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A large kitchen with two windows overlooking a yard. There is a marble topped table, stove, oven, and painted aqua cabinets with glass doors revealing bowls, glasses, and plates.

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An 1870s Victorian farmhouse finally shines in Northern California

After years of preparation, hard work, and sheer determination

After years of shuttling between New York City and Los Angeles, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel wanted to change their location and their lives. They landed in the tiny town of Healdsburg, California (approximately 1.5 hours from San Francisco in Sonoma County Wine Country, population 11,254). The home they found there—an extreme fixer—was certainly transformative.

The work they did on the 1870 Victorian turned the business analyst (Engel) and graphic designer (Goff) into seasoned renovation experts and tested their patience and skill. This week, in our second annual Renovation Diary, the pair describes the joy and the frustration of bringing the decrepit home back to life, a process Goff fully details in his blog, 227NorthStreet.

When Mark Goff (left) and Phillip Engel (right) purchased this house, it was uninhabitable and a bank wouldn't give them a loan for it (creative financing was required). They decided to restore it, primarily themselves, tackling projects that many seasoned DIY remodelers fear. Seven years later, they are reaping the rewards. They told us: "Some people say remodeling drives a couple apart. This wasn't the case for us."

The house isn’t quite done—we are working on a storage area upstairs and planning on building a garage—but the end is in sight. We just have a mere five million little details to go! Today, we are enjoying it and entertaining a lot. We jokingly call the way we move through the house during a party "Downton Abbeying." We start at the back and say [adopting a faux British accent], "Shall we go through?"

The library is just off the entry, and it serves as a place to read and relax. Goff writes in his blog: "In each room, we have great antique and vintage moments, but overall it's a very contemporary look." The rock paintings are by Garry Tosti.

We start at the back in the kitchen, and then we move to the dining room, where our friend, artist Natasha Landau, made the whole room a work of art. We were plastering the walls in here, and it was supposed to be a mid-gray, but it came out quite a bit darker than we expected, and we panicked.

Mark really didn’t like it, and we were planning to replaster, when Natasha came over, took a look, and proclaimed: "Don’t worry, I will do art!" We knew her paintings, but we weren’t as familiar with her charcoal pieces, and that’s what she wanted to use on the walls. We decided that, since she is an artist, it was best not to hover and let her do her thing. For weeks she was there, drawing large shapes in gray and black charcoal. At the last moment, she added white zig-zags and the whole thing came together as a beautiful and textured 3D object. At the time, it felt a little risky, but the results are wonderful.

The large, crystal gaslight chandelier (it's lit with a match) is the crowning glory over the long table in dining room. As a playful touch, the couple installed closed circuit phones on each end of the 12-foot table so guests can call each other from each end. Artist Natasha Landau was inspired to create a work of art on the walls, saving the space from going too dark.

After dinner, we move to the living room—by going from back to front, you are leaving the mess behind you, and you aren’t staring at the clutter of the evening. This room was a challenge to furnish, because it’s all doors (it's kind of like a pass-through to the rest of the first floor). It serves multiple purposes; it has a piano for Phillip to play and it’s a place to sit and entertain after a meal—it's where we chat as the evening winds down.

Unlike many households, we really do use this room, it’s not like a museum of furniture that’s never sat upon. One thing we like is that there's a lot of stuff from Phillip's family here, such as his grandmother's rug, mirror, and two chairs. These are things from her former home in Orange, New Jersey, and it gives him a sense of continuation and pleasant memories of his grandmother.

The living room is furnished with armchairs and a rug that once lived in Engel's grandmother's home. The sofa was in the home when they purchased it, and they had it refurbished and reupholstered. The painting that hangs over it is often mistaken for a relative, but the couple calls the vintage piece "purchased" family. Goff discovered the Civil War-era light fixtures online and had them restored and wired.

