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Architect transforms turn-of-the-century townhouse into a modern home

When Larry Sykes bought his first house, he became the designer, contractor, and client

Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we look at the Denver, Colorado home of Larry Sykes and Sarah Hernandez. When the couple bought this place, their first home, Sykes, who is a designer at the noted firm Arch11, took on the tasks of redesigning and rebuilding the 116-year-old unit. The sometimes challenging project has, in his words, "most definitely made him better" at his job.

In 2013, the challenging Denver housing market meant that Larry Sykes and Sarah Hernandez were likely going to be buying a fixer. Simultaneously taking on a first home and a big project would be a daunting task for many, but this couple (mostly) welcomed the opportunity. "We saw some homes in our price range where a lot of things had been done already," Sykes says. "But, from my perspective, they were not very good things. We were open to places that needed a lot of work."

In Hernandez’s view, fixing up a home made financial as well as artistic sense. "[Larry] was previously in a situation akin to being a painter who had never had a blank canvas," she says. Her biggest worry was that their new lives could end up mirroring the 1980s comedy, The Money Pit.

Exterior of the victorian townhouse, is very boxy, with two centered front doors for each side.
Although this duplex was built in 1900 and has some Victorian details, it attracted Sykes because it was "basically a box."

The fear was understandable. "A lot of the old houses in Denver have complicated layouts," says Sykes. "Many have funky attics and other spaces that are difficult to work with." So, when the couple found a circa 1900 townhouse that resembled a box, the simplicity of it was exciting.

"It’s not a particularly ornate house," says Sykes. "Although it was built in the Victorian era, it’s sort of proto-modern. Back then, the Gates rubber factory was just a mile south, and a lot of people in this neighborhood worked there. I’m guessing this was a working-class home, so it wasn’t very fancy."

Those straightforward lines allowed the architect the freedom to impose modern elements while keeping (or, in some cases, exposing) the period features. The only thing that stood between vision and reality was a lot of hammer work, but Sykes knew just the person for the job: himself.

Top: The dining room table was made by Sykes with live-edge slabs from TC Woods. The yellow chairs, light fixture, and Borge Mogensen bookshelf are vintage. The liquor cart is from World Market. Bottom: Sarah Hernandez and Sykes pose in the living room with their dog, Bear. The sofa is from World Market, the painting is vintage.

It’s relatively unusual to meet an architect who actually drives nails and saws wood, but Sykes and many of his coworkers inhabit the small, sawdust-tinged club. "At Arch11, there’s kind of a culture of building. EJ Meade [founder] got his start building houses and Ken Andrews [principal] was a carpenter before he got into architecture," Sykes says. "My stepdad was a carpenter, and I worked with him on some construction. I was familiar and comfortable with tools, and I was also comfortable with making mistakes and correcting them."

That mindset came in handy when Sykes started working on the home. He decided early on that he would preserve most of the original details, expose some of the building materials, and impose some new modern elements. That meant that the existing floors would be refinished and reused. "Learning how to operate the floor sander taught me how much labor is worth," Sykes says. "It’s difficult to do and very time consuming. There are plenty of professional sanders who would be horrified by some of the divots I put in the floor."

Sykes admits that everything took him longer than anticipated. It’s a situation his wife also noticed. "I actually have a formula that has been pretty reliable: I multiply the amount of time he anticipates by two or three, depending on the size of the project," Hernandez says. "So if he thinks something will take three hours, it'll likely take closer to nine."

Left: Sykes determined that when he added a new element to the house, it would be modern—such as this angular stair rail. Right: In the kitchen, Sykes removed the plaster from one wall, exposing red brick. The stainless steel shelves are from Ikea.

But for the couple, the pay off has been worth the wait. In the new and mostly finished house, original details such as a carved fireplace surround, a curvy ogee arch, and high baseboards live with modern elements like an angular handrail, a slatted sliding door, and exposed brick and lathe.

