Case Study: Presidio Heights Residence by Nick Noyes Architecture

Not far from the Presidio—a national park and Historic Landmark District at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge—San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood is no less charming than it was during its infancy in the early 1900s. Although Victorian, Colonial Revival, and Shingle styles make an appearance, many of the houses here are an eclectic mix that defies easy categorization. That was true of this project, most likely built soon after the 1906 earthquake and fire. One of the first houses in the neighborhood, its side entry suggests an adjacent lot may have belonged to it. 

Three stories tall, the pleasingly symmetrical red-brick-and-cement-plaster façade had just a few ornamental flourishes on the windows and cornices. The front elevation rises behind a protruding one-story garage, which was topped with an awkward-looking wall meant to add curb appeal. Inside, the original details were anyone’s guess, because a house fire had destroyed most of the rooms when the owners first saw it. They’d been planning to remodel a different house with Nick Noyes Architecture when this one came up for sale. Because Presidio Heights is a sought-after, family-friendly neighborhood, this couple with three small children could look past the obvious challenges.

Chief among them was the smell of burnt wood. While the historic front and side façades could not be changed, the architects gutted the interior, leaving very little of the framed floor plan. “It was a collective effort to reimagine what this house could be, because there wasn’t much left,” says Nick Noyes, FAIA. “It behooved us to get serious about how they wanted to live in this house.”

Without a clear precedent for easing it into the 21st century, the architects were guided by the clients’ wishes to improve the outdoor connections and to evoke the feeling, if not the fit, of a family house of that era: “spare but with enough detail to give it some substance,” Nick says. The renovation expertly straddles that line, starting with the freshened exterior.  The old windows were replaced in kind. Creamy white paint unifies the façade, as does an enlarged, light-colored wood garage door and wood parapet around the garage roof perimeter. “The unpainted brick was pretty heavy and ponderous,” Nick says. “The clients wanted a simpler look, not featuring the clinker brick and exposed wood and beams. And the brick at the garage was probably done in a different era than the house, so there were two different kinds of bricks. We repaired the fire damage to the wood trim and brackets, and then painted it a monochromatic soft white that blends all the detail away into a handsome composition. A lot of neighboring houses also have simple paint jobs.” Another streamlining gesture was to extend the garage’s brick front wall horizontally to create an inviting arched opening that echoes the side porch main entrance, reached through the garden and up a flight of stairs.

Floor-to-floor connections are processed differently today than they were a century ago. The renovation’s most transformative move was to replace the meager stairwell with a more assertive one that rises four stories from the basement to the third floor. A big skylight at the top funnels light down to the lowest level. That staircase set the tone for the architectural detailing throughout the house. It’s a well-crafted statement piece that is neither minimalist nor decorative. “In its conception it’s a slight nod to the Shakers,” Nick says. “We detailed it in a way that we didn’t have to add a lot of ornament. The vertical railings are just square, and the handrail is as simple as can be with 8-by-8 corner posts. By painting it a different color, it stands out.”

At the very bottom of the stairwell, the architects excavated about 2 feet of earth behind the garage to create taller spaces for a new mudroom, media room, gym, bath, and storage. Upstairs, the central entry hall opens to the first-floor family spaces. Although the floor plan on this level is similar to the original, it is now more open to the outdoors. The living room has a view of the new south terrace atop the garage, which is part of the entry experience. On the north side of the entry hall is a lounge-like kitchen and dining room, where a 21-foot-wide sliding door system opens to a large backyard terrace with a barbecue area and specimen redwood tree. 

“When you came into the old house, you never got a view toward the back garden and the front street at the same time,” Nick says. “We made this direct link from the entry foyer to the living room facing south and looking north through the kitchen/family room. You immediately understand that there is a southern exposure and a northern exposure out to the garden.”

Upstairs is the primary suite along with two offices, a laundry, and an en-suite guest room with a purple-upholstered seat in a window bay. The attic level, outlined in sharp angles and alcoves that express the roof shape, provides an imaginative setting for the three children’s bedrooms and a playroom open to the grand, skylit staircase. 

As the point of entry, the front porch starts a conversation that echoes through the house. The architects left the brick on the porch floor unpainted and added a custom wood curtain wall painted the same dark color as the stair, “to keep the entry warm and detailed,” Nick says. Inside, that color reappears on the living room’s paneling and box beams, giving it some gravitas for formal use but also grounding it for cozy family gatherings around the game table or TV.  “We like to do colors where you can’t quite tell what it is; the stairway looks almost black, but in the downstairs mudroom it looks like there’s some blue in it, depending on the light coming in,” Nick says. “There was not one style we were trying to mimic, but we wanted to do a slightly more modern take on a traditional set of details and make it as elegant as we could.” 

With its strong connection to the backyard, the kitchen moves in an airier direction. White kitchen cabinets form a quiet backdrop to a clear-oak island and quartzite countertop. In the lounge area of this space, a custom oak window seat looks out on the covered front porch. Oak was also used for the house’s radiant-heated floors (stained with a bit of whitewash) and second-floor guest bath vanity, which is turned out in oak slats and rounded corners. 

In the primary bath, too, the architects kept things modern, with a touch of glam. A marble-slab vanity top and marble flooring contribute the requisite richness, while the shower’s vertically laid ceramic tile is graphically expressed with larger horizontal joint lines.

These well-thought-out details work their way into the soul of the house, bridging the distance between the traditional building and what is undoubtedly a better version of itself. “Whenever I go there, the big door at the kitchen is open so that it becomes an indoor-outdoor room with three kids running in and out,” Nick says, adding, “The clients were very involved with every color and material, and we had a great contractor. I think from their point of view it was very successful.”

Presidio Heights Residence

San Francisco

Architect: Nick Noyes, FAIA, principal in charge; Michael Perkins, project architect, Nick Noyes Architecture, San Francisco

Builder: Cairn Construction, San Francisco

Structural engineer: GFDS Engineers, San Francisco

Interior designer: Brittany Giannone, ABD Studio, San Francisco

Landscape architect: Alexis Woods, Alexis Woods Landscape Design, San Francisco

Art consultant: Elizabeth Rose Jackson, Elizabeth Rose Jackson Interior, San Anselmo, California

Project size: 6,095 square feet

Site size: 0.15 acre

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Suzanna Scott Photography

Cabinetry: West Summit Cabinetry

Countertops: Caesarstone, marble, quartzite

Entry doors: Foxtail Hill Windows & Doors, Folger + Burt

Faucets: Kallista, Waterworks

Fence: Accoya

Kitchen Appliances: Miele Garage door cladding: Accoya

HVAC system: Fujitsu (primary bedroom mini-split)

Lighting: Bega (outdoor)

Lighting control system: Lutron

Outdoor grill: Lynx

Paint: Benjamin Moore

Passage doors/hardware: TruStile, Emtek

Sinks: Rohl

Sliding door: Weiland by Andersen

Thermal barrier: CAT 5 Liquid Applied

Toilets: TOTO

Windows: Marvin