VIDEO: A Victorian with 'style'

A shell cloaks a very modern interior

From the outside, the University South home of Brigitte and Jean-Louis Gassée appears every inch the Victorian beauty, complete with white porch railing, dark-grey clapboard siding and 1896 plaque.

But after purchasing the house in 2005 and living there about a year, the Gassées knew exactly how they wanted to bring this home into the 21st century, while retaining the charm that originally drew them.

"We thought the rooms were too narrow. It was not well designed," says Brigitte, adding "we've always liked older on the outside but more modern inside."

With the help of French designer Olivier Thual, who had worked with them on their Paris home, they opened up the main floor, bringing the kitchen to the front and creating a large social space where the whole family can interact.

"I like to cook, my husband is on the computer and we're all together," Brigitte says.

But, besides reorganizing the spaces, the Gassées wanted more "style."

Some of that style can be seen in the furnishings, including a Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed round table in the dining alcove, with matching benches and chairs.

Top-hinged kitchen cabinets, which contractor Dumitru Mariuc says open up like a Ferrari, are by Pedini, an Italian company. The counters are mostly a sleek — yet very low maintenance — Israeli CaesarStone, which is made of quartz. Other counters and cabinet fronts are "painted" glass, with the color behind the glass.

Little touches include a tall pull-out pantry next to the three-door LG refrigerator and a hidden Miele dishwasher among the lower, espresso-stained, white-oak cabinets.

Wide-plank white-oak flooring extends throughout the house, with tile tucked in where a floor typically gets wet in the kitchen.

The staircase leading up was completely reconstructed, and paneling made of 3/4-inch mdf (medium fiber density) boards added, which were custom-routed on the job. The line visually continues on the other side of the stairs.

"We removed 90 percent of the old plaster in the house," Mariuc says, and replaced 75 percent of the windows — but echoed the style of the originals when replacing them.

Completing the first floor is an oak library, a coat closet and a powder room with the world's smallest sink. A stained-glass window, which used to be in the kitchen, now fits well in the powder room.

Upstairs, the Gassées added two narrow closets to the guest bedroom, with a built-in headboard in between. The guest bathroom features Spanish porcelain that resembles concrete, as well as a countertop and backsplash of rift-cut white oak. A large, square white sink sits directly on the counter, and the medicine cabinet is discreetly hidden.

As an artist, Brigitte was very involved in choosing everything from the colors to the plumbing fixtures.

A second bedroom functions as her studio, with plenty of built-in cabinets to store art supplies.

Next comes the master bedroom suite, with a walk-through closet replacing a former office, and a master bath with two square glass sinks, Italian porcelain flooring, Ann Sacks-designed tile that resembles cloth in the backsplash and a Philippe Starck-designed tub.

For the master bedroom Thual designed a series of 32 panels, giving the walls depth. An extra window was added, matching the existing one.

Some of the changes are not noticeable to the eye, but make a difference to daily living. A sound-board layer was dropped in between the flooring and the subfloor, so people downstairs cannot hear footsteps above. The house is fully heated and air conditioned, with all new plumbing and electricity.

The basement is accessible both from a stairway in the foyer and a separate outside entrance. The space includes two bedrooms, a kitchen and media room, laundry room and a full bathroom, as well as the mechanical room with furnace, a/c and extra closet space to store paintings.

Although Mariuc is headquartered in New York, he was willing to work in California because he knew he could count on fellow Romanian craftsmen in the area.

Brigitte and her husband are already working with him and his crew on another home they're remodeling in Palo Alto — their seventh to date. She especially enjoys the design process, searching the Internet and magazines for ideas, picking out fixtures, going to tile stores.

"I enjoyed it. That's why I want to do another project," she says.


Architect: Olivier Thual, Paris, France;

Building contractor: Dumitru Mariuc, The New New York general contracting, ,

Goal of project/design challenge:

Modernize a Victorian home on the inside, while retaining its charm on the outside

Unexpected problems:

Lost more than a month working with the city to approve changes when unexpected things cropped up

Year house built:


Size of home:

About 3,000 sq. ft. on 7,500-sq.-ft. lot

Time to complete:

10 months


About $700,000

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