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Part V: An 1870s Victorian gets a needed facelift

In this installment of our 2016 Renovation Diary, our homeowners focus on curb appeal

Photos courtesy Mark Goff and Philip Engel

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.

This house has always been white, and many people in town referred to it as the "White House." It’s never been landmarked, but some research Mark did makes us think it would be eligible.

While we were trying to decide just what color to paint it, we put up some small test swatches on the front of the house. This generated a lot of opinion, and we even had people knock on the door to tell us which color they favored. One woman told us, "Paint it any color you like—as long as it’s white." For a while, when people in town asked us what color we were going to paint it, Phillip would jokingly say "fuschia!" But he realized that it was a sensitive topic in the community, so he stopped joking and started reassuring people we weren’t going to do anything crazy.

In the end, we chose a soft pearl gray, Light French Gray by Sherwin-Williams, for the body of the house and a white, Swan Wing by Kelly Moore, for the trim details. This is one of those jobs that we hired done, as it would have taken us forever. The painter we selected normally uses Sherwin-Williams, but he brought us a Kelley-Moore fan deck because they have what seems like six million shades of white. We felt that the white color made the Victorian elements shine.

Although many things changed inside the house, the exterior remains much the same. Left: A photo from the 1800s shows the house when it was new. Right: An undated photo displays its slide into decay. No matter what the year or the condition, it had always been white.

We used all the existing lap siding and trim, but we reglazed all of the windows using extra thick single panes. This gives us a bit more insulation, and looks more authentic than double-paned windows. If we had put in double-paned windows, we would have had to redo the trim. There’s a big movement on the East Coast to do this, rather than getting all new windows that ruin the old look.

The new windows aren’t soundproof, but that’s OK. It’s funny, but in a way we almost think Americans seal themselves off too much from the outside. There’s something to be said for hearing what goes on on the street—like hearing a neighbor pass that you want to go out and greet.

The facade has a folly to it, the gas light fixtures we installed. Back when, this house never had gas light fixtures in it, just some electric, eventually. But Mark has a thing for gas light fixtures. In fact, he is totally enamored with them, because he loves the light they cast.

One of the last things we have to do is restore the little balcony off the second floor. There had been one when it was built, but at some point it was removed. We looked in many antique stores for rail spindles, but we never found the right ones. Then, one day when we were visiting a house in the neighborhood that was for sale, we noticed a box of balustrades in the garage. They were in rough shape, but they were exactly what we needed. We approached the agent and admitted we weren’t in the market for a house, but we wanted to buy the balustrades from the owners. The people called us, and said they were willing to sell them—but then months went by and we didn’t hear from them again. One morning we went outside and there was the box containing the pieces by the front door. The new owners would probably have just thrown the rails out, and we thought it was a really nice gesture to give them to us. They will be used to reconstruct the second floor balcony.

One of the things Goff and Engel decided not to do themselves was paint the exterior. From the left, you can see the beginning, the middle, and the nearly complete painting process.

For the house numbers, we used the same style that was on the house when we purchased it. But the mailbox had been nailed to the bottom of the bay window on the south, and was in pretty bad shape. We took it off and leaned it against the side of the front steps. It was rickety and leaked, and finally the mail carrier left a note in it asking us if we could get a new one because our mail was getting ruined. What he didn’t know is that Phillip was busy fixing one up, a vintage piece from the 1920s or 1930s. He took the shiny brass piece and soaked it in acid, which blackened it.

The front of the house looks almost exactly as it did when it was built, except we covered the entry stairs with brick we salvaged from the old foundation after the concrete molds failed (the forms buckled when the wet concrete was poured because the rain-soaked ground couldn’t support the stakes) and our stairs turned out lopsided. We jackhammered most of it out, and used what was left of the concrete as a base for the brick.

Test swatches on the house generated a lot of public comment (some people knocked on their door to express their opinion). In the end, the men chose Light French Gray from Sherwin Williams as main color, and left the architectural ornamentation white. To them, this highlights the Victorian trim.

The back and south side of the house look dramatically different. The back has a deck and a second story addition. We removed the decrepit addition from the side as well as a rotting garage. But we used the wood from the garage to make another folly: the summer house. The garage had probably been there since the early 1900s, and it was sized for a Tin Lizzie. It was falling down and not usable.

We thought we would move the old garage to the back, but the quotes seemed ridiculously high—so one day Mark said, "For god’s sake, let’s just do it ourselves." We got out our saws, took it down and numbered all the boards, and rebuilt is as a clubhouse in the backyard. We added corbels we found in New Orleans and a porch. It’s just a fun thing, a place where we hang out and sometimes have dinners.

We call it a "summer house" because that’s what people used to call summer kitchens, outbuildings they’d use to cook in when it was hot so the house wouldn’t heat up. Our idea is that it looks like an old fashioned summer house. In the house, as we sealed up the walls, we left some notes on the framing explaining what we did and when for the next people who renovate. Here, in the summer house, Phillip wrote Mark + Phillip on the end of a beam.

Up next: The big reveal of a home whose finish is in sight.