Before & After: A Car Shop in San Francisco Is Reborn as an Artist’s Loft, Gallery, and Studio

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By Lydia Lee
SOMA Residence by Dumican Mosey Architects showcases a wide array of art, including, most notably, a Fiat mounted upside down from the ceiling.

The auto repair garage in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood was dark, rundown, and pungent with grease. But back in 2011, when Klari Reis and Michael Isard first saw the voluminous space, they were focused on its potential for combining life and work. Klari, an internationally exhibited painter, was moving in with Michael, a tech researcher, and the plan was to incorporate her studio as well as an art gallery into their new home.

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While creating a live/work space at a former garage for Klari Reis and Michael Isard, architect Eric Dumican carved out an atrium on the second floor to bring in light. Three sides open with Fleetwood sliders; the fourth is a living wall by Planted Design using Florafelt Pro System. 

While creating a live/work space at a former garage for Klari Reis and Michael Isard, architect Eric Dumican carved out an atrium on the second floor to bring in light. Three sides open with Fleetwood sliders; the fourth is a living wall by Planted Design using Florafelt Pro System. 

Before & After: A Car Shop in San Francisco Is Reborn as an Artist’s Loft, Gallery, and Studio - Photo 2 of 13 -

Architect Eric Dumican of Dumican Mosey was brought in to refashion the 1923 structure into a three-bedroom loft above a gallery/studio and a separate rental apartment. Dumican had gotten to know Klari and Michael a decade earlier when Klari’s studio was in the same building as his office. "They’re both avid collectors, so how the architecture was designed to display art was really important for the home, not just for the gallery," he says.

Wood beams and concrete walls emerge from cutaways in the drywall, revealing the building’s industrial skeleton. The custom steel-and-oak dining table is by Ohio Design.

Wood beams and concrete walls emerge from cutaways in the drywall, revealing the building’s industrial skeleton. The custom steel-and-oak dining table is by Ohio Design.

The garage’s condition was such that only its concrete walls and beams could be salvaged. It would take five years to transform the 9,000-square-foot, two-level structure, and the process would include everything from jacking up the left side of the building, which had sunk a foot during the 1989 earthquake, to giving the plaster cupids on the historical facade a pewter-colored coat of paint and a touch of red "lipstick." But the lengthy timeline suited the couple’s deliberate way of working. "The fact that it took so long made it easier," says Michael. "Making all the design decisions at once would have driven us crazy."

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Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair with Wire Base
Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair with Wire Base
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Fina Dining Table by Claudia Moreira Salles
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The kitchen features SieMatic cabinetry, Neolith countertops, and a faucet by Dornbracht. Mike Geno’s paintings of bread and cheese hang near a Lee Materazzi photograph.

The kitchen features SieMatic cabinetry, Neolith countertops, and a faucet by Dornbracht. Mike Geno’s paintings of bread and cheese hang near a Lee Materazzi photograph.

Simply getting the permits took two years. Then preparing the foundation turned out to be a pricey, yearlong effort. The soil—mud mixed with rubble from the 1906 earthquake—had to be stabilized with injections of cement every four feet before a new foundation could be poured. Once construction started, the architect used mockups and samples to get input from the couple and adjust the design, showing them, for instance, the differences among walnut-shell blasting, sandblasting, and ice blasting the walls to remove paint. (The first option was ultimately selected because it better preserved the character of the concrete.)

Lee Cline made the painting in the guestroom, which opens onto a new balcony.

Lee Cline made the painting in the guestroom, which opens onto a new balcony.

During renovation, the team was careful to ensure that new elements, like shear walls of board-formed concrete and floors of reclaimed solid oak, were all in keeping with the original materials.

Recalling the drive-in openings of the former auto shop, hydraulic glass garage doors hang from both Klari’s studio and the exhibition space, where a selection of her paintings is on view.

Recalling the drive-in openings of the former auto shop, hydraulic glass garage doors hang from both Klari’s studio and the exhibition space, where a selection of her paintings is on view.

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Dumican also focused on bringing natural light and outdoor space into the building, which has windows only at the front and back. His solution: a 20-by-20-foot courtyard on the second floor that features a living wall of succulents, like burro’s tail and string of bananas. Sliding walls of glass peel away on three sides and a motorized skylight opens above, revealing a new roof deck. Klari and Michael now have a two-year-old son who likes to ride his tricycle around the space, which flows into the living-kitchen-dining area.

Klari at work in her studio.

Klari at work in her studio.

On the ground floor, Klari’s gallery features pristine white walls and LED track lighting for illuminating artwork. Her studio even has a separate prep room, where she mostly works with epoxy, her signature material. Dumican pulled the back wall in five feet to deepen a narrow patio, which can be accessed by hydraulic glass garage doors during art openings. The move also made way for a balcony above.

The steel-sash windows by Hope’s on the upper level are replicas of the originals, while the lower level has custom frosted-glass panels. The facade paint is Black Tar by Benjamin Moore.

The steel-sash windows by Hope’s on the upper level are replicas of the originals, while the lower level has custom frosted-glass panels. The facade paint is Black Tar by Benjamin Moore.

But the grandest artwork of all, the one passersby stop and stare at through the window, is a red two-door Fiat hanging upside down from the ceiling of the loft. Inspired by a comment Klari made while browsing for light fixtures ("They cost as much as a car!"), the gutted sedan’s headlights can actually be operated with a light switch.

Vehicle Wall Art supplied the loft’s most unusual feature, a 1965 Fiat Nuova 500 F mounted upside-down on the ceiling. Magnetic panels of blackened and waxed steel display smaller artworks. The floating stairs replaced a ramshackle set of steps.

Vehicle Wall Art supplied the loft’s most unusual feature, a 1965 Fiat Nuova 500 F mounted upside-down on the ceiling. Magnetic panels of blackened and waxed steel display smaller artworks. The floating stairs replaced a ramshackle set of steps.

Before & After: A Car Shop in San Francisco Is Reborn as an Artist’s Loft, Gallery, and Studio - Photo 11 of 13 -

"The fact that it took so long made it easier. Making all the design decisions at once would have driven us crazy." Michael Isard, resident

An Eames elephant sits by a kitchen nook; the painting is by Michael Shankman. 

An Eames elephant sits by a kitchen nook; the painting is by Michael Shankman. 

The piece is also a nod to the Fiats of Capri, the island where the couple became engaged and were married, as well as a fitting capstone to a project that flipped an old automotive shop on its head. 

SOMA Residence floor plan

SOMA Residence floor plan

Project Credits:

Architect: Dumican Mosey Architects  

Builder/General Contractor: JP Builders 510-763-0411 

Cabinetry installation: JW Sellars Furniture 415-621-5647 

Environmental Consulting: Herzog Geotechnical Engineers and AEI Consultants 

Living Wall: Planted Design

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