Mark likes to decorate by creating a series of moments. You look to the left, there’s a moment; to the right, another moment. Hopefully they go from one to the other and work together. We have tried two contemporary sofas here, but they just didn’t work, they felt too heavy. When we moved in, there was an old Victorian sofa in the house, and we had it down in the basement. We decided to try it, and we sent it to a furniture restorer, who cleaned and oiled the wood trim and covered it in a simple white linen. We also had Phillip’s grandmother’s chairs refinished and recovered, as they were painted black and had white Naugahyde alligator upholstery. Now they are natural wood and have a brushed-wool upholstery in a mushroom color.

Doing all this has influenced the way we approach things. We may not know how to complete a given project, but we know we can ask questions...and figure out how to get there.

We also have a portrait of a man we call Uncle George, and he sits there staring at everyone. People ask us all the time if he’s our ancestor, and we have to tell them he’s our purchased relative. We came to the house with much of this furniture from our homes in Los Angeles and New York, but we purchased most of the art specifically for the space. We also picked up some pieces from local consignment shops, like the console with a painted polo motif. We made a coffee table by using a vintage base and a marble slab our friends gave us. One end is rough and broken, and we plan to leave it that way. Mark calls the overall look eclectic; Phillip calls "modern granny," meaning a traditional feel, but a modern sensibility.

Across the way is the library, but it’s an iPad library with no bookshelves—we read everything electronically. It’s the hang-out spot for the two of us, where we can relax and read.

Looking around the house, we can say with certainty that there’s not one inch that’s unknown to us. We’ve touched and been inside of everything. We know very well what's behind all the walls—where all the pipes are and where the wires are running.

The concrete tile floor (custom by Villa Lagoon) is new and the walls are freshly plastered, but the sculptural newel post, stair rail, and balusters have stood in this house since was built in the 1870s. The bright yellow room that beckons off the entry is the room they call the library and hang-out spot.

Doing all this has influenced the way we approach things. We may not know how to complete a given project, but we know we can ask questions, do the research, and figure out how to get there.

Something we learned is to not let ourselves be swayed. An example: We didn’t want to use can lights, but we let ourselves be talked into using a few. They are OK, but it’s not the look we really wanted. In this process, we learned to listen to expert opinions, garner what we can, and then to trust our own instincts.

Back when, Engel's grandmother cut one of her massive rugs in half. Today, part of it lies in the living room and the other half dresses the floor here, in the master bedroom. "It devalued the rug, but it would be challenging to use otherwise," Engel says. The new, Blakely spindle bed is dressed with a silk coverlet by Jim Thompson. The contemporary pieces are at home with Victorian-era tables and a functioning Victrola from the 1920s.

One thing Phillip would do differently is put the electric panel in a central place. Since he's from the East Coast, he put it in the cellar, because that’s how it's done there. It didn’t occur to him to put it somewhere more easily accessible.

One thing we are glad we did is build the upper deck off the master bedroom. This started out as a thing for Melissa (an imaginary buyer we dreamed up to evaluate our decisions). For years Phillip lamented it, saying it was one of the things we should not have designed and that we didn’t need. But we had already put the door in for it, so we had to add it or have a passage to nowhere. But then when it went in, he decided he liked it. We both do, it’s a very pretty feature.

During the process of rehabbing the house, Goff and Engel got a lot of community feedback, ranging from an elderly man grumbling that it looked like "a million dollar pile of kindling" to strangers stopping by and thanking them for their efforts. They told us: "You could say the house was like a celebrity in town. Everyone dreamed of buying it and fixing it up."

In the end, we love the house even more than we ever thought we would. It’s more than a house, really. It’s more than just our home, it’s part of the community. When we bought it, we had no idea how much significance the house had to this town, that was a surprise. We still get people coming up to us and thanking us for restoring it.

If someone does the upkeep, it should last another hundred years, and after that—who knows? It’s been a big project, and a challenging and difficult process. We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how we’d get there, and we figured it out. Now that it’s almost done, we feel a sense of accomplishment.