A new life for a midcentury house in San Carlos

While homes developed by Joseph Eichler have become synonymous with a particular Bay Area midcentury modern style, there are plenty of good examples of the style without that brand name. One such 1949 house in San Carlos has been resurrected by San Francisco architect John Klopf for its latest owners, a couple with a young child. The house is essentially new but uses the original architecture’s wonderful sense of seclusion and connection to the outdoors as a springboard.
 
 
“That was really the best decision we made, to use John as our architect for the remodel,” says homeowner Susan Wang. “The house turned out way better than we hoped.”
 
Wang and her husband, James Czaja, bought the 1,880-square foot, two-bedroom house in 2014. The two patent attorneys didn’t pick the house because they were particular fans of midcentury architecture; they made a pragmatic choice after going to countless open houses over three years in the region’s competitive real estate market.
 
 
While they did like the home’s 10-foot-high ceilings and outdoor spaces, it was also obvious that it needed a lot of love. The living room had a wall of raw plywood paneling over the windows to the backyard, the kitchen and baths were original (not in a good way), and the aging structure was deteriorating. The house had been “badly remodeled into oblivion,” says Klopf.
 
Klopf, who has remodeled numerous Eichlers and midcentury homes, proposed a do-over that would retain the qualities of the original. The house had an unusual layout that was designed to optimize privacy. The original, unknown architect had come came up with clever variation on a traditional courtyard house, turning the home so that the front door faced the side courtyard and creating a separate garage to shelter the house from the street.
 
 
Klopf gave the house a gut renovation: He retained the home’s original footprint and kept its foundation, which had built-in radiant heating, along with most of the exterior framing and roof framing. But he then reworked the floor plan for greater openness. He also turned one of the two bathrooms into a master bath (to create a master suite), put in glass doors where there had previously been windows, and added more skylights to maximize natural lighting. The two facing sides of the living room open up almost entirely, making it feel like a giant pavilion. The backyard, by landscape design firm Growsgreen, is designed to be an outdoor living and dining room.
 
The architect also pulled the kitchen forward and created a pantry and separate laundry room behind it. “There’s not much of a view to the side of the house, so it made more sense to close it off and add a skylight to bring light into the kitchen instead [of a window],” says Knopf.
 
 
 
With its big island, the open kitchen is designed to accommodate the couple’s love of cooking and baking. However, there are no upper cabinets; Wang, who is 5-foot-2, wouldn’t be able to reach them.
 
Despite its inward-facing layout, the house still has a friendly street presence, thanks to the architect’s generous use of natural wood. Says Klopf, “With a modern house, you can go one way or the other: You can go super-cool and industrial, or you can go more natural.” He clad nearly the entire house in horizontal cedar siding, finished with a clear coat so that the warmth of the material shows through.
 
 
“To be honest, I didn’t pay that much attention to the plan, so I didn’t realize it was going to be all cedar,” laughs Wang. “But people walking by compliment us on it all the time.”
 
Along with his parents, Julien, age 7, has discovered the joys of living in a modern house. His favorite aspect? How the living room opens to the backyard: “I can run in and out,” he says.
 
Lydia Lee is a San Francisco freelance writer. Email: home@sfchronicle.com
 
Indoor-Outdoor Architecture
 
 
Klopf’s firm has drawn up plans for more than 150 Eichler and midcentury renovations. Here are some of his tips for modernizing them.
 
Use glass doors instead of windows wherever feasible. “Even when they are closed, the doors allow a lot of view,” says Klopf. The living room opens to the backyard via an accordion-folding glass door system from Western Door & Windows; the 8-foot-high doors are taller than a standard door.
 
 
 
Add small decks. Klopf put wooden decking next to sections of the house where there are glass doors, creating an effect where the wood floor indoors continues through to the outside. He used the same wooden decking for the landing next to the front door.
 
Avoid changing the material of a wall, ceiling, or floor as it passes between indoors and out. “Even painting the same ceiling a different color inside and outside reduces the feeling of continuity,” says Klopf.
 
Take windows right to the edge. Designing windows flush with the edges of walls and corners eliminates dark areas and reduces the contrast between interior and exterior. This is also true for skylights; the kitchen is brightly lit thanks to a long skylight aligned with the backsplash. “The light washes right straight down the wall with no shadow lines, for a nice even quality,” the architect says.

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