In a city of hills and valleys, what’s most coveted in San Francisco are its views—those sweeping, unobstructed panoramas of the unique nature-abutting-urbanity that define Northern California’s cultural capital. Such prospects are rare, but unlike in other, taller-built cities, easier to maintain. In 2001, architectural designer Abigail Turin and her then fiancé, now husband Jonathan Gans went hunting here for a new home— a modern design with a Bay vista—or so they thought. Instead, they quickly fell in love with the charm and potential of a 1925 Italianate manse in Pacific Heights. Two stories tall, it had a garden accessible via its small basement, with a large eucalyptus tree whose curved branches had grown in a tender, yet respectful embrace of its architecture. It didn’t have a view of the water, but sunlight dappled the tree’s lightly scented blue-green leaves and nature felt closer than ever. After a quick renovation, the couple moved in the following year. Then, in 2003, Turin established the Bay Area branch of Kallos Turin, the SF-and London-based design firm she leads with Stephania Kallos.
A marriage, a good 15 years, and the birth of their daughter went by before Turin decided to revisit her home’s quaint yet not entirely functional object in a landscape feel. “Architects are like shoemakers,” laughs the Golden State native, who met her international business partner in London when they were both designing for architect David Chipperfield. “We never quite get around to our own projects.” The slow and steady method, however, allowed her to ponder her house’s “big gestures.” What had made it so enchanting was its secret backyard garden; strengthening the connection between this and the house was crucial.
Thankfully, like many old buildings on a hill in San Francisco, the best way to expand was down, following the natural slope of its site. In late 2019, the family moved out and an excavator moved in to dig an entirely new lower level. Kallos Turin conceived of this concrete box as both a plinth—supporting the generous original floor plan of the gut-renovated historic house and its terraces above—and a home for a new sitting room, architectural office, library, wine cellar, and bath directly off the garden. (Local architect of record Jones|Haydu helped manage the project.)
“This level is meant to feel like it’s carved out of the ground, not built up from it,” says Turin, whose transformation added around 2,000 square feet to the three-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom abode. Large sliding glass doors with linen sheer curtains by artist Martin Thompson now allow seamless access to the yard, with a small swimming pool, cabana, and a lush jungle of split-leaf philodendron, leopard plant, bird of paradise, and bamboo realized with the help of local landscape designer Ken Mendonça.
Turin’s interior color palette and material choices enhance this indoor-outdoor transition. Inspired by the pebbled ground of the garden and a love birthed two decades ago during visits to Milan for the annual Salone del Mobile furniture fair, the architectural designer employed Ceppo di Gré, a light-gray dolomitic breccia stone with a terrazzo-like appearance, for the lower-level flooring, bathroom walls and bespoke sink basin, and block-like stair that leads to the original two stories. In the first-floor kitchen, it also makes up the backsplash, countertops, and island, set with stools by Studio BBPR for Arflex and lit by Ignazio Gardella pendants.
Shades of green in the new and reupholstered furniture continue the theme, in playful combination with Turin’s fascination for Italian modernist design. On the garden level, a statement-making Camaleonda sofa by Mario Bellini wears a forest green mohair and surrounds a custom cocktail table made of salvaged walnut burl from Marin County–based Arborica. In the primary bedroom, there is a custom teal lacquer bed. The color is picked up again in the lacquer back of a 1980s Ettore Sottsass Donau chair at Turin’s desk, a custom design with steel legs and a Verde Alpi marble top. Blocks of the same stone are used as a step at the front door, for the dressing room vanity and showers of the upstairs bathrooms, and in the bespoke door handles to Gans’s wine room, where two 1951 Gio Ponti Triennale leather-and-wood armchairs cozy up to a brass-and-glass Ponti cocktail table. A 1970s Gabriella Crespi floor lamp lights the custom walnut millwork for Gans's extensive collection of bottles.
Though the project required the home be taken down to its studs, Turin was careful to preserve original details where she could. The curving staircase and banister now share space with artworks by Sigmar Polke and Richard Wright, two of many in the family’s ever-growing contemporary collection, which also includes pieces by Tauba Auerbach, Piotr Uklanski, and Paula Hayes, among many others. The house’s historic stepped baseboards were maintained and replicated in the expansion. In the moody, slate-colored living room, light still filters through leaded glass windows, and the old marble mantel presides over a space now furnished with a pair of B&B Italia sofas in army green mohair and a 1975 Gabriella Crespi cocktail table.
And everywhere one turns—indoors and out—there is greenery, especially visible through the large windows that puncture the back walls of the house. “You can’t argue with a view in San Francisco,” says Turin, “but I think that the south-facing warm garden in our foggy corner of the city is worth its weight in gold.”
This historic San Francisco home appears in AD’s October issue. Never miss an issue when you subscribe to AD.