By Erin Feher
Skeeter Jones is a historical preservationist who doesn’t necessarily believe that history always gets it right the first time. For this Victorian architecture expert, those candy-colored houses exploding with sunbursts and cornices and wrapped in winding balustrades were the result of art, not science. And for the last 35 years, Jones has been working as an artist disguised in a lab coat.
“Currently you have to fight the city to build anything Victorian—if there are too many new Victorian elements, they think it’s false historicism,” Jones says. “They prefer you just build a stucco box with aluminum windows. So I don’t tell them.”
One would think that a passionate expert and master craftsman with decades of experience in restoring one of the most enduring symbols of San Francisco would be a welcome presence at the planning offices, but that is not the case. According to Jones, as with so much in San Francisco, byzantine bureaucracy and a never-ending list of bylaws are snuffing out San Francisco’s signature architectural style. “But I still do it,” Jones says, “hidden in plain sight.”
For Jones, modernity isn’t the enemy. It’s the definition of what qualifies as modern that rankles him. Why can’t the Victorian style move forward with new iterations, as Bauhaus, deco, and even Craftsman have been permitted to do? It’s this enlightened view that allowed Jones to collaborate with Mark Jensen, a celebrated local architect who is solidly in the contemporary camp, on a home with an architecturally murky past located in historic Alamo Square.
The home was built in 1889 as a Stick style Victorian, common features of which were squared bay windows with vertical trim, a false mansard roof, and overhanging eaves with embellished trusses. But by the time Jones and Jensen came on board, the house had been stripped of all ornamentation and covered in nondescript shingles. While Jensen got to work thoroughly modernizing the interior and the rear facade, Jones started looking for “scars” or “shadows” of the details that had once been there, while dreaming up new ones where he thought improvements could be made.
Inside, Jensen and his team celebrated the old (generous ceiling heights and expansive front windows) and cleared out the obsolete, trading a warren of dark rooms for wide-open spaces on each floor, flooding the house with light through inventive cutouts in the floors and ceilings, and installing a three-story floating sculptural staircase clad in fumed oak. “On every floor the stair bends at a different angle—no two levels are the same. It was a super easy thing to sketch, a harder thing to draw, and a next-to-impossible thing to build,” says Jensen, who, at the owners’ request, incorporated sitting areas or window nooks on each level, making the stair more than just a circulation element. “There are interesting moments of pause along the way up, so you can hang out, sort of like you’re in a tree house.”
This theme is reinforced through the addition of a modern screen that casts leaflike shadows throughout the house. The rear of the building was completely opened up with floor-to-ceiling operable windows and a second layer of punctured aluminum sliders that open or close at the touch of a button. “It’s very James Bond,” Jensen says.
And while Jensen was going high-tech out back, Jones was keeping it old-school in front. Once he had sketched out his plan—which was based on old photos, inspection of neighboring buildings, and, well, a dose of whimsy—he set up an outdoor workshop on the sidewalk and started fabricating the pieces he would need for the home’s rebirth. (“Skeeter is one part faithful historian, one part jazz improvisationist,” Jensen says. “He riffs on it.”) “I can’t really be in the shop making brackets and parts. I need to be there looking at the house,” Jones says.
And while the two men worked in relative isolation and with stylistic autonomy from each other, the few moments of collaboration illustrated that there was an underlying harmony despite two very different aesthetics. “I thought they were going for really plain on the inside, so when it came to the detailing around the windows that would be visible from the interior, I asked if they wanted me to keep it simple,” Jones recalls. “They responded with, ‘No! We want anything you can throw onto it. Add it all!’”
And then there was the paint, which was Jensen’s jurisdiction. “Mark met with the color consultant and told me they picked the color,” Jones says. “Color? Singular? I am used to 17 colors. Which isn’t actually historically accurate. Originally, wood Victorian homes were painted very plain colors in order to mimic more expensive materials like stone.” According to Jones, houses didn’t go Technicolor until the 1960s, when some psychedelically inclined homeowners on Steiner Street started painting their columns wild hues. Jensen had opted for a single shade of metallic gray on the exterior. “It’s almost a metal, cast iron facade that highlights the historic. By not taking the painted lady approach, I would argue we are paying more respect to the details,” he says. Jones didn’t disagree. “To paint it all different colors would have been wrong. It’s like painting a sculpture or putting clothes on it,” he says. But strictly re-creating an unknown past was never the mission. “I like that mix of old and new—I mean, who wants to live in a museum?”
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