Halfway through a pregnancy isn’t exactly the ideal time to buy a house. So after spending months scouting San Francisco’s Victorians and turnkey cookie-cutters—and almost defecting to the East Bay—Lorena Siminovich and Esteban Kerner decided to put the hunt on hold until after their baby was born. But then one afternoon Kerner, a design director with Old Navy, logged on to Craigslist on a whim. He saw a below-market listing for a single-family home in Noe Valley, their neighborhood of choice.
With crumbly brick cladding, peeling rust-brown paint, and rotting garage doors, the house lacked curb appeal. But the Argentine couple was drawn to the interior. “It was amazing and strange at the same time,” says Kerner of the 1,485-square-foot, multilevel, mid-century maze. “Mind-boggling,” adds Siminovich. “It was just a knot of doors and a series of insane stairs to nowhere.”
Owned by an elderly woman who hadn’t updated a thing since 1955, the house wasn’t staged in the slightest. “It had grandma’s furniture and musty rugs,” says Siminovich. Still, the couple recognized its potential. “We knew it was a diamond in the rough,” says Kerner. “But it was rough.” Such a fixer-upper, in fact, that despite the under-a-million asking price (a rarity in the neighborhood), the only other bids were from flippers.
For this duo, though, even with a baby on the way, it was a no-brainer. As the founder of Petit Collage, a line of vintage-inspired wall decor and accessories for children, Siminovich knew that she and Kerner were up to the challenge. “We’d finally found a house we could make our own,” Kerner says. “At Old Navy we strive to make the best clothes for the least amount of money; you know, give fashion to those who can’t afford it. That’s what simple mid-century modern like this is all about: quality design for the masses.”
Having sunk most of their savings into buying the house and with little money left for the actual renovation, the first thing they cut from their budget was a general contractor. “We sourced all of the materials ourselves, comparison shopped, selected every knob and paint color, and coordinated everything: the plumber, the electrician, the drywall guy,” says Kerner. “It was crazy! All-consuming.”
They did, however, need an architect. Most architects they interviewed struck them as standoffish—and even paranoid. “They didn’t want to offer any ideas. They seemed afraid we would steal them and then not hire them or something,” says Siminovich. Christi Azevedo made a different impression. “Christi was so down to earth. And she fell in love with the house immediately! She couldn’t sleep the night she first saw it. The next morning she sent us a sketch and we were like, ‘Wow, she is a genius.’”
Good thing, as it would take an adept spatial thinker to resolve the home’s five-level, one-bath, three-bedroom puzzle. “It was the craziest frickin’ thing,” laughs Azevedo. “It was like a Tetris game, putting it all together, trying to squeak out space wherever we could.” Which is exactly what they did—and in just three months.
Azevedo’s plan involved “blowing a hole in the center of the house” and creating a continuous stairwell to replace the multiple half flights that led to individual rooms. As a cost-saving measure, they picked up the existing staircase and rotated it 90 degrees. By working some stair wizardry and consolidating the laundry room, furnace, and water heater into a crawl space, Azevedo managed to carve out a small hallway, landing, and a relatively whopping four-by-nine-foot guest bathroom.
Meanwhile, Siminovich’s first priority was the kitchen, which she describes as “dark, dated, and Mad Men–like” (and not in a good way). So they gutted the room, knocked down a wall that had enclosed it, and replaced the original mahogany plywood cabinets and brown-tiled countertop with white cabinetry from Ikea. With an open plan, Siminovich and Kerner can now see all the way through the living room’s floor-to-ceiling grid of windows to the backyard and keep an eye on two-year-old Matilda as she plays.
The other major goal was to transform the dungeonlike laundry room into Matilda’s room, but there were obstacles. One wall was rough concrete, and waste piping protruded from another—hardly babyproof. Rather than box out the pipes and suck up space, Azevedo suggested they hire Norodd Wellman to build custom cabinets around them. They added insulation, drywall, carpet, and a long window overlooking the backyard. And, suddenly—accented by Siminovich’s cheery artwork—Matilda’s room went from scary to sweet.
In the new bathroom, installing the toilet sideways freed up more space for the vanity, an Ikea hack made of three chopped-up Akurum kitchen cabinets with Abstrakt doors. They also redid the 13-by-4.5-foot master bath, wall-mounting a toilet, installing a four-foot-long Kohler tub to maximize space, and splurging on custom cabinetry with solid walnut doors. “It’s easy to do a large master bath in a large house,” says Azevedo. “But in this house, to try and create a space for the baby to bathe while Kerner shaves was much trickier. To figure out this whole house, really…it was fun.”
“Fun” isn’t the first word Siminovich and Kerner would use to describe their breakneck three-month renovation. “I’d call our approach guerrilla-style. And I wouldn’t advise it,” Siminovich warns, smiling but not joking. Now that it’s all over, though, this busy family of three couldn’t be happier in their four-bedroom, two-bath home. “We still have so many ideas!” she says. “We just need to save more money. That’s what we do: Save, then renovate. Save, then renovate.”
