Michael McGrath and Eileen Romer have reshaped their 100-year-old West University home to meet their needs with a series of three remodelings over two decades, without losing its historical
They attribute thinking ahead and using the same architect to getting what they needed from each project, but without limiting future improvements.
Romer and McGrath have owned the red brick house, on an old-fashioned block-square park just off North Fourth Avenue, for 26 years and raised their two daughters there.
“It was only 1,500 square feet when we moved in,” McGrath said. Not a lot of space for what would soon be four people and a series of playful chocolate Labs.
Over the course of the three remodels the house grew, but only to about 2,200 feet. Moving the kitchen to a former sleeping porch and extending one rear corner to create a new master bedroom accounted for the added square footage.
“I have done three projects for them over the years,” said architect Leo Katz said. “A kitchen/family room remodel in 1995, an entry remodel in 2010 and a master bedroom suite/covered patio remodel/addition in 2011. It’s kind of a good story of a repeat client and the evolution of home remodeling over the years to meet your changing needs and resources.”
The first stage was all-important. It included moving the galley kitchen from the rear (west) wall of the house to what had been an enclosed sleeping porch on the north side . While the kitchen is still fairly small and narrow, by modern standards, it’s functional and attractive. Moving it off the rear wall connected the core of the home — a pair of large, open high-ceilinged rooms that led from the front of the house — to the rear porch deck that would be expanded in a later remodel.
The choice of simple, slab-front kitchen cabinets in figured light maple and granite countertops keeps the room from looking dated nearly 20 years after that first remodel.
A six-burner gas stovetop set in the granite countertop and a built-in refrigerator also contribute to the kitchen’s contemporary look.
The most striking touch in the kitchen was Romer’s idea: Using curved-front cabinets that make it easier to navigate the corner entrances to both ends of the kitchen. Rather than 90-degree cabinets, the inside corner is convex and the outside corner concave, directing you through the space like a curved walkway. The inside corner cabinet comes up to counter height and has a granite top. Although space is at a premium in the kitchen, the effect is open and spacious, not one of entering through a cabinet-lined tunnel.
In the high-ceilinged dining room/family room on the other side of the inside kitchen wall, a built-in entertainment center between the kitchen entrances mimics the cabinets’ arches. Brightly colored art on the facing wall warms up the dining and family room.
Oak floors throughout most of the house, some refinished original flooring and others skillfully matched new wood, help tie the opened up spaces together.
McGrath said that when they bought the house it was a warren of small rooms and that several walls were removed during the remodelings. The former dining room was an oddly small room with a high ceiling and mirrored walls, an apparent effort to give the illusion of spaciousness. That space was joined with the former kitchen’s space to create the large open dining/family room outside the new kitchen.
Later, stretching the high-ceilinged rear deck further into the spacious backyard let the couple keep a substantial amount of deck outdoor space, even after extending one end of that west wall to make room for a master bedroom.
The new master bedroom, 25 feet by 20 feet with 12-foot ceilings, is simply furnished, almost sparse, and has tall curtained windows, and a 36-inch diameter frosted-glass and antique-finished metal lighting fixture. A smaller version of the bedroom ceiling fixture is in the walkway that leads to the master bedroom’s bath and closet areas. Like the arched openings between rooms throughout the house, the repeat of the fixture shapes provides subtle continuity.
A barn-style sliding door hung from wrought-iron hardware can be closed to separate the bedroom from its bathroom and adjacent closet and laundry area.
The couple’s younger daughter now has the former master bedroom, redecorated and with a partially remodeled bathroom area. Romer said she hired CJ Volk of Tucson’s Citron Paint & Design as a color consultant throughout the house. She said Citron’s hand-formulated paints “are thick as a milk shake” and don’t require a second coat.
The centerpiece of the former master bedroom’s bath area is a vintage-style claw-foot tub that replaced the ‘50s-style tub that was there when they bought the house.
Romer’s home office is in the former second bedroom, between the former master bedroom and new master suite.
The front living room, with exposed beam ceilings, oriental rugs, modest-sized fabric-covered chairs and couch, is the only room that has a definite period feel to it.
The outside of the house, with its brick walls set well back from an iron slatted fence and brick walkways, presents a historic look and feel.
Not everything Romer and McGrath have done over the years is immediately apparent. In addition to the reconfigurations of existing space, added master bedroom and rear deck space, they also switched from evaporative cooling to air conditioning, and upgraded the house’s windows.
McGrath said the old metal casement windows leaked because of gaps as the old house settled.
“There were 17 windows in the first remodel, all nonstandard” sizes, Romer said. “They were,” she recalled, “very expensive.”
Another of the less visible expenses was what McGrath said was a slightly contentious negotiation with neighborhood association and historical review officials concerned about the authenticity of modifications McGrath and Romer wanted to make.
In particular, McGrath said, they had a hard time convincing officials that they were not enclosing what they believed had been a front-facing porch. Through a lengthy and laborious investigation, McGrath said they were able to show that there originally was an entrance on a front corner of the house, on the northeast side.
McGrath said the earliest owner of the house was a doctor who used the house both as an office for his medical practice, and a multi-tenant residence. Patients apparently used the front corner entrance.
The former waiting room or anteroom is now McGrath’s home office space.
McGrath concedes that some of the features of the house were hard to understand. For instance, on one side of the house, a former entrance to a bedroom is bricked in, but still visible.
“It was an office with one or two residential units,” McGrath said, “all these doors and stoops in odd places. But it appears to be original design.”
But those other entrances, because they didn’t face the street and affect the house’s historical
look, weren’t of great concern to officials reviewing proposed changes, McGrath said. Also, he said, architect Katz’s credibility from earlier work on the house probably helped with approval of plans.
McGrath said Katz finds ways of doing what the client wants, rather than inflicting his ideas. “He listens,” McGrath said.