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St. Louis Magazine
September 2004

By Christy Marshall

Photography by Alise O'Brien

Modern Makeover

A couple (and their architect) get more than they bargained for when their mixed-and-match home gets a basement-to-attic revamp.

The architect’s assignment seemed simple: The basement in a West County home had flooded, the master bedroom was dated. Come in. Redo.

But what Phil Durham ended up with was so much more.

Owner of Studio|Durham Architects, Durham works in all styles and budgets, but his specialty and inclination is modern design. Highly acclaimed and a frequent award-winner, his firm is a one-stop shop: architectural plans, interior design, furniture and urban design and landscape architecture.

The owners had lived in the house for more than two decades, raised their children there, built a business nearby and grown a gorgeous garden in the back. They loved their home but recognized its limitations. The outside was a redwood and brick contemporary, the interior was traditional, hallways were narrow, a half-wall seemed wrong and access to the lower level was awkward.

“ We decided to make the house appropriate for what it should be and a backdrop for all of our art, antiques and things,” the homeowner says. “Getting into it, it turned into much more than it started out to be.” Much, much more.

Armed with the owners’ wish list, Durham devised a new design. The plan necessitated the owners take up residence elsewhere for several months. With that news, they added a redesign of the kitchen. Months turned into two years.

“We started with the basement and then the master suite as the original project,” Durham says. “It just kept growing and growing—as projects often do.”

“We became ‘Dr. and Mrs. What About?’” the homeowner laughs. “What about this? What about that?”

The “what abouts?” turned into new everything. The exterior of the house was resurfaced with stucco and then painted black; the front door was replaced with a pair of 7-foot-by-7-foot copper doors; new steps are a series of platforms with beds of river rock stones between; new windows, new water and electrical services were installed. The back of the house was bumped out eight feet and the house reframed. The original house had eight-foot ceilings with a massive attic above. Durham ripped the ceilings out, leaving a space soaring to the roof.

Shopping on the Internet, local cabinetmaker Steve Souder of Full Circle Design Works bought an anegre tree trunk from Africa and had it shipped. Using the wood, Souder built new cabinetry for the entire house. What had been a simple L-shaped kitchen was redone, adding a large island in the middle and a stone sink under the window. “I wanted it deep enough so I could stand in the other room and not see a dirty dish,” the owner says. “I prefer to wash dishes when I choose to.”

Somewhere in all the planning and remodeling, Durham met the homeowners’ daughter.

The flooring was replaced with a Brazilian cherry wood with black-ebonized finish. The furnishings, originally selected by (now-retired) designer Jimmy Jamieson, still worked with the new design. A new stone mantel fabricated out of absolute black granite was made for an existing fireplace

“ My rule was if it was attached to the walls, even if it wasn’t my initial first choice, I would defer to Phil,” the owner says. “I felt he really had a vision of what the structure should be. At the last minute, we decided to do the fireplace. He kept saying, ‘No, no, don’t spend the money.’ But it was attached to the wall and the new mantel is incredible.”

What had been the dining room became the music room, the new dining room went into the addition. The living room only had four windows, so they replaced the existing wall with a wall of windows.

The upstairs staircase was replaced, a rabbit warren of closets were cleared out, a bathroom was blown out, two bedrooms were renovated, a new guest bath added. Souder created mahogany built-ins in the doctor’s study and the lady of the house’s new dressing room. The master bath was redone with all the bells and whistles: stone, heated floor, stainless steel tub, flat-screen TV, big slab shower with the carwash effect from two showerheads and three valves. “It’s a great place to wash the dog,” the owner says.

Meanwhile, Durham and the owners’ daughter were getting along well. Very well.

The basement, the original problem, was finished off with a full stone bar, movie theater and wall of stereo controls that resemble an airplane cockpit. Four sliding wall panels cover the movie/TV screen. A limestone terrace was added leading to the existing pool and Japanese gardens. (It was that portion of the home that kept the owners from tearing down the house and starting anew.)

Durham added a series of wood-platform decks made of Pau Lope wood from Brazil divided with beds of black sand and Fond du Lac stones. He added an outdoor kitchen.

And, as luck would have it, all the work was done the day before Phil Durham married the homeowners’ daughter. At the house. As the mother happily muses: “He got the gold ring.” And so much more than he ever imagined when he first landed the job.