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Remodel Magazine
June/July 2008

By Fred Albert

Photography by Alise O'Brien

Raising the Bar

A top-to-toe renovation turns a deteriorating 1980s rambler into a contemporary masterpiece.

It's hard to say whether sentiment, shrewdness, or just plain stubbornness led a suburban St. Louis couple to remodel their 20-year-old home. The roof, siding, windows, and doors all needed replacing, flooding had damaged the basement, and narrow stairways and endless halls choked the flow from room to room.

"It probably would have been easier to tear it down and just start over," architect Philip Durham says. But the owners loved the Japanese garden they'd cultivated on the former country-club fairway, and they couldn't bear to part with its rambling pats and tranquil, rock-lined pool. So they hired Durham to undertake a top-to-bottom remodel that preserved the home's California contemporary styling but took the design and craftsmanship to the next level.

"They were fairly sophisticated clients. They knew a lot about art and furnishings, but they had a house that didn't really support that," Durham says. To bring more substance to the spec-house architecture, he worked with Havens Contracting Co. to widen passageways between rooms, replace small moldings with stout custom trim, and expand staircases throughout to provide more gracious transitions between levels. Doorways were raised to a more commanding 7 feet and fitted with fluted-glass doors, aiding the flow of light while preserving privacy. (Although, Durham admits with a chuckle, "There are still people who won't use the bathroom because of the glass doors.")

Because the owners were so enamored with their garden, Durham expanded the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows across the back of the house, allowing the couple to bask in the landscape's seasonal permutations. To maximize their enjoyment, the owners set their dining table next tot he living room windows and turned the old, enclosed dining room into a music room.

The 1980s kitchen was marginally serviceable and dated, so the architect bumped out the back wall 8 feet to double the floor space and raised the 8-foot ceiling to match the vault in the living room. Honey-color anigre cabinets warm the space; their pronounced grain is echoed in the swirling veins of the Juparana Itaoca granite adorning the counters and backsplash. A dusky oak island topped with stainless steel anchors the sunny space, which features separate areas for cooking, prep, and cleanup.

Brazilian cherry flooring stained a sultry black unifies the public spaces and provides a durable foundation for the owners' existing furnishings. Rice-paper lanterns dangle from the living room ceiling, underscoring the Asian motif and domesticating the room's scale. The traditional fireplace mantel was replaced with a cantilevered granite beam that extends into the passageway. "I wanted something that would draw the eye around the corner into the new kitchen, but I didn't want anything that was too elaborate," Durham says.

Having watched the home's finishes deteriorate over 20 years, the owners wanted replacements that could stand the test of time. They tore off the shake roof and installed copper shingles. The same material appears on the gutters and custom front door, which is accessed via offset wooden decks that suggest a Japanese garden bridge.

Decayed redwood siding was traded for black stucco, which seemed to best complement the garden (and the only color, the owners observe, that didn't make the house look like a Taco Bell restaurant). Decking crafted from dense, durable ipe wood extends into the landscape, culminating in a well-equipped outdoor kitchen and arbor-covered dining pavilion.

Although the renovation took two years, the owners feel it was well worth it. A few months after moving back in, they hosted a wedding there for their daughter – and Durham – who fell in love during the remodel. So in the end, they go a new house and a new son-in-law: proof that sometimes stubbornness pays off.