Creating a backdrop for a mix of minimal furnishings, architect Michael Hennessey and contractor Dowbuilt turn to bespoke details that elevate the space.
Architect Michael Hennessey worked with interior designer Erica Plam and contractor Dowbuilt to renovate this historic San Francisco apartment. The sitting room is just off the dining area and according to Plam, "was envisioned for morning coffee and newspaper as well as before and after dinner drinks." The sofa is a reupholstered piece from the clients' previous residence and the tables are custom.
When a San Francisco couple purchased a historic apartment in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, they intended, from the outset, to renovate its dated interiors. The 100-yeard old building was architecturally solid—and each apartment occupies an entire floor, giving spectacular, 360-degree views that include Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Sutro Tower—but the homeowners were looking for an aesthetic and programmatic refresh. They made it clear to their design team that while they wanted to modernize the apartment, it felt important to respect the building’s provenance while allowing the views to take center stage in each room.
"Very careful consideration was given to the simplicity of the marble fireplace, the lighting, and the Nero Marquina bar," notes Plam of the living room, where four Jean Michel Frank club chairs sit around a custom coffee table—the base is by Richard Shapiro Studiolo and the heavy oak top is custom by Noah Elias Works.
“This was an unusual typology for us,” says architect Michael Hennessey of Michael Hennessey Architecture, who worked with interior designer Erica Plam and contractor Dowbuilt to give the space a fresh start. “The apartment is in a 1920s high-rise building, and the client reached out to us after seeing one of our previous apartment renovations in the city, noting our understanding of materiality, texture, and light.”
Looking to begin with a blank slate, the design team gutted the entire floor, leaving only the existing historic double-hung, pivot, and bay windows. “The apartment was generic and tired,” Hennessey notes. “There wasn’t much to hold on to or take with us. In a historic renovation situation, we react to what’s left, and in this case, it was the windows.”
Tucked into one corner of the formal living room is an area with a game table. The banquet was custom made at Kroll and covered in a Holly Hunt fabric; the table is Piero Lissoni #9; and the chairs are by Nina Seirafi through Ralph Pucci and covered in a Holly Hunt long alpaca velvet.
The crown molding in the living room and dining room was carved by Nantucket-based artisan Paul McCarthy. The dining table is a classic Florence Knoll design circled by custom-upholstered Saarinen chairs. "The pair of gilt mirrors were custom made locally for the clients' previous home," Plam says. "I was happy to be able to use them again here; they are Old World beautiful and a wonderful contrast to the dining table and chairs."
“We could not change the style, placement, or shape of the windows,” Plam adds, “but we changed all the walls, doorways, and layout.”
The home’s public zones—the living room, kitchen, and dining room—are at its north end, with prominent views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Private areas—including bedrooms, bathrooms, and home office—populate the opposite end, with a long hallway and glassed-in TV lounge sitting in between. The detailed trim and moldings, chosen as a nod to the building’s roots, are painted with Benjamin Moore’s Decorator’s White to, “allow them to fall back," Hennessey explains. "It places less emphasis on the architecture and highlights the clients’ art and the views.”
"The primary bedroom was meant to feel like a lovely and restful cocoon," says Plam. The two chairs are from Poliform, upholstered in a silk velvet. "The showstopper in this room are the two Glass Italia Shimmer tables by Patricia Urquiola, which change color and intensity depending on the light throughout the day."
Oak floors set in a Hungarian point pattern bring warmth to the predominantly white rooms. The Hungarian point pattern is similar to a traditional Herringbone layout, but its angles are slightly different, making it quieter visually. Seattle-based Dowbuilt crafted the millwork package in their shop and enlisted local San Francisco talent for the custom steel profiles and stone slab elements. Brass door hardware and cabinetry pulls were forged by Van Cronenburg in Belgium.
"In the kitchen, all of the hardware on the cabinetry was forged by Van Cronenburg in Belgium," says Hennessey. "The craftsmanship behind it is a nod to the traditional, while the cabinetry itself is clean and modern with no raised panels." The countertops and backsplash are Carrera marble.
When it came to the interiors, Plam, who had worked with the clients on a series of residential projects over 18 years, was familiar with their likes and dislikes. “Their style, like [anyone’s], has evolved,” she says. “In the instance of this home, relative to our previous work together, it has simplified. But a streamlined, simplified aesthetic is always a much more rigorous process! The paring down, the editing, the discipline—these were guideposts we referenced frequently throughout the work.”
The TV and lounge space greets guests as they enter the apartment. The clients are big readers and wanted their book collection on display. Custom steel-and-glass doors provide a sound barrier without cutting the room off from the rest of the apartment.
Most of the furnishings are new, but Plam reused some items from the clients’ previous residence, refinishing and reupholstering where needed. To keep the focus on views, Plam chose minimal, streamlined furniture in a neutral palette. Accent pieces, such as two Glass Italia Shimmer tables by Patricia Urquio in the primary bedroom, bring unexpected hits of color and depth—almost like an additional works in the clients’ art collection.
“The decorative lighting throughout the apartment is a highlight,” notes Plam, “with several incredible custom pieces and a few iconic midcentury pieces. We were wary of creating a midcentury greatest hits playlist here, and while there are so many tempting pieces, the focus stayed on thoughtfully designed and hand-crafted pieces throughout—many made locally to detailed specs.” Much like the art and accent furniture, lighting choices—including two brass wall scones in the sitting room, a Serge Mouille chandelier in the living room, and a trio of hanging brass pendants by Areti over the clients’ game table—add interesting, but not distracting, shapes to each zone.
In the guest room, beds are custom by Kroll and covered in a C & C Milano fabric. All bedding and soft furnishings, as well as the shades, are custom and made by Malatesta O'Brien. The chair in the corner is the LIttle Petra chair, upholstered in shearling and purchased through Matter NYC, and the small table is Piero Lissoni
While the design process was straightforward, Plam notes that the size of the elevator prevented her from easily getting large sofas into the apartment. “The contractors required a crane for glass and other materials, so we moved two sofas up that way!” she recalls. “But decisions had to be made with this constraint in mind, [and] this was handled by employing custom sectional pieces for the larger upholstered pieces in the apartment.”
The wife's home office enjoy's unobstructed views of Sutro Tower. The apartment's original windows remain, and all trim and walls were painted with Benjamin Moore's Decorator’s White.
The bespoke backdrop and furnishings maintain a relationship but fall away just enough to allow the views to shine. “Whenever we work in a historic building, we take the approach of working with the building, not coming in and just blasting everything out to drop in a fully modern project,” Hennessey says. “There is a dialogue between the traditional and modern, and in this case it was all about finding a good balance between the two.”