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From blah to distinctive

What happens when artists move into a spec house

When Toiya and John Black purchased their new home in 2006, they thought it would be just right for their family of four: It had a good location (College Terrace), size and great flow -- but no charm.

The home had been built on spec, which meant it was very vanilla.

That didn't sit well with two artistic types: Toiya is a photographer and John a landscape designer.

At first they just wanted to pull out the wall-to-wall carpeting upstairs because Toiya was allergic to dust mites.

Then they thought the kitchen was rather dark. And the water heater was really inefficiently located downstairs on the west side of the house while hot water was needed either upstairs or on the east side where the kitchen was located.

They even thought of digging out a basement.

After 18 months of planning -- and a reality check on the cost of adding that basement -- they managed to hone their requirements: add wainscoting and molding for charm, completely replace the kitchen and add two windows for light, and redo all the bathrooms.

Of course, once the Sheetrock came off, they realized they could improve their lighting and wire the home for sound.

They spent a lot of time and energy with their architect coming up with a wainscoting pattern and location that would bring in that needed charm. He even used 3-D software so they could review various options.

"He helped us figure out our molding and was really good with the mechanics of everything," Toiya says, noting one of his skills was explaining why something was too fussy or simply not necessary.

The wainscoting is now in the entryway and continues up the staircase. That stairwell became a dramatic entrance to the second floor, with the carpeting removed and each oak tread stained to match the downstairs flooring.

"I had a vision for the kitchen," Toiya says, after scouring It was her idea to add a chocolate-colored island, topped with glossy marble. The counter is a matte black granite.

"It sounds simple, but it's not," John says on the granite-choosing process.

"It took a year to find the exact granite," Toiya says, adding it couldn't be too "crystally."

To brighten up the kitchen, they added windows and white-painted cabinets, with a backsplash of 3-inch by 9-inch matte white subway tile by Walker Zenger, contrasted with an Italian "chrome" liner. Toiya encouraged the cabinetmaker to create very wide drawers, after she personally measured what items they used most, taking note of the height of their cereal boxes and the sizes of various kitchen gadgets.

Even with windows taking the place of upper cabinets, there's more storage in the new kitchen.

Again, based on how they used their kitchen, the Blacks chose appliances that better suited them. The large refrigerator/freezer was replaced by a 30-inch refrigerator. The less-used freezer drawers are now sited around the corner in what had been a butler's pantry, along with the oven.

Once the molding was changed throughout the house, the family-room fireplace didn't mesh with the home style, so they changed the stone and added new molding trim.

Although they didn't really like the Milgard windows, changing them throughout the house would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, they added dividers to the family-room windows and changed some fixed to double-hung windows.

Changes to the living room are subtle.

"We wanted this to be a sitting room," John says. "We made the mantel larger and added a panel above it and stone around it." They also added track lights that shine on Toiya's botanical photographs.

Color was very important to the Blacks. The palette in the house is now multiple shades of gray, with caramel on the dining room walls. Toiya counts four shades of white -- each tested in varying lighting -- to appear as one color.

The biggest change to the master suite was building cabinets around the large picture window and removing the shutters in the bedroom. They substituted a large shower with a window overlooking their backyard for an unused tub. Touches include a heated tile floor, marble in the shower, granite for the countertop and plenty of storage in white cabinets.

"We had 70 change orders," Toiya admits, but some were for things they felt should have been included in the bid, such as mirrors in the bathroom.

For their twin boys, now age 9, they created a play room/guest quarters with a queen-sized Murphy bed and a room with a pair of bunkbeds (full-sized below, twin above) for the sleeping room.

Their bathroom features a Sonoma cast-stone trough sink, an extra deep tub, brown floor tile and mirror-fronted cabinets over wall-mounted faucets.


Architect: Leopold Vandeneynde, Santa Clara, 650-224-6852

Cabinetmaker: The Village Collection, Belmont

Flooring: RB Flooring, San Jose, 408-573-1144

Landscape designer: John Black, Verdance Fine Garden Design, Palo Alto, 650-321-4242

Goal of project:

Add charm, make kitchen lighter, make house more liveable

Unanticipated issues:

70 change orders that drove the cost up

Year house built:


Size of home, lot:

2,400-sq-ft home on 6,250-sq-ft lot

Time to complete:

About three years (18 months planning, 18 months construction)

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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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