In more than 100 years, the shingled, Craftsman-style home at the fringe of Professorville had only had two owners, the last a history buff who bequeathed a 14-page list outlining what could not be done to the house.
But the couple, armed with Silicon Valley startup money, was entranced by the possibilities.
They easily agreed that there was no point in ruining the Level 1 home on the National Register of Historic Places, which was designed by A.W. Smith and built in 1905 for gold-miner Charles Lane's daughter. In the 1970s it was purchased by a family with five children.
Over the years the house began to resemble Sarah Winchester's "Mystery House." Sometime in the 1940s one wing was turned into a boardinghouse, with five kitchens and access only from the exterior; some rooms had four doors, some leading nowhere.
By 2011, when the couple decided to take it on, it was "falling apart at the seams," the wife says.
But, "the covenant was pretty intense," she adds.
Most of the restrictions in that covenant involved the three front rooms, which were paneled in a dark fir with fir flooring. There were prohibitions involving painting the wood, removing walls or touching the large glass windows.
Architect Aino Vieria Da Rosa helped the couple figure out how to restore the beauty while bringing the home into the 21st century -- mostly within those covenants.
Paneling was removed, board by board, labeled and stored while the house was totally rewired, re-plumbed and insulated. Then the boards were put back -- cleaned, brightened and waxed.
Most of the light fixtures are consistent with the age of the home. But, the wife says, "It's a very serious house. We wanted to go lighter, more whimsical."
So in the foyer, what she calls "the lobby," is a glass chandelier that's not the least bit formal, and over the dining room table hangs a spiky, more avant-garde fixture.
Palo Alto's Historic Resources Board didn't agree with everything they wanted to do, insisting that they keep skylights on the front porch (which were added in the 1970s) and insert expensive imported leaded glass for French doors in the back. In retrospect, the couple is happy with the skylights that greatly improve the light in the living room; and they agree that the leaded glass fits very well with the more historically correct front of the home.
Since the fir floors were really shot, they replaced them with a hardier hickory, stained a pecan color that closely mimics the original fir. "It looks like it fits, and it's hard as rocks," the wife says, adding that it'll stand up much better to one large dog and three children.
In the back of the house, a modern, very functional kitchen -- but with a traditional style -- is open to a large family room, with French doors on either side. The room is sited between a large patio on one side and a small backyard with its cottage and garage on the other.
One highlight is the La Cornue stove with its French plaque center burner for slow cooking, four gas burners, a griddle and two ovens, perfect for cooking meat. Since the wife is really into cooking, there are also electric Viking double ovens for baking.
The kitchen is organized into sections, with a breakfast station featuring an appliance garage, storage cabinets and a refrigerator drawer, across from a zinc-topped breakfast table at one end of the large island, which has a Pietra del Cardosa marble countertop.
"I don't want a precious house. It needs to be used. I don't want anything that doesn't look better destroyed, or well loved," the wife says, pointing to the marks on the zinc counter and the purposeful distressing on the floors.
The first floor also contains a mud room (with a small washer/dryer and named cubbies for each family member), a guest suite, powder room and the husband's study.
Up the formal staircase one reaches a small tower, which the wife uses as her study; the master suite; three more bedroom suites; a large laundry room; and a family retreat, complete with a well-stocked snack pantry.
The last part of the renovation is a finished basement, with a wine cellar (with barrels left over from an old barn once on the property), sports and handyman closets, a mechanical room and a game room.
"You only get one chance to do this. We wanted to do it right," the wife says.
And, she says, when she invited the children of the previous owner -- who grew up in the house -- to check it out, they cried, grateful that their home had been preserved.
Architect: Aino Vieria Da Rosa, Palo Alto, 650-328-5670
Building contractor: Mark Moragne and Wakey Mist, Northwall Builders Inc., Palo Alto
Home technology: Robert Gilligan, Andrew Olson, Viahome
Interior designer: Ken Fulk team - Jon De La Cruz and Alicia Cheung, San Francisco
Landscape designer: Sarah Warto, Box Leaf Design, San Francisco
Lighting: Erik Johnson Associates, Novato
Goal of project:
Restore home, including getting rid of boardinghouse section
Overdid electrical system; could have used larger washer/dryer in mud room
Year house built:
1905, remodeled 2011-13
Size of home, lot:
7,800-sq-ft home on 0.41 acre
Time to complete:
About two years: seven months planning, 18 months construction