Stunning and magical, this home has a special spirit
Adventurer, environmentalist, advocate for African tribespeople, animal lover, and aerobatic pilot: For an adventurous spirit like Laurie McFarlin, home is where you hang your mukluks, your scuba gear, your mosquito netting ... even your Manolo Blahniks. It’s true, the places she’s lived in have hit what she calls some “absurd extremes,” including a primitive snow cabin high above Aspen, a sailboat (for three years with a toddler strapped to her!), a haunted Santa Fe bordello, a Botswana bush camp, and a Manhattan apartment. Now, headquarters for her adventuring—and reminiscing—is a sophisticated 1920s Italianate home in California’s Bay area.
Settled into her Marin County home, renovated by designer Suzanne Tucker and architect Andrew Skurman, Laurie reveals fascinating stories of “firsts” and high adventure. Here’s a taste: To face her fear of flying, she not only learned to fly, but became an aerobatic pilot (the kind that stops, drops, and rolls). “I would drop my daughter off at school and go fly upside down,” she remembers. A few years later she was flying vintage fighter jets, and even a MiG-29.
It was her love of flight and nature that led Laurie to the deep bush of Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. “They let me fly in Africa,” says Laurie. “I fell in love with it. Africa was bigger than my expectations and better than my fantasies.” This love of the African countryside and the tribespeople who lived there led Laurie to create a unique and lasting way to give back to both.
These tidbits are just appetizers. Laurie dishes out so many grand tales of experiencing life to its fullest that it can easily make anyone else’s journey seem, well, a bit bland. She makes it sound like kicking experiences up a notch would be so simple, so natural. “I like to remain open to going where life takes me,” she says. “When you walk through one open door, it often leads to another.”
It was the fanciful carved garage doors, in fact, that stopped her about 10 years ago, when she and daughter Hayden (who, Laurie says, got her sea legs before her land legs) first viewed the house. A single mom, Laurie was looking for “a solid foundation for my daughter during her high school years.” They were tooling around a neighborhood, hunting for a place to rent, when Laurie spotted the doors, the stonework, and the grand villa above it. It brought back the essence of childhood vacations in Europe. She hit the brakes, pulled in, and bought the home that evening.
“Everything is so real in this house,” Laurie explains, “and you don’t often find that in the world anymore. This home feels different to me from any other; it has a special spirit.”
The house’s original owner was a Swiss doctor who had moved to America to start a tuberculosis hospital. He spent 10 years building his dream home, flying in European artisans and materials (including the garage doors, made in France) to meet his specifications. The doctor lived in the home the rest of his life. Though it was in the hands of an investor for several months after he died, Laurie considers herself the second owner.
Wanting to make improvements in the spirit of the good doctor, she brought together a design team that also appreciated the unique nature of the home. She started with interior designer Suzanne Tucker of Tucker & Marks in San Francisco, who came highly recommended by Laurie’s sister. “This house is very seductive,” says Tucker. “It was obviously built with passion, and Laurie had great ideas about opening it up and making it flow better for family living.”
The two called on architect Andrew Skurman to join the team, and over the next two years, the creative collaborators took the house down to the studs and reinvented it, keeping the exterior footprint intact and remaining true to its origins. Four tiny rooms behind the kitchen became a common room that opened to a completely redone kitchen. The space was ready for teenage visitors and Laurie’s family or business associates, thanks to sink-in seating and sophisticated surroundings, including a grandly scaled mantel that Tucker had purchased at a Paris flea market and saved for a room that could handle its massive scale. Undaunted by the cavernous space, Tucker planned the seating in three groupings so it would be ready for anything from intimate klatches to large gatherings.
Laurie opted for a smaller dining space within the common room in exchange for an outdoor dining pavilion. The result is a stunning space clad in hand-painted terra-cotta and radiant-heated limestone floors. Leaving no detail untended, Tucker had a limestone table custom-built with its own heat source. It would be hard to keep your elbows off this luscious tabletop.
“The dining pavilion is a warm, magical area surrounded by dense foliage, fountains, and romantic views,” says Tucker. “It was formerly a dilapidated greenhouse. Our goal was to make it look like it was original to the home.”
A salvaged 18th-century mantel does the trick, as do the arches and stone columns. The pavilion walls are painted a rich persimmon to set off the architecture, warm the space, and lend a glow to nighttime visitors.”
