One To Grow On

For nearly six years, Helena and Bill Wheeler lived in architectural denial. At the beginning of 2000, the couple purchased an Edwardian home, and although the dark woodwork and traditional details didn’t exactly jibe with their personal aesthetic, they appreciated the home’s large rooms, high ceilings and abundance of natural light. “I tried to convince myself of the charms of this period, but I knew deep down that the house really wasn’t our style,” says Helena.

Denial can work for a time, but after the arrival of children (Benjamin, now age 8, Emma, 6 and Sophia, 4), the house no longer fit, and it was time for a big change. The Wheelers easily could have moved to a larger home outside the city, but as the family expanded, the neighborhood transformed with them. “It suddenly seemed like more people with children were choosing to stay in San Francisco,” says Helena. “And our neighborhood had more children jumping rope and riding their scooters on the sidewalk. I love that friends can just walk over and ring the doorbell instead of driving across town for a play date.”

The architects left the Edwardian fireplace, pared down the period molding, and gave everything a coat of crisp white paint to make it modern. The simple gray backdrop makes way for a mix of midcentury and antique furniture.


The Wheelers contacted Butler Armsden Architects to help make their three-bedroom, two-bath house more expansive for five people. The primary goals were to provide every member with a room of his or her own and to modernize the entire house while keeping some references to the original 1908 structure. For design and style inspiration, Helena asked the architects to look to her native Sweden. That meant out with the dark woodwork and fussy details, and in with light woods (including a new bleached birch floor), cool colors (most of the walls are pale gray) and a modernist sensibility (complete with a sleek new kitchen, contemporary furniture and European lighting). The exterior remains largely the same, with the exception of a welcoming red-orange door.

Inside, the narrative is quite different. The traditional molding was given a new coat of white paint. Contemporary light fixtures and iconic modern furniture live in harmony with antique chandeliers, rugs and paintings handed down from Helena’s family. “This home is a case of opposites attracting,” says architect Lewis Butler. “The old is still present, but we added modern details, finishes and furniture in order to create a tension that is pleasing to the eye. Most people are scared to do this, but luckily not these clients.”

Alno cabinets with white glass doors and invisible hardware give the kitchen a sleek look. A narrow island creates an efficient work triangle and storage for a wine refrigerator. RIGHT: White-painted traditional furniture in the dining room is a nod to the family's Swedish heritage.

While the rest of the house may be a symphony of old and new, modernism reigns in the kitchen. “It was important to the couple to have this room be European in sensibility,” says Reba Jones, project architect for Butler Armsden. “That means that everything in it is clean-lined and minimalist.”

The couple selected Alno cabinets with white tempered-glass doors and drawer fronts for a smooth appearance. The tempered glass not only offers a glossy, reflective look that makes the most of the natural light in the room, but is also easy to clean—an important feature for a family with children. Hidden grips stand in place of traditional decorative hardware, creating long stretches of nearly unbroken surfaces. An induction stovetop, de rigueur for a European kitchen, and a gray CaesarStone countertop continue the sleek look. Local Alno owner and kitchen designer Deganit Albalak says she wasn’t surprised by the couple’s choice to go totally modern in the kitchen. “Many people prefer to have the kitchen be a contemporary space, even if the rest of the house isn’t that way,” she says. “The appliances are going to be modern, and sometimes traditional cabinetry can look out of place around them.”

To give the family the space they needed, the architectural team looked both up (to the attic) and down (to the garage level). Before the remodel, the attic was simply a storage space. The Wheelers had considered making it a
master suite, but the contractors they had previously met with discouraged them, saying that the ceilings were too low. Butler and his team had another opinion and strategy: By adding a steeply pitched gable and strategically placed dormer windows, they gave the couple the headroom needed to create an airy master suite complete with a closet and bath. To make the suite easily accessible, the architects simply extended the run of the existing stairs. The closet is made possible by a cleverly designed built-in system placed under the eaves—pull-out drawers provide hanging storage in an often under-utilized space.

“Many families choose to have all of the bedrooms on the same level,” says Helena. “But now that our kids are a little older, we thought it was time for a bit of privacy. Of course, we are still close to them when they need us, but it is wonderful to have a floor to ourselves.”

With the master suite relocated to what was the attic level, the third floor became the domain of the children. The former master suite is now a bedroom for Sophia, and the master bathroom has been converted to a bath shared by both girls. Each child has his or her own room, and Benjamin has claim over the bathroom he used to share with his sisters. “We wanted to give the children larger rooms where they could retreat and play by themselves or with friends,” says Helena. “We have other spaces where we can gather as a family, but I think offering each child a sense of privacy is important.”


Under an existing deck on the garden level, the architects added a family room/guest room, bath and office. The old house was 3,452 square feet; the remodeled home measures 4,612 square feet. “People looking for a larger house usually consider moving,” says Butler. “But if you think creatively about your space, you can sometimes make better use of it and increase your living area a great deal. By doing this, the Wheelers got exactly the house they wanted—one they likely would not have found on the market. And they got to stay in the neighborhood they love.”

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