A San Francisco Renovation Inspired by “American Gigolo”

Like many new homeowners, Kevin Sawyers and Peter Steinauer knew they wanted to make some changes when they bought a home in San Francisco’s Dolores Heights neighborhood in 2015.

And as an interior designer, Mr. Sawyers, now 53, the founder of Sawyers Design, thought he could go further than most in updating the look of the place. (Mr. Steinauer, 51, is a software engineer at Apple.) But even he didn’t realize how much the project would eventually expand — that it would involve an almost complete remodeling of the house from top to bottom.

“It was very rustic, with lots of wood and kind of ramshackle,” said Mr. Sawyers. The house had been modernized and expanded in spurts since the original part was built in the early 1900s, resulting in an odd hodgepodge of architectural styles.

Recognition…Matthew Millman for the New York Times

Still, he and Mr. Steinauer liked the way the house was set back from the street on a steep hill, and they were impressed by the huge Monterey cypress tree in the backyard. They bought the property in March for $2.1 million, knowing the loose floor tiles, beige carpet, and 1970s-era appliances all had to go.

“I definitely wanted to add a modern layer to the house,” said Mr. Sawyers. “I had great ideas about what we could do on the inside – basically we gutted it, which we did – but eventually everything changed on the outside as well.”

The couple moved in there before renovations began, and the longer they lived there, the more they sensed the opportunity to make some big architectural strides. For help, Mr. Sawyers contacted Hulett Jones, a partner at Jones Haydu architecture firm, with whom he had worked at Gensler architecture and design firm before the two formed their own studios.

“I approached an architect rather than just trying it on my own because I wanted this bigger vision,” said Mr. Sawyers. “I had some ideas of what it could be, but they just took it somewhere else and created a much bigger project than we anticipated.”

The home’s footprint, which would not be permitted under current zoning regulations, presented some unique opportunities, Mr Jones said: “The beauty of the home, which is at the back of the property, is that it has these amazing views of downtown and North and great views from different angles, which became a driving factor in the design.” He and his partner Paul Haydu also wanted to create sight lines to the large tree in the background.

Jones Haydu eliminated many interior walls and added new floor-to-ceiling windows, along with decks at different levels to open up the home. On the first floor, which was elevated above the street and used as a self-contained workshop, they added a cantilevered extension at the front containing a guest suite and shading a new terrace below. Behind the guest suite, they designed space for Mr. Sawyer’s home office, large enough to house a few employees, and added a staircase connecting it to the rest of the home.

In the second-floor living room, they blasted walls that had few windows and replaced them with floor-to-ceiling glass panels under a cathedral ceiling, again moving a few feet closer to the street. To provide more headroom for the third floor master suite, they raised the roof and changed its pitch. In the master bathroom, they positioned a freestanding tub in a glass-walled alcove.

“That’s probably my favorite thing in the house,” said Mr. Sawyers. “You sit in the tub and you can look out the window at the Twin Peaks. You just feel like you are in this glass box.”

For the exterior siding, Jones Haydu replaced the old cedar clapboard siding with a mix of standing seam metal, used for the roof and siding, and cedar battens.

With such a modern, cleanly drawn architectural shell, one might expect a row of pristine white boxes inside. But that wouldn’t happen under Mr. Sawyer’s watch. To create a personal color palette, he drew inspiration from unlikely sources: a luxurious Tibetan coat and the sets of the 1980 film American Gigolo.

“I’ve been thinking about how we could feel and look our best in this house,” said Mr. Sawyers, much in the way the sets in “American Gigolo” flattered Richard Gere. “I wanted to create this set for us – for me and Pete.”

The result is walls painted in Benjamin Moore colors like Grape Juice (inspired by the saturated tones in some movie scenes); kitchen cabinets in teal (which, like in the film, served as a foil for the warm colors); a wallpaper with leaves on a kitchen wall; and a living room fireplace surround made of grasscloth by Phillip Jeffries painted with gossamer clouds.

It took two years to build and cost more than $1,000 per square foot, but the couple eventually moved back into their extensively remodeled 3,200-square-foot home in September 2020, confident that they had created a one-of-a-kind gem.

“It’s fun, it’s open, and it embraces as much of the outside world as possible,” said Mr. Sawyers. It’s also full of unexpected personal touches, which is the point: “It just really fits our lifestyle.”

Sign up here to receive weekly email updates on residential real estate news. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

Leave a Comment