The restoration took a while, but this old house restoration project is now ready to entertain
By Michael Good
There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but when it comes to restoring old houses, there are only two: the slow way and the really slow way. Most people opt for the latter, whether due to a shortage of funds, time or energy. However, there are plenty of good reasons for going slow. For one, if you spend a year getting to know your new old house before picking up a sledgehammer, you’re more likely to appreciate its quirks and less likely to tear out something that is valuable, historic or actually pretty cool. For another, you get to procrastinate, which is an essential part of owning an old house.
If you do have the opportunity, however, to do your old house restoration in one fell swoop, you could hardly do better than the Powers family — Robert and Catherine with their daughter Erin and son-in-law-to-be Brian Prezlock — who undertook a project of daunting size and complexity last year when they rescued an Italianate mini-mansion on 28th Street in South Park, just across the street from the nine-hole golf course.
The house wasn’t really inhabitable when the Powers family purchased it in 2010, and with almost every aspect of the building in need of replacement or repair, such as electrical, plumbing, heating, roofing, foundation, insulation, plaster and paint, the restoration took long enough that many of the place’s quirks (like the golf balls that appear regularly in the front yard) became apparent. Now the house, which has certainly stirred up a lot of interest during its lengthy renovation, will be unveiled to the public as part of the Old House Fair Home Tour on June 16.
When asked if she has any advice for house restorers, Erin Powers, who took up residence last fall, said, “Get the right team together. Do the research to be sure that the people who are involved are really the people who know what to do with an old house.”
Considering the job market for contractors, the family found there was no shortage of people who were, “willing to give the project a shot,” Erin Powers said. “My dad really took the time and did the research to make sure he had people who really knew this type of house. If you’re trying to restore… you really need to use someone who’s familiar with historic houses.” So Robert Powers set aside a day or two to interview several contractors in the dining room, which sported crumbling plaster, water-stained woodwork, and dirt-encrusted broken windows. In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of those contractors, and ended up spending five months on the project, refinishing the woodwork.
Once Robert Powers assembled the team, which consisted of architect James Tanner of Tanner Hecht Architecture; general contractor Ron Ball of Uptown Home Remodeling; and designer Anita Dawson, the planning began. “The truth is, my dad is meticulous,” Erin Powers said. “We thought through everything. It’s like the most over-analyzed house ever. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of type-A personalities like my dad, me, Brian, Ron and Jim.”
What made the project particularly appealing as well as daunting, was that so much of the original house was still there to either preserve, or screw up. The bathrooms had all the original tubs; one even had the original toilet, with a wall-mounted wooden tank. Two of the bedrooms still had the original, now crumbling, paint treatment, including a polychrome stencil-alternated negative and positive space like a psychedelic poster from the 1960s in one. The other had a rag-rolled background, with a hand-painted floral border, a small section of which Prezlock encouraged the team to preserve. The house was a time capsule. Previous owners hadn’t changed much except for the kitchen doorknobs, doors, lighting, windows and most of the millwork. The trim in the formal rooms had never been painted nor had it been maintained. The house was both the victim and the beneficiary of benign neglect.
The house had been originally built for Josh Delvalle, who was the vice counsel to the Netherlands in San Diego. It was designed to be purpose-built for parties, circa 1913. The floor plan is distinguished by a large central hall, ideal for receiving guests and hosting large groups. Delvalle, a bachelor, entertained many foreign dignitaries, and he required two live-in servants to manage the household. In 1920, he sold the place to General John Roberts, a Civil War general and adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard. After Roberts’s son-in-law died of the flu in 1918, Roberts, with his wife and daughter, moved to California, and settled in across from the tree-lined park to write his memoirs. His widowed daughter, Isabel, lived around the corner at 1355 Granada, but as the General got older, she moved in with her parents and acquired the house herself in 1925. Isabel lived there another 40 years. While the house certainly had some illustrious occupants, it was recently awarded historic designation for its architecture, not it’s homeowners.
“From the moment we first saw it,” Erin Powers said, “we just fell in love with the woodwork,” and while the woodwork may be the first thing visitors notice, there are a number of other architectural details worth pointing out. All the lighting has been restored by Gibson & Gibson. The windows are all replicas of the originals, by San Diego Sash. The restored fireplace, of cast stone, is also of an unusual design, as is the mantel, which zigs where you might expect it to zag. The dentil molding along the flat roofline is made of steel, not wood. There are bathrooms for every bedroom, an original feature that was way ahead of its time.
Erin Powers and Prezlock have been entertaining a lot themselves since moving. They said they are enjoying the thoroughly modern kitchen, designed by Jim Tanner specifically not to look period, which is flooded with light through the wrap-around windows. Now that the plastic is off, the entire house is light-filled, and on weekends, along with the sea breeze flowing through the Park, there is the smell of barbeque and the sound of children playing and families celebrating birthdays. In fact, there’s always some sort of celebration going on in the park across the street. Josh Delvalle, who hosted so many international gatherings of his own, would likely appreciate that. And he’d be happy to see the house full of people again on June 16 — although it’s hard to tell what he’d think about the golf balls.