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Design and restoration firm Architectural Orchestra shared this playground they built near Lopota Lake in Georgia. Based in Tbilisi, the creative team used a combination of colorful geometric shapes and simple wood slats to create a playful space where children can imagine themselves as fairytale heroes.
It took nine months before Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers fully realized what they’d actually purchased in Harbor Springs, Michigan. “We saw this white house listed on the Internet with a lot of glass looking out at the lake,” says Myers, who, along with her husband, had searched for years for a waterfront property. They scouted lake houses and talked about beachfront property in New Jersey and Delaware. “But we kept going back to the Harbor Springs house,” she recalls. “The price kept going down when prices everywhere else were going up.” So they traveled to Lake Michigan to see it in person.
They knew about the basics of architecture and modernism, but they were only vaguely aware of Richard Meier. All they really knew was how deeply they wanted the house. At 3,200 square feet, it was set among the trees on the steep side of a cliff, commanding views over a turquoise lake and 970 feet of private beach. The 1973 home had issues, but McCarthy, an engineer by training, cataloged them all and used the information to negotiate a lower price. The house had been renovated once before, in 1988, but it was structurally sound. Looking for yet more information before they bought the house, McCarthy decided to contact the three previous owners. That was when he began to discern the home’s pedigree.
Friends started to rave about their purchase. Architects and professors began knocking on their door, requesting tours. “That’s when we realized that what we’d gotten was an American masterpiece,” Myers says. The structure, known as the Douglas House, was conceived in the late 1960s when Jim and Jean Douglas of Grand Rapids reached out to Meier after seeing his 1967 Smith House on a magazine cover. “I wanted a Bauhaus sort of a house, very open,” Jim Douglas recalls. “We didn’t put any parameters on him because architects do their best work when they do it the way they want.”
The house was originally planned for a different site located in a development. But when they discussed exterior paint with a homeowners’ association, white was rejected as a color. That didn’t sit well with Meier, or with the Douglases. “[The homeowners’ association] wanted it to be beige,” Douglas recalls. “I got angry.” Client and architect decided against the site. Then the Douglases found a waterfront lot with three sides facing Lake Michigan. “It was very private and completely covered in trees—from the road you could see the lake. No one else could figure out how to build there,” Richard Meier recalls. “It took me quite a while to do it.”
He began by calling for a series of 16-inch round pilings, telephone poles really, to be pounded deep into sand and shale and fly in succession up the cliff to support the house. Where the entry to the Smith House had been at ground level, here it was via a bridge from road to rooftop. The Smith House is experienced as an ascent; Douglas is about a cascade down. It’s largely experienced inside, where the glass facade meets water views. “The parti is to close down the entry side and open up the water side,” Meier explains. “The whole experience is about opacity to transparency.”
It’s a notion explored earlier by the modern masters. “In my generation, everyone was influenced by Aalto and Wright and Corbusier,” Meier says. “[The Douglas House] has a separation of skin and structure, and uses the rooftop as an entranceway, and those things are all Corbusier. I think our work on the Douglas House relates back to modernism—it’s not isolated, but it is part of the continuum. Our work is not created in a vacuum.”
“In the 1960s and 1970s, to almost everyone at Princeton and Cornell [Meier’s alma mater], Le Corbusier was almost the Apostle Paul,” says North Carolina–based architect Frank Harmon, who worked in Meier’s office at the time the Douglas House was constructed. Tod Williams, who was Meier’s project architect for Douglas, agrees: “Richard saw himself as interpreting Le Corbusier. He was making his own mark by looking back at Le Corbusier’s work.”
“It’s about the way you walk in and what you see in a cinematic way,” says architect Henry Smith-Miller, a former Meier employee. “At one moment, it puts you out into the lake, cantilevered out via this great leap of faith. I think because of this that Douglas is probably Richard Meier’s best house.”
But when its newest owners visited it in 2007, they hardly shared Smith-Miller’s impression. “It was obvious that the property had been on the market for years,” McCarthy says. “There were dead bugs, a musty smell, a collapsing ceiling in the kitchen, fogged glass, and a sagging bridge. The steel windows were rusted; the floors had water damage and some buckling.” But the couple was undeterred.Once they’d bought it, they called Meier’s office in New York. The architect suggested that if they intended to modify the building they might consider hiring his firm. “But he said if we were going to restore it, we’d be better off using local engineers,” says McCarthy, who did a bit of both by assembling a team to move forward while at the same time striking up an informal relationship with then Meier employee and Michigan native Michael Trudeau.
If the couple had questions, they’d call Trudeau, who’d get answers from Meier. “They’re impeccably cognizant of keeping the original design,” Trudeau says. This went on for four years. The team removed the original steel awning windows, sandblasted and powder-coated each one, then reinstalled them with thermal glass and hardware from the original supplier. They replaced and painted the redwood siding its original “Meier White,” then added a steel backbone to the bridge. HVAC systems were replaced with energy-efficient equipment. They even reupholstered a Meier-designed sofa for the living room.With the renovation now mostly complete, the couple has reached out to state and national preservation organizations about the home’s future. “We had no idea what we were getting into—but this is a keeper,” McCarthy says. “Our role is to restore it and maintain it for America.”