The master bedroom was given its own beguiling charms. Tucker and Skurman vaulted the ceiling, and then Tucker designed a four-poster bed with carved barley-twist posts that mimic the 18th-century Danish columns used in the entrance to the common room. The posts soar to 9 feet, making them in proportion to ceilings that pitch to 14 feet high. To filter the light and add privacy while permitting bay breezes to enter, Tucker also designed shutters with a scroll pattern that resembles Byzantine stonework.
But perhaps the nicest gift that Laurie gave to her dream villa was its earthquake-proof retrofit, including new steel posts that extend 21 feet deep into bedrock. “I wanted to make sure this house wouldn’t go anywhere,” says Laurie. “If there is a shake, I think all of San Francisco should run here.”
But does an adventurer like Laurie McFarlin plan to settle into this house for good? Not on your life. With Hayden graduated from college and settled into a successful life as a wedding planner in Los Angeles, Laurie has decided to put the home on the market.
“I brought it back to where it will stand forever,” says Laurie, “and that’s why I feel I can leave it. There are still adventures out there and good things to accomplish. By letting go, I’ll have the freedom to see where life takes me next.”
Photography: Michal Venera
Produced by Heather Lobdell
Architect: Andrew Skurman, Andrew Skurman Architects, 3654 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94118; 415/440-4480; fax, 415/440-4488, skurman.com .
Interior design: Suzanne Tucker, Tucker & Marks, 58 Maiden Lane, 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108; 415/445-6789; fax, 415/445-6780, tuckerandmarks.com .
Interior designer Suzanne Tucker divided the home’s great room into three areas. The trick, she says, is to create intimate seating but avoid piling furniture in the center of a room or lining the walls with it.
Great Room Details
Cut silk-velvet fabric and braided tassels suit this elegant Venetian-style custom sofa.
Great Room Sofa
“This house is very seductive,” says interior designer Suzanne Tucker. “It was obviously built with passion, and Laurie had great ideas about opening it up and making it flow better for family living.”
Great Room Details
Fresh blooms bursting from a corroded urn bring the home’s theme of rejuvenation to life.
Great Room Mantel
The carved limestone mantel, close to 9 feet tall, dates to the 18th century. Tucker bought it at a Paris flea market 15 years ago and kept it in storage, waiting for a room with the proper proportions to handle it. The Italian neoclassical tole lanterns, circa 1780, still have the original paint.
Great Room Details
Mementos of Laurie’s travels punctuate the home, giving every room a touch of storied personality.
Great Room Sitting Area
Three antique Oushak rugs define the great room’s separate seating areas, where ceiling peaks at close to 20 feet. In the renovation of her home, Laurie aimed to respect the original owner’s European vision while improving on it. She and architect Andrew Skurman added arched transoms and sidelights around existing French doors to give them needed scale and drama.
A beautifully carved sideboard table exudes as rich a personality as the unique objects above it. A gilded rococo-style frame gives an air of royalty, to say nothing of the antique crowns displayed below.
The hallway’s carved spiral columns visually link to the kitchen (see next slide) and to other areas of the home where the spiral is repeated.
The kitchen radiates warmth with blonde woods, a copper range hood, and skylights. The thematic spiral columns are repeated on the island, where an intricately carved specimen adds textural interest. Barstools are made of rush.
Copper pots and pans hang from a rack attached to the range hood for easy accessibility.
Tucker left the breakfast room uncarpeted so its walnut-plank floor would gleam in the light from the French doors.
The pavilion boasts views of Mount Tamalpais (Mount Tam to the locals).
The grounds of the McFarlin home are as stately as the 1920s villa itself.
An inviting pool can be seen from the arched doorways of an outdoor dining pavilion that was built where a dilapidated greenhouse once stood.
Laurie cuddles Sophie, a Coton de Tulear.
Tucker designed the four-poster in the master bedroom to get the height needed for the vaulted space. The cosmetic-like palette of creams, peaches, and rosy pinks was chosen for its ability to flatter.
Master Bedroom Details
Tucker designed decorative window shutters to ensure privacy while letting in sunlight and the bay breezes. The pattern was designed after classic Byzantine masonry.
The scroll pattern used in the master suite shutters was also etched on the shower doors. The pattern of the bathroom tilework was designed by Tucker.