Modern Victorian House Preservation in Oakland

Mike McDonald, an Oakland, California–based builder, faced a common problem for Bay Area homeowners: an aesthetically pleasing, historically significant, but structurally shaky Victorian.
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Mike McDonald, an Oakland, California–based builder, faced a common problem for Bay Area homeowners: an aesthetically pleasing, historically significant, but structurally shaky Victorian. A full renovation was in order, as was a solid fix to a fragile foundation. With a boom of new construction afoot in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood—a good indicator is the Whole Foods under construction a few blocks away—McDonald wanted to both preserve the charm of his 1892 abode and make an architectural gesture that would firmly plant the 115-year-old building in the 21st century. He also needed new shared office space for his construction company, McDonald Construction and Building, and oft-collaborator, designer, and architect-to-be Ian Read’s Level Four Studio. Finding an answer to McDonald’s problems would require a little heavy lifting.

Oakland, California, doesn’t want for stately old Victorian houses, but heritage and zoning regulations often make them tough to renovate, particularly if you have an aesthetic depar-ture in mind. By raising the house, Mike McDonald was able to preserve the façade and create a modern new office space below.

Ian Read wanted the addition to reflect the time in which it was constructed, not the Victorian times in which the house was erected. The industrially styled doors situate the office space squarely in the 21st century.

"My company has done about a dozen lifts in Oakland in the last five years or so," McDonald says. He’s not talk-ing about free weights, or English elevators, but raising entire houses. "To lift a house, you slide two big steel I-beams under the length of the house, put hydraulic jacks under them, and press the ‘up’ button," he quips. Naturally it’s not quite that simple—a matrix of braces and no small amount of digging go into the process—but with an experienced house mover, it’s not as difficult as one may think. Though a vertical move was clearly in order, the house got a lateral adjustment as well. "It was a major chiropractic job," says McDonald, "the house was leaning about a foot toward the neighbor’s place."

Read in his office.

The McDonalds enjoy the extra space afforded by their attic addition.

The foundation needed replacing, and with no fireplace or exterior set of stairs to be saved, lifting made good structural and financial sense—you can see your own house on pylons for as little as $5,000. Raising the house about four feet and digging out another four feet below created space for the shared office and garage to tuck snugly beneath his Victorian.  

The kitchen looks toward Read's house.

The custom banister is a constant and classy reminder of the crafty designer, who is also godfather to the McDonalds' daughter, Erin.

The office space is rough and spare, a clear allusion to its jarring origins, with exposed concrete walls and steel  exterior doors with clear-coated steel cladding. Read, who designed the office and the renovations to the residential units above, parses the design aesthetic like this: "It was only by lifting and excavating that the studio space was created—with this in mind we decided to construct the lower level in contrast to the existing Victorian." He wanted the new level to reflect the separation, both physically and aesthetically, from the original house, as well as the time period in which it was built.  "The best description I can give is a beautiful scar," he adds.

Though the new 1,200 square feet of office and parking space do the trick for now, McDonald has grander plans for the spot. "For the foreseeable future, we see this as our office space," he says. "But we did have it outfitted and permitted as a café. We saw it as potentially a cool little neighborhood wine bar or espresso bar if we ever move on." Boasting the rough elements of a café or a live/work space (how many two-man offices have a shower and the bones of a small commercial kitchen?), McDonald saw flexibility as key to Read’s design.  

Though he plans to move into a new home in North Oakland—to be one of California’s first LEED-certified homes—McDonald, his wife, Jill, and their two daughters currently live in one of the two newly renovated upstairs units. "We weren’t even planning to live here, and at the beginning I was not looking forward to it," says Jill, anxious about being downtown and without a backyard. She soon changed her mind. Read lives next door with his wife in an as-yet unlifted, soon-to-be-remodeled Victorian of his own and Jennifer Strate O’Neal—curatorial manager of Creative Growth, a studio for artists with disabilities just across the street—rents the first-floor unit where she lives with her two children. "We have our own little compound here," says Jill.     

Perhaps the biggest boon, and in some ways disappointment, of the McDonald’s residence is the additional 500-square-foot space upstairs, created from a converted attic. "We had grand ideas about the attic as a master bedroom," says Jill. "But with a three-year-old who still gets up at night, we didn’t want to be on a different floor. We have the space, but we don’t feel comfortable using it." The four McDonalds share two bedrooms and one bathroom on the first floor. "That one bathroom has become the family bathroom," says McDonald. "We got  a big bucket for the kids. That’s where we wash them."  

As the builder and the client, McDonald relied on a few time-tested methods for easing the strain on the pocketbook: the help of inventive friends, clever custom design, and—it almost goes without saying at this point—IKEA. "Ian was the real key to keeping the finishing costs down—his design is elegant yet simple, and he can build as well as he designs," he raves. Read managed to create what might just be the world’s most stylish baby gates, and pull off the unit’s coup de grâce, a bespoke banister and railing up to the attic/guest room that’s as attractive as it is childproof. Mounting a series of stained two-by-sixes on a custom steel pole, he created a railing system that gives the open living space considerable character and a kind of deconstructed Tudor appeal. Add a couple translucent panels to keep mobile moppets safely on the floor, and you’ve got childproof chic.

While McDonald only plans to stay in the house until the new space is done, his vision for it extends well into the future. "We knew the high-rises were coming, and we thought our place could be a collision of traditional and modern and a beacon in the neighborhood of what was."


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