A flower in the Victorian renaissance
San Francisco — After a lot of sweat, elbow grease, and some major expenditures, Richard and Alison Massa are finally enjoying the satisfaction that comes from having restored a fine old house to its original beauty and elegance.
If you love San Francisco and want to be a significant part of its unique development and ambiance today, you may well be involved in the restoration of one of its 13,000 remaining Victorian houses that have survived earthquake, fire , neglect, and urban development.
It was one of these sturdy houses on Pine Street, an 1875 Italianate Victorian that had gone through an inundation of hippies and rock band tenants in the freewheeling '60s, that captured the imagination and affection of Richard and Alison Massa in 1971.
When they bought the house, it was a $60,000 bargain that was screaming for help. Although it had been erected by the best-known builder of the Italianate Victorian period for the then president of the Italian bank and was later owned by the pianist and composer who founded the San Francisco Symphony, its later owners had allowed it to run down and become nondescript. One owner in the 1940s had decided to ''modernize'' it by stripping off all its gingerbread trim and covering it with asphalt shingles. Another owner, two decades later, had tried unsuccessfully to repair the facade with scrap and recycled trim.
In the years since the Massas moved in and began their restoration job, the house has involved them in sweat, elbow grease, and some massive infusions of money. Now they are finally enjoying the satisfaction that comes from having restored a fine old house to its original beauty and elegance. Along with an army of other old-house buffs, the Massas have helped bring San Francisco's ''Victorian renaissance,'' begun in the 1960s, to full flower.
San Francisco, they point out, has been called ''the wooden city'' because its unusual architectural character arose out of the abundant supply of redwood in northern California. Unfortunately, from 1915 on many of these old buildings fell victim to changing fashions and to desecrators who stripped off their embellishments and ''modernized'' them beyond recognition. The plunder of the city's unusual hill neighborhoods included mass destruction of entire city blocks of the old wood housing. Then came the preservation movement, people like the Massas, and the determination to save the dwindling and deteriorating Victorians.
When the Massas moved into the 3,500 square feet of space with their rather sparse belongings, the house's poor condition did not daunt them. They capitulated to its charm and to its hardwood floors, wainscotting, 14-foot ceilings, and hand-carved trim and marble fireplaces. And like most young couples who lose their hearts to old houses, they threw themselves into the usual frenzy of do-it-yourself sanding, scraping, and