After a few years, they knew they could improve on that livability. Working with Berkeley architect Jerome Buttrick, they made a conscious decision to save and re-use as much of the redwood paneling, double-hung shimmery-glass windows, hardwood floors and shingle siding as possible, while adding on a new great room and state-of-the-art kitchen.
The results of their thoughtful process, which was awarded this year's Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) award for residential preservation, can be seen on the PAST Holiday House Tour on Dec. 12, along with five other homes in Palo Alto's Professorville Historic District.
It took more than a year to carefully lift the house (after loosening the areas around the windows to keep them from breaking); pour a new, large basement; reconfigure spaces to maximize living in the original footprint; and add on a new great room.
"We wanted to keep the original character and optimize it," Kathy O'Leary said.
From the front, the house looks similar to 100 years ago, with its leaded-glass diamond and curved panes and shingled exterior.
Wood was removed, refinished and replaced — with a few extra pieces required to fill in where a door was moved. Bedroom flooring was moved downstairs because it better matched the rest of the fir.
And special care was taken to rebuild the living room chimney and fireplace, with bricks saved to be re-used around a custom-made fire box — built to today's code.
Some things didn't quite make the transition: The lath-and-plaster walls crumbled when the house was lifted and so were replaced with Sheetrock. But the coved ceilings in the living and dining rooms were retained, along with a simpler picture molding. The dining room has the original built-in sideboard and paneling.
And some needed accommodating: Today one steps down a couple of stairs to enter the great room, in order to clear the stairwell. It seemed the stairwell "was holding up the whole house," O'Leary said, and simply wasn't moveable. They did add reading lights to the window seat on the landing.
Upstairs, the remodel involved converting four small bedrooms around one bathroom into two bedrooms and a bathroom for the kids, with a master suite for the grown-ups.
Each child's bedroom includes a built-in dresser under the eaves and an added closet.
Space was captured from a bedroom to make room for a bathroom, which includes the original claw-foot tub — now painted cardinal red.
The master suite includes a walk-in closet, dressing area, bathroom (with Ann Sachs subway tiles in four shades of green, a large rectangular ceramic vanity and limestone floor) and a small bedroom.
In the spirit of their Craftsman house, the O'Leary family used "lots of 'true' materials," Kathy said, pointing to the concrete kitchen counters, along with the zinc and reclaimed walnut on the large island. A library-style desk, also made of reclaimed walnut, in the great room hides an Internet workstation.
Their Wolf six-burner range is a nod to modernity, but the zinc hood is trimmed with rivets, just like the island countertop. Upper cabinets are lit to showcase art or glass.
What Kathy appreciates about the great room is that "just about everything can be put away. You feel like you can do a lot with the space," she said. Electronics are hidden in a cabinet in the hallway, near a built-in desk with mail-sorting slots for each family member.
Three sets of tall French doors lead to the backyard.
"It gives us a nice indoor/outdoor ability," she said.
The addition of a full basement brought scads of space for the modern family, with flexible rooms that could be used for everything from a ping-pong tournament to guest space. There's also a laundry room, full bathroom and a home office. The office hides its file cabinets in a closet and gets plenty of light from French doors leading to the outdoors.
Interior "barn" doors are usually left open to maximize the light in the basement but can be closed for privacy if the rooms are used as bedrooms.
"It was an arduous process," Kathy said, "but at the end we were very happy."
The PAST preservation award went to the owners, as well as to Jerome Buttrick, of Buttrick Wong Architects, and to contractor Rich Sherrill, Sherrill Construction, for the renovation of the Category 3 home. The award took special note that the addition and landscaping "have been carefully crafted to enhance the home's Colonial Revival and Craftsman details."
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What: 23rd annual PAST Holiday House Tour
When: Sunday, Dec. 12, 1 to 4 p.m.
Where: Six houses in Professorville
Tickets: $30; make check payable to P.A.S.T. Heritage, and mail to P.O. Box 308, Palo Alto, CA 94302 (enclose stamped, self-addressed envelope), or buy tickets on tour day at corner of Kingsley Avenue and Cowper Street