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How a Ho-Hum Cole Valley Home Morphed into a Climber’s Dream

An unremarkable house is transformed into a scalable kingdom of earth, fire, and killer views.

SLIDESHOW

A Lindsey Adelman chandelier hangs over a two-story atrium that opens to the backyard.

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Architect John Maniscalco transformed a “decent” 1946 home into a modern gem surrounded by greenery.

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Ana and Abdur Chowdhury prefer unfussy furniture.

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Nashville-based interior designer Katy Chudacoff helped select indoor furnishings.

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An outdoor fireplace surrounded by walls embedded with foot grips.

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Two of the fourth-floor bedrooms are united by a glass catwalk.

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When the sweeping bay views from Ana and Abdur Chowdhury’s living room windows become overwhelming (they stretch clear to Marin), a stroll across the house’s main floor brings you back to earth. Here, the south-facing dining room flows across the threshold and into a sheltered secret garden, a no less dramatic landscape of stone, wood, trees, and fire (pit).

The place was a lot less impressive seven years ago. “It was a decent mid-century home that had been butchered by a series of unfortunate remodels,” architect John Maniscalco recalls.

When the Chowdhurys found it, the two-story Cole Valley house built in 1946 neither celebrated the views nor invited exploration. What lured them from Potrero Hill, where they had lived for several years, was the short, leafy street upon which it perched. An urban Shangri-la, the block is bookended by Tank Hill—a 650-foot-high minipark sheltering hawks, endangered butterflies, and native plants—and Mount Sutro Forest, in whose densely planted 61 acres it is possible to become pleasantly, if temporarily, lost.

Abdur (formerly chief scientist at Twitter and cofounder of Aura, which develops digital picture frames) and Ana (who, with Abdur, helped found the STEM-focused independent school Alta Vista) fell in love with the property. “We were longtime Maniscalco groupies,” says Ana, who had been tearing examples of the architect’s work out of Dwell and other magazines in preparation for just this moment. “We were totally aligned with John’s style—his minimalist approach and preference for clean, open spaces,” adds Abdur, who, with Ana, shares the childhood trauma of packrat parents. “We’re positively terrified of clutter,” he confirms with a shudder, glancing around the preternaturally spare dwelling he shares with his wife and their 13-year-old daughter, Alexis.

With property and architect in place, two years were allotted for the build-out, which stretched to five as challenges from switching builders to a protracted historical review arose—it took the city nine months to determine if the existing garden was a lost gem by legendary landscape architect Robert Royston. (It wasn’t.)

It might have taken even longer but for Maniscalco’s stealth approach to expansion. “Having taken everything down to the studs, we inserted a floor into the middle of the house and dug out the garage and mudroom below,” he explains, “effectively doubling the square footage to 5,200 without changing the height, which tends to keep the neighbors happy.” Maniscalco and project architect Kelton Dissel relocated the front door to the side of the house, creating a verdant journey from the street that bypasses the garage and first floor. “It’s a nicer entry, and you don’t feel as if you’ve ascended Everest before locating the living room,” he jokes.

While the house didn’t go higher, it did colonize much of the garden, leaving about four feet between it and the steep slope out back. So landscape architects James Lord and Roderick Wyllie, principals of San Francisco–based Surfacedesign (whose recent accolades include a National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt), excavated into the hill and devised creative ways to shore it up while transforming the space outside. While the looming hill demanded heavy-duty retaining walls, “we didn’t want to create a monolithic mass,” Wyllie says. “So we staggered the planes, mixed up the materials, and made them all climbable.” (Alexis and Abdur love to climb.) The two rear walls are basalt stone, with a chiseled surface that adds texture and helps lighten the visual impact. “It’s actually an abstraction of post piles—those natural stone formations that resemble vertical posts in the landscape,” Lord explains.

When the glass Fleetwood multi-slide doors are pushed open, the kitchen and garden become a seamless hub for gathering with friends, sheltered from the wind. For Abdur, who counts among his leisure-time activities heli-skiing and cave diving in addition to rock climbing, there is no contest when it comes to choosing the most terrifying pursuit of all: “Oh, building a house, hands down,” he replies cheerfully. “We thought it would never end. That said, now we couldn’t be happier.”

 
 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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