Forty years after its creation, the Douglas House has returned to its original intent—an architectural experience that moves the visitor through an exploration of inside and outside spaces. “The same is true in the Farnsworth House and Fallingwater,” says Meier. “The idea was there from the beginning—it’s about the making of space and how to articulate it.”
In the shadow of Mount McKinley, amid Alaska’s meadows and icy streams, a former teacher and a four-time Iditarod winner built a modernist cabin as expansive as the Last Frontier.
Tens of thousands of years ago, a glacier slid its way through southern Alaska and carved out the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Bound by three massive mountain ranges and dotted with lakes, it’s an unabashedly wild place. Hundred-pound cabbages flourish in endless summer sunshine, caribou outnumber people, and towering Mount McKinley presides over it all. “You can go 1000 miles here without crossing a road,” says Martin Buser. “Most people can’t grasp that kind of freedom.” A four-time winner of the Iditarod—the grueling dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome—Buser spends his days crisscrossing the landscape with his dogs. So, for his dream home with his wife, Kathy Chapoton, there was no question that the spectacularly rugged setting needed to be the driving force behind the design.
The story of how the couple met and found the site is typically Alaskan. Chapoton moved from New Orleans to Anchorage in 1979, at a time when the state government let people claim land for pennies as a way of getting back tax dollars. Soon after relocating, she joined a group of friends one day in early January to stake out the five acres allowed to each person. “It was 50 below zero, my teeth were frozen, I didn’t even know how to read a compass, and I had to walk around and literally mark the parcel,” she says. “It was hilarious.” Registering her claim at the office in Anchorage, she bumped into Buser, a recent Swiss transplant, and the two married not long after.
For 20 years, the growing family (sons Nicolai and Rohn are named after Iditarod checkpoints) lived in a large house that Buser built on the land, adjacent to the kennel where his hundred-odd dogs reside. In 1996, a wildfire swept through the area: “It was pretty ugly,” remembers Chapoton. As a result, people started selling off their nearby plots, and the couple snatched up 25 additional acres—including a mountaintop site that they had been eyeing for years. “It was the primo lot,” says Chapoton.
Buser built a little cabin on the top of the mountain as a weekend retreat, but the combination of killer views and the couple finding themselves empty nesters convinced the pair to make that site their permanent home. They moved the cabin by truck to a nearby site (son Rohn lives there now) and called on architects Petra Sattler-Smith and Klaus Mayer of Anchorage firm Mayer Sattler-Smith to design a house. Though Buser had built several homes, the couple knew this site deserved something special. “Because of the multitude of views, we couldn’t take advantage of the site ourselves. We knew our limitations,” Chapoton says.
Everything about the 2,450-square-foot house centers on the natural setting. “It was important to have every room look to Mount McKinley, which is the ultimate view in Alaska,” says Mayer. To do so, the architects created a long, lean, L-shaped house. The blackened, local spruce cladding pays homage to the area’s wildfire, while also mimicking a glacial erratic—a nonnative rock deposited by a moving glacier. The courtyard and part of the kitchen are slightly offset, following the lines of the site’s hilltop topography, while the rest of the house points directly to Denali National Park and Mount McKinley.
Inside, the walls are paneled in Alaskan yellow cedar, as if the charred exterior has been peeled back to reveal glowing, living wood inside. The public areas lie in one long sight line that starts in the courtyard outside, streams through the living and dining rooms and kitchen, and slips out onto the northern horizon through a wall of sliding glass. The other side of the L contains he bedrooms and bathrooms, each with its own framed outlook on Mount McKinley. Windows in the hallway and in the family room face south to let in extra sun during darker winter days. There’s also a rooftop deck, perfect for the family’s many parties—where friends grill mooseburgers and take in the star-filled sky and 360-degree views of the mountains.
Lest the house seem too fancy for these frontier surroundings, it’s important to remember that Buser built the place himself over six years. Here, there are no construction codes in rural areas (“Building permit?” scoffs Buser. “What’s that?!”), and people prefer sweat equity to bank loans or subcontractors. “When Alaskans say they’re building a house, it means we’re swinging a hammer, digging in the dirt, and trimming it out,” says Buser. Yet, this DIY ethos meant that Buser’s solutions were sometimes those of a would-be MacGyver. He and Chapoton charred the cladding using a weed burner and a garden hose; the 800-pound glass doors were lifted into place using Buser’s rigging of dogsled runners, pulleys, and brute strength; and he sliced open two birch trees to make the dining room table.
At the end of a typical day, Buser comes home from an 80-mile dogsled ride as the last rays of sun linger on the mountains. Inside, Chapoton (now retired from teaching) whips up a salmon meal for ten, and the gregarious couple shares wine with friends around a crackling fireplace. When everyone’s left, Buser and Chapoton will tuck into their bed, watching the vivid hues of the northern lights dance through the windows. Says Chapoton of her love of the house, “Maybe Einstein said it most simply: ‘Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.’