Looking for charm in all the right places
Mills College annual home tour offers ideas with contemporary appeal and respect for tradition
Susan Farrell likes to go on house tours, picking up design tidbits and generally seeing what home-decorating or remodeling ideas others have come up with.
So, while chatting at last year's Charming Cottages of Palo Alto tour, a docent asked her what her own home looks like. Her description drew the committee's curiosity — and her 1914 home was chosen for this year's event.
Farrell's Downtown North home is one of four that is open to the public on April 1 and 2.
Farrell chose the home in 2004, winning a bidding war against others who were drawn to the home's Edwardian details, among other features. The coffered ceilings in living and dining rooms, fireplace and mantel are all original, as are the built-in, glass-fronted cabinets in the dining room.
But addition of living-room cabinets was clearly a 1970s misstep, Farrell said. When she remodeled the two bathrooms a year and a half ago, she also "fixed" that by having her contractor, Stan Roose of Los Altos, paint the cabinets white and add molding, as well as some dentil molding near the fireplace.
The daughter of an architect, Farrell said she "loved old houses" and "had the time of her life" fixing up her previous home just a few blocks away.
Farrell's additions added functionality while adhering closely to the original design sensibility. In the dining room, for example, her contractor built a curved bench with plenty of storage for art supplies. Farrell topped it with colorful throw pillows.
The kitchen had already been remodeled in 2002, adding stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops with tumbled-marble backsplashes. Earlier owners had also picked up on the white-painted cabinetry, blending well with the rest of the home.
A granite-topped peninsula serves both as the family eating area in the kitchen and an easily accessible desk. Farrell, who likes to haunt flea markets, found a brightly painted folkloric rack to hold invitations, bills or the latest movie rental.
Hidden behind closed cabinets are the washer and dryer, with ample space for folding laundry on top, as well as storage space in upper cabinets.
Each bedroom is distinct, from her daughter's deep-red walls with black trim (decorated with framed sheet music in black, white and red) to her son's Hawaiian-themed room in light blue and lime, to the pale-blue master bedroom with its eccentric curved corner.
Farrell's most recent renovations were to the two bathrooms, beginning with what she calls her "ode to orange" bathroom between the kids' rooms. Here she took "an ugly 1970s bathroom" down to the studs and brought in a modern pedestal tub by Victoria & Albert, made of volcanic limestone and resin — much lighter than traditional cast iron. She designed the shower curtain, which was made by a company that actually designs privacy curtains for hospitals.
White subway tiles go halfway up the walls, and the floors are made of charcoal and white marble in a basket-weave pattern. A traditional large rectangular pedestal sink finishes the room.
In an attempt to save money, Farrell picked up a few medicine cabinets from Restoration Hardware's "seconds" outlet in Tracy. Only later did she realize it would cost much more to have the contractor reframe the walls to accommodate their depth.
For the master bathroom, Farrell had the tub replaced with a walk-in shower, trimmed in ceramic tile that resembles stone. Glittery glass tiles accent the walls, and are inset into the larger ceramic tiles on the floor.
When imagining her new bathroom, Farrell liked to wonder what she would have brought back from a summer jaunt to Venice, something that reflected sort of a faded European elegant aesthetic.
"I wanted colors that were like the inside of an abalone shell," Farrell said, pointing to the iridescent blues and greens in the glass tiles and the counter top.
And once more she opted for an Edwardian feel to the towel rods and light fixtures, all from Restoration Hardware.
Farrell's traditional home is filled with relics passed on through the generations: her grandmother's Czechoslovakian china, a portrait wall in a hallway, and artwork done by her mother and sister.
Three other homes are on this year's tour, including:
* a two-bedroom 1946 cottage that was expanded with a loft-like second story and a great room into a four-bedroom home with green features and room to display home-made quilts;
* a down-to-the-studs recent remodel of a 1942 small home that now includes a master-bedroom suite and great room;
* the former infirmary of Harker School, built in 1906, with a recently added second story and reconfiguration of space.
The Charming Cottages of Palo Alto home tour is the annual fundraiser for the Palo Alto Area Mills College Club, with proceeds going to an endowed scholarship.
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What: Charming Cottages of Palo Alto home tour
When: Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Four homes in Palo Alto
Tickets: $30 in advance (send checks to PAAMCC, c/o R. Moritz, 1517 Cedarwood Drive, San Mateo, CA 94403); $35 at the door (3246 Bryant St., Palo Alto)
Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.