Noe Valley Voice September 2010

The minimalist design of this modern building at 110 Chattanooga Street provides a sharp contrast to the Victorians down the block.   Photo courtesy Zack/de Vito Architecture

Architecture—Some Like It Modern

By Corrie M. Anders

Take a stroll along almost any Noe Valley street and you’ll see an eclectic assortment of Victorian houses. They make an indelible impression with their bay windows, gabled roofs, turrets, and decorative gingerbread—a legacy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But vying for attention among the Queen Annes, Italianates, and Stick-Eastlakes are some new ultramodern buildings. These are homes whose sleek cubist faŤades—fashioned with glass, chrome, and concrete—declare their 21st-century sophistication.

“People are a lot more receptive these days to modern architecture in Noe Valley. I see more younger people embracing it,” says architect Ivan Terry, who’s designed several contemporary homes in the neighborhood.

Bill Yenne, a 35-year observer of local history and the author of San Francisco’s Noe Valley, agrees. “There are more of them being built than there were 20 years ago,” he says. “They’re cropping up with more frequency.”

The trend should not cause palpitations among Victorian purists, however. Yenne and others, like architect Jim Zack, say most homebuilders are “staying safe” and continuing to construct traditional homes in Noe Valley. And because San Francisco’s strict building code makes residential demolition difficult, many homeowners are opting to keep the building’s faŤade and just renovate the interior.

“That said,” says Zack, “there are enough examples of people doing contemporary spec homes to say there is more and more it. It is growing and becoming more popular.”

Atsuko Watanabe is among the modern-home enthusiasts. The marketing professional, who has lived in high-ceiling lofts in New York and stylish digs in Paris, was immediately enchanted when she found a space to her tastes in the modern duplex at 110 Chattanooga Street at 22nd Street.

The tall boxy duplex at 110 Chattanooga Street was designed by the husband and wife team of Jim Zack and Lise de Vito.   Photo courtesy Zack/de Vito Architecture This “exquisitely detailed” house at 415 Diamond Street, designed by Alex and Ivan Terry, was cited for excellence by the American Institute of Architects.   Photo by Ethan Kaplan

The building, which has two side-by-side condo units, sports a tall, boxy design that contrasts sharply with the frilly Victorians a few doors away. Its cool, gray facade is covered in corrugated metal panels, flat stucco, and glass. A central stairway fills each “box” with natural light through soaring windows, and there are no interior walls to encumber access to the kitchen, dining, and living rooms.

“I love that openness, of not having enclosed doors,” says Watanabe.

Zack and his wife, Lise de Vito, principals of Zack/de Vito Architecture in the SoMa District, built the Chattanooga Street home for themselves in 2003. The couple lived in the property until 2008, when they moved to another modern home they constructed in Glen Park.

Zack notes there were “a number of pretty nice Victorian buildings on Chattanooga Street,” including two on either side of his project, that had been remodeled over the years “to the point they were no longer Victorians.”

In 2006, the Noe Valley house was cited for its design excellence by the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Other contemporary buildings in Noe Valley have also won critical acclaim. Earlier this year, both a local and national panel of AIA judges picked the home at 415 Diamond Street (near 21st Street) as a design winner.

“It was a happy surprise,” says Alex Terry, who designed the home with his brother, Ivan. Both are principals at Berke­ley-based Terry & Terry Architecture.

The AIA lauded the building as “crisp and sculptural, exquisitely detailed,” and said “it evokes a remarkable sense of nature in the middle of the city.”

The unusual design has a dramatic cantilevered roof overhanging its concrete, glass, and slatted-wood facade. Inside are thick exposed-concrete walls that are softened by wood floors and ceilings, pano­ramic windows that let “you see the fog rolling in” from Twin Peaks, and a skylight centered above a floating staircase.

“It’s not for everybody,” concedes Alex Terry, who lives in the house with his wife, Colleen Bal, and their two children, Sofia and Anabella. But few would doubt the emotional impact. “It’s a very soothing and tranquil place for me,” says Terry. “There’s a calmness that it produces when you’re in the space.”

So how many ultramodern homes have gone up in Noe Valley in the last 10 years? Neither the city’s Planning Department nor the real estate professionals the Voice contacted were able to pin down a number. “There are probably a dozen,” guessed former local resident Jason Allen-Rouman, president of the Victorian Alliance, a San Francisco preservationist organization.

Built to take advantage of a steep slope, the glass-coated house at 465 Hoffman Avenue (viewed from the rear) resembles a futuristic temple.    Photo courtesy Group 41 465 Hoffman Street has a double high atrium in the entryway, curvilinear ceilings, and a monolithic wall of black slate that features prominently throughout the house. The home sold in March for $2,970,000.    Photo courtesy Group 41

One of the newest is a four-bedroom home at 465 Hoffman Avenue near 25th Street. Completed last year, it has a 600-pound steel gate that looks like a Mondrian painting (in fact, it was designed by San Francisco artist Brian Ford of Metropolis Design). The house, which has a spacious atrium lined with black slate, has two stories in the front, but expands to four at the back, with enough windows and terraces to resemble a glass ziggurat.

Such a cutting-edge style appeals to a “very narrow segment of the marketplace,” admits San Francisco architect Joel Karr, a principal with Group 41, who designed the house.

It also requires a certain income level. The Hoffman property was on the market for several months before it sold in March for $2,970,000.
According to Karr and other housing specialists, the current interest in modern houses in the heart of a neighborhood rich in Victorian history has been sparked by a new generation of younger, sophisticated residents well acquainted with Dwell magazine, Ikea furniture, and other contemporary icons. Many are well-paid, high-tech workers.

“They’re part of a younger, hipper crowd rather than the old money crowd,” says Mark Brand, whose architectural firm has given contemporary treatment to half a dozen homes in the area. One, designed five years ago, is a four-bedroom home at 4381 26th Street (below Douglass) that Vanguard Properties currently lists for $2,479,000.

Architect Mark Brand incorporated cedar, stone, aluminum, colored stucco, slate, and glass to enhance the contemporary style of this four-bedroom home at 4381 26th Street. It is currently listed for sale at $2,479,000.    Photo by Mark Brand

Modern fans, many of whom also desire to be “green,” often reason that 100-year-old houses are more expensive and difficult to maintain than newer homes. “It takes a lot to keep those [Victorians] up,” says Allen-Rouman.

But Joseph Pugliese of Design Solutions, a 24th Street firm that designs and builds homes, thinks contemporary homes aren’t the only trend in the neighborhood. He says older residences remodeled with shingled exteriors and black trim have also become popular. A few years ago, Pugliese gave his own Arts and Crafts home on Alvarado Street a shingled makeover.

“After we did ours, there were like six or seven or eight popping up all over the place,” says Pugliese.

Still, it is the avant-garde look that is most striking amid the Victorian bric-a-brac.

“It makes a more interesting city in many respects,” says Alex Terry. “It’s nice to see a contrast between the Victorians and the more traditional houses and some of the newer structures that are sprinkled into the city fabric.”

Horizontal lines and dramatic lighting distinguish this five-bedroom house at 767 27th Street, which in August had a price tag of $3,095,000.   Photo by John D. Hayes