A Historic Saloon Gains New Life as an Airy Courtyard Home in San Francisco

A thoughtful redesign transforms a difficult Historic Resource property into a light-filled sanctuary for entertaining, gardening, and play.
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When San Francisco–based architect Ryan Leidner was approached by a couple with two young children looking to develop a new home in the Mission District, he was immediately intrigued by two things: the clients’ desire for a collaborative working relationship, and the unusual opportunity to construct a home from scratch in the city.

"The project brief called for adding a ground-up structure, which is very rare in San Francisco, making the project very compelling, especially as the new building would share a site with a building from 1885," says Ryan, referring to the lot’s run-down Italianate-style commercial corner structure that had originally been used as a saloon and had seen other commercial uses over the years.

The garden courtyard is the first space the owners experience when entering from the street.

"The darker, midnight blue exterior paint color was used on all of the existing building elements to create more of a dynamic contrast with the new structure, which was painted white," says Ryan. Tomatoes, little gem lettuce, green beans, a tobacco plant, and a few strawberry bushes (tended by the kids) grow in the courtyard.

Although the compact property was large enough to accommodate a second structure in the rear, the existing 19th-century building is classified as a Historic Resource—it's one of the oldest single-story commercial properties in the Mission. This imposed strict restrictions on not only alterations to the exterior of the former saloon, but also on the height and footprint of the new construction, which had to be set back far enough to preserve a certain amount of open space between the two buildings.

The old building's horizontal siding is echoed in the new construction. The siding on the Back House is a custom profile made with a product called Extira, and the siding on the Front House is a painted wood siding.

Fortunately, the clients welcomed the legally designated open space as an opportunity to indulge in their love of gardening and outdoor entertaining. "In early discussions, we were able to align really quickly on a vision for the property, and the indoor/outdoor lifestyle that we could create with the central courtyard space connecting the two structures," notes Ryan.

"The custom profile painted siding echoes the typical horizontal lap siding seen throughout the neighborhood while playing with scale," says Ryan. "Also, the extruded white oak window boxes on the new structure give a nod to the more traditional approach to window casings while making them more three dimensional."

A view of the newly constructed modern Back House seen from the street. Custom redwood fencing wraps around the home.

Since the changes to the exterior of the historic building were limited to repainting and replacing windows in-kind, Ryan and the clients took cues from the existing structure to inform the rest of the design.

The mitered glass window on the southwest corner of the new building is a nod to the entryway on the southwest corner of the existing building.

"The existing building has a very distinct butterfly roof profile in section," explains Ryan. "In the early design phases we considered echoing that form in the new structure, but found that any attempt to do so seemed to undermine the historic building, whereas a clean, minimal box allowed both structures to have their own identities in a more deferential way."

"I find that what's so appealing about old Victorian trim detail is how it casts shadows, and so we played with that idea in the detailing of the new house, creating rhythm with the shadow lines of the lap siding and the window extrusions," notes Ryan.

"Also, the existing building had a lot of ornamentation (cornice, window moldings, etc.) that reflect the care that went into the construction and appearance of the building. My approach to the new building was to echo that level of care—not with ornamentation—but with clear design intentions, whether that be precise alignments of windows and siding layouts or refined trim details and elements like the flush garage door."

Lift-and-slide doors open the ground-floor living space up to the outdoor courtyard. The exposed concrete floor of the interior is echoed in the courtyard by linear concrete pavers to emphasize indoor/outdoor living.

Space for entertaining was important to the couple, who wanted a home they could share with friends.

Precise planning was also key in making the most of the new construction’s compact 1,320-square-foot size. As a "home in two parts," the new two-story building would house the private areas, while the remodeled 1,075-square-foot front building would be used for social functions. Bedroom sizes were kept to a minimum in the newly built Back House to allow for a spacious ground-floor living area that connects seamlessly to the courtyard and the Front House through glazed sliding doors.

In addition to housing the garage, the ground floor features an open living room, a dining area and kitchen, a half bath, and a flush wall of cabinetry for storage.

Ryan Leidner designed the kitchen island/dining table, which was built by a cabinetmaker out of white oak plywood and Neolith countertops.

The corner window bathes the master bedroom in natural light, while exposed rafters and bleached Douglas Fir floors lend a sense of warmth.

A light well funnels light and fresh air into the nursery.

The light well also brings light into the hallway.

Named the Harrison St. House after its location, the home adds not only a modern counterpoint to the Mission’s historic context, but renewed street interest. The property’s corner location provided an opportunity for the architect to replace parts of the sidewalk with planting beds—an extension of the interior courtyard—that are taken care of by the homeowners and help soften the custom redwood fencing that wraps around the home.

"While the house enjoys its inner garden and cloister-like character, a major aim of the project was to give back to the neighborhood through the creation of a public green space along the property line," says Ryan. "To do so, large sections of the sidewalk around the house were removed and converted to lush planting beds, which the owners tend."

The existing wood structure and ceiling of the former saloon were completely refinished, and the exposed rafters were painted white for a brighter and more spacious feel. The old windows, floors, and finishes were replaced to create consistency with the new house.

The living room of the remodeled Front House is furnished with an Extrasoft sofa by Piero Lissoni. The coffee table is part of the Nomad Collection by Jacob May Design in collaboration with Heath Ceramics.

The dining table and storage system were made by the clients' good friend, Anthony Zollo of Studio Zollo. The dining chairs are Fredericia's J39 chair by Borge Mogensen.

The ground floor of the Front House holds an onsen-inspired bathroom with an outdoor tub/shower that faces the courtyard and "encourages relaxation and the spirit of communal bathing."

A whimsical hand-painted mural by local painter Rob Moss Wilson livens up the bathroom adjoining the outdoor tub.

Harrison St. House Back House Drawing

Harrison St. House Back House floor plans

Harrison St. House Back House elevations

Related Reading: 

10 Modern San Francisco Homes

This Beachside Pad in San Francisco Is the Stuff of Surfers' Dreams

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Ryan Leidner Architecture / @ryanleidner

Builder/ General Contractor: Sykches Construction

Structural Engineer: Sung Engineering


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