From the pages of
Traditional Home® magazine
Young at Heart
Laurie Ubben's new home is a foursquare Edwardian manse in Pacific Heights, one of the most historic (and socially coveted) neighborhoods in San Francisco. It is not, alas, the house of her dreams. That one 200 years old, with wide-plank floors and low-ceilinged rooms as cozy as a mother's embrace sits on a tidy lawn back in Concord, Massachusetts.
"I could see us living there for twenty years," she says. Opportunity, however, knocked. Two weeks after she and her husband, Jeff, a money manager, finished renovating the 18th-century farmhouse, he was offered a job with Richard C. Blum, a California investor who is married to Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Rueful but resigned, Laurie strapped on her running shoes and went out for a jog. "I looked at the cows and the meadows, took a deep breath, and decided to think of San Francisco as an adventure," she says. "But I was certain we'd never find a house that could mean so much to me."
They didn't, but 18 house viewings later, the Ubbens, their young daughters and two dogs did manage to find the perfect location: Pacific Heights, a neighborhood of distinction, with amenities that also appealed to Laurie's determination to make the most of the relocation.
"If we had to move to a big city, then I thought it was important to really live in it, not on the outskirts, not ten miles away," she says. "Pacific Heights reminded me a bit of Concord, because everything you need is within walking distance. There's even a dog park two blocks away."
The house, however, was not quite so ideal. Though it was built in 1907, one year after the devastating San Francisco earthquake, the woodwork had been removed in the 1960s by an overzealous renovator. What Laurie calls "Brady Bunch" doors smooth, hollow, wafer-thin-were everywhere. Only the kitchen spoke of the past. Which meant it was dark, cramped, and inconvenient. The rest of the house was dominated by lofty entertaining spaces that reduced the family's American antiques to the size of matchsticks.
"It was like moving to Mars," laughs Laurie, a product of Darien, Connecticut, who had never before ventured west of the Rockies.
She had also never hired a decorator before, but the proportions of the house and its multilevel layout proved to be more of a challenge than she originally thought. "I didn't want to be told what to do, but I didn't know what to do," she says. "I was feeling incredibly needy and impulsive."
In stepped Geoffrey DeSousa, the design director of Agnes Bourne, a San Francisco firm known for its brash palette and furniture designs that combine tradition with a soup? of pop-culture whimsy, like the curvaceous, popular "Norma Jean" wing chair. DeSousa, whose firm Laurie discovered in the back of a coffee-table design book, was a Boston-area transplant, too, "so I understood Laurie's New England sensibility when it came to furniture." Her sense of color, too. "Good and bright" are Laurie's favorites. And DeSousa rose to the challenge of accommodating the kids Charlotte, 9; Josephine, 5; and Theo, who was born after the family moved in and who will be 2 in October. Fabrics had to hold up against the onslaught of sticky fingers and errant crayons, not to mention muddy paws.
The furnishings that DeSousa and Laurie chose are stylishly practical. Densely patterned rugs graciously accommodate spills, French rustic-style chairs and sofas and handsomely worn antiques look even better with bumps and scrapes, and the cotton and linen upholstery can be washed without fear. Since the playroom is tucked away under the eaves, and there is no designated family room, most of the household action takes place in the living and dining rooms. Here, Charlotte and Josephine do their schoolwork, Theo toddles, and the dogs, Gretchen and Clementine, tussle. As a consequence, table lamps and their snaking cords have been banished for safety's sake. Until the children are older, the lighting is natural, overhead, or indirect.
The buoyant color scheme melon, indigo blue, daffodil yellow, shots of turquoise is inspired by everything from French country interiors to folk art to Charleston, the English farm where the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant ran amok with their paintbrushes in the 1920s to create one of history's most extraordinary homegrown interiors. Charleston was a kid-friendly place, too, something the Ubbens would have identified with.
"The children had to be able to use the living room. That's something Geoff and I kept in touch with all along," Laurie says. "As a mother, it's sort of a natural thing for me to say that's too light a color, or the carpet is going to get trashed. Not having children, he wouldn't know that. But then I didn't either, until after they were born."
Especially important to the Ubbens' lively home life is the kitchen. Once the family turned its thoughts to renovating it, their partnership with DeSousa moved into high gear, not only construction-wise, but emotionally.
"In Massachusetts, we had an Aga stove that stayed warm all day. We'd gather around it. The dogs slept by it. We warmed our hands on it. And I thought there was no way I could have that kind of attachment to this house," Laurie says. "I could tell that Geoff was trying really hard to create something that would appeal to me. At that point, I felt complete trust, and since I was pregnant with Theo, I turned it over to him completely."
Down came the walls that divided the kitchen into a warren of tiny rooms better suited to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind school of cookery popular at the turn of the century. Into the gutted space, DeSousa brought the sort of environmental charms that are seldom found in a remodeled antique.
Instead of a stylistically seamless expanse of cabinets, he outfitted the kitchen with storage that gives the impression of gentle evolution, the sensation that one generation after the next had installed something comfortable and necessary while retaining the old. The soapstone-topped island, for instance, is wrapped in crisp white weatherboard. But the overhead cabinets, custom-painted by artist Willem Rack?are a rich indigo blue, artfully worn to allow bits of yellow undercoat to show through. Some doors are solid wood; others have wire-reinforced glass inserts.
There is a new pantry, too. But instead of keeping it hidden away, DeSousa, inspired by Laurie's collection of picturesque pots and skillets, put the storage area center stage, behind a wall of glass panes. In a neat but thoroughly coincidental twist, the see-through divider is a dead ringer for those traditionally used to keep winter winds from whistling in through the front doors of the Ubbens' native Northeast. And since there is no need for a room-heating Aga in temperate northern California, a stainless-steel range does the trick without the constant heat. Now everyone gravitates to the kitchen table, where sunlight streams through new double-hung windows.
The evidence suggests that clan Ubben has settled in Pacific Heights for the long haul. Even Gretchen, the family's testy 12-year-old sheepdog-poodle, has made the coast-to-coast transition. (Of course, the cushioned undercounter dog bed in the kitchen may have helped.)
As for the kids, "They love it here. They can walk to school, and we've made a lot of friends," says Laurie. More and more, she finds herself strangely content in a house that initially failed to touch her homesick heart. "With Geoff, we've created something unique," she says. "I really feel good about coming home to it."\
Then she laughs. "Calling this place 'home' is strange, considering how much I missed our place in Concord. But it's true: If another house came on the market around here, we would be hard-pressed to leave this one."
Text: Mitchell Owens
Photography: Alan Weintraub
Interior Design: Geoffrey DeSousa of Agnes Bourne
Regional Editor: Carla Breer Howard
Stylist: Patti Kelly