her wired kitchen. LEM Piston bar stools by Shin and Tomoko Azumi; custom dining table; chairs by Ligne Roset.

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.”

Jonathan Nelson’s one wish for the master bathroom was for views from the Zuma tub. He got that and then some, and now three-year-old Jonas (pictured) and his older brother refuse to bathe anywhere else. The stand-alone faucet is by Lefroy Brooks from the
Jonathan Nelson’s one wish for the master bathroom was for views from the Zuma tub. He got that and then some, and now three-year-old Jonas (pictured) and his older brother refuse to bathe anywhere else. The stand-alone faucet is by Lefroy Brooks from the XO collection.

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.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

marcel breuer architect letter office kansas city snower house
See a glimpse into the office of a master architect.
May 01, 2016
Santa Monica living room with an Yves Klein coffee table
Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron talks us through Dwell's May 2016 issue.
May 01, 2016
house that sottsass built maui hawaii memphis group home renovation ettore facade colored volumes
In Maui, of all places.
May 01, 2016
two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to dream homes , we visited homes from Haiti to Italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
gramercy 1 ar53319
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016