Although postwar California modernism is generally associated with Southern California, the Bay Area’s own tradition has begun in recent years to be more widely acknowledged, and its surviving treasures have gained an appreciative audience. San Francisco’s modernists were faced with the issue of building within a firmly established stylistic tradition—think bay windows and gingerbread. Henry Hill’s 1947 renovation of a 1908 Victorian tucked away on an alley in historic Russian Hill provides a remarkable response to the dilemma.
Upon completion of Harvard’s graduate design program under Walter Gropius in 1937, the English-born Hill returned to Berkeley, California, and worked extensively with John Ekin Dinwiddie, one of San Francisco’s modernist pioneers. After World War II—during which Hill served in London assessing damage from bombing run photographs—he and Dinwiddie went into practice for a brief period with the progressive German architect Erich Mendelsohn. By 1948 Hill was in business for himself and had established himself as an architect capable of seamlessly melding the traditions of European modernism with an almost laid-back Californian sensibility. Landscape architect Robert Royston, who once shared an office with Hill on Clay Street, paints the picture: “It was wonderful, he would show up to work with the top down on his car, with a great Beethoven or Britten symphony playing on his radio.”
In 2005, Gretchen Rice and Kevin Farnham acquired the unique home. Prior to that the couple lived only a few blocks away but, according to Farnham, “couldn’t believe that something like this existed in our neighborhood.” The two had pretty much written off San Francisco’s real estate market, but over the course of one weekend—when Farnham accidentally stumbled upon the listing on a website—everything changed. “I knew right then that I was in trouble,” recounts Farnham of walking into the house for the first time. “I had never really encountered a house in San Francisco that I actually wanted. I knew I had to have this.”
The home’s exterior is so modest you could walk by it a hun-dred times without a second glance, but open the oversized orange door and you are engulfed by an unexpected new world. “It’s a pronounced experience,” says Farnham of Hill’s sweeping design statement. A slight series of stairs angles lazily up to the home’s main level. Tongue-and-groove mahogany paneling elegantly cloaks the walls. A long waist-high horizontal built-in, a fireplace, and embedded hi-fi speaker (remember that in 1947 we’re talking mono), extends back to the façade and its wall of opaque glass. And then there are the atriums: Near the stairs, in the corner between the dining area and kitchen, and along one whole wall of the living area, these magnificent volumetric voids dazzle the eye and flood the otherwise enclosed space with light and plant life.
Impressive as Hill’s great room was, the home’s downstairs had little going for it. Designer John Randolph, whom Farnham and Rice have since commissioned to tackle a handful of domestic projects, even describes a “double happiness” symbol etched in the decaying floor. Almost immediately, Farnham set about updating the space. He hired Jeff Thomasson, a contractor now “on a semipermanent retainer,” to tackle the lighting, walls, and flooring, and commissioned Atlas Industries to wrap the room with its modular shelving and storage. Eventually Atlas also designed the custom wet bar and bar, furnishing CAD drawings for Thomasson to follow. Seated on an expansive Patricia Urquiola sofa, Rice claims it’s “the ultimate man palace.” (However, she has been known to take in more than the occasional NFL game.)
“I spend 80 percent of my time down here,” admits the tech, media, and design junkie Farnham. Whether it’s behind the bar mixing an eclectic array of cocktails, navigating TiVo through the evening’s NBA proceedings, or keeping up with work at the “wired to the teeth” computer station, the downstairs space is a physical extension of Farnham’s character (which surely includes the grill just outside the back door). While the couple is investigating if the home can be raised to accommodate a parking space or considering the possibility of a small additional story, Hill’s design is in good hands. “I’m basically future-proofing the house,” Farnham explains.