"I like the contrast between the old and new, and I think it works," Sykes says. "There’s always some trepidation with how far to take this kind of thing, but once I landed on an idea, and it had a clear, functional purpose, I went for it."

Sykes explains that when he had to add new elements to the project, he stripped them down to their barest forms and made them overtly and clearly modern, so there would be no mistaking what was new and what was old. An example is the handrail on the interior stair. The design of the new, angular, oak-wood piece is deceptively simple, completely straightforward, and described by Sykes as both "dumb" and "elegant."

In phase two of the remodel, Sykes will change the run of the basement stairs and place he new door to the lower level behind this sliding panel.

When he put in a sliding door between the dining room and kitchen (he plans to reconfigure the basement stairs so this will one day screen the door to the lower level), he made it with oversize horizontal planks, and it resembles an enlarged section of exposed lathe.

He truly did expose the home’s old lathe in the powder room. "I’ve always loved the complexity of how old walls are put together," Sykes says. "Our powder room had a very unattractive light fixture and a seashell-shaped sink. When I pulled them off the wall, the lathe was revealed. The more I hammered away at the wall, the more I fell in love with the textures, so I decided to leave it. It shows what it took to make a wall in 1900."

He applied the same logic to the kitchen. While the room is still a work in progress, Sykes has taken out the plaster above the countertop, exposing backside of the exterior brick wall. "That’s an example of something that took a lot longer, and was more difficult than I anticipated—I did not realize how much effort it would require. But it was so beautiful, I kept chipping away. I’m love the way it looks, and because of its relevance to the bones of the house."

The bedroom has a patterned bed spread, wooden door, and white walls.
Clockwise from top: Sykes reconfigured the top floor, adding a master bedroom closet and a new hallway in the process. The bed and the light sconces are by Ikea; the colorful, abstract painting of Abraham Lincoln was done by Sykes as a reimagining of Salvador Dali’s portrait of the president; Hernandez’s make up vanity is accented by a vintage chair by Hans Olsen and artwork by Rex Ray.
Clockwise from top: Sykes reconfigured the top floor, adding a master bedroom closet and a new hallway in the process. The bed and the light sconces are by Ikea; the colorful, abstract painting of Abraham Lincoln was done by Sykes as a reimagining of Salvador Dali’s portrait of the president; Hernandez’s make up vanity is accented by a vintage chair by Hans Olsen and artwork by Rex Ray.

Upstairs, wall shifting was required. When the house was built, Sykes is guessing that the upper level was divided into several small bedrooms. At some point, walls were removed to make the space more open, but also more awkward. "We had a funny situation where guests had to pass through our bedroom in order to get to the bathroom."

By adding walls, Sykes was able to "frame" a generously sized master bedroom and create a hallway that allows guests to pass by, but not through, their room when visiting the bath at the back of the house.

Sykes said that throughout the entire project, the couple has been living in the home, draping areas with plastic to close them off and dealing without appliances for short periods of time. "When I go deeper into the kitchen, it will be harder," he says. "I expect we will be grilling outside a lot."

Sykes modified the trellis, re-clad the deck, and restructured the steps to create a new outdoor living area. Hernandez says it’s one of her favorite parts of the house.

Hernandez, who has helped with a couple of the bigger projects, says that occasionally the remodel has been less than fun. "There have been many times when I've let out a deep sigh while dusting sawdust off Bear (our dog) or not being able to functionally use most of the space on the second floor. And, most weekends and many evenings, Larry is occupied with a project," she says. "However I'd be remiss to not give Larry credit for balancing everything. If there is an important social event happening on a particular weekend he doesn't plan to do any house projects. Sometimes I'll request that we have a ‘project-free weekend’ so that we can just enjoy the work he's done so far."

But in addition to a family home they love, the effort has yielded a leap in professional development for Sykes. "I now better understand what the clients and the construction workers are going through," he says. "I always had a deep appreciation for what the contractors were doing—but working on my own home has given me a deeper knowledge as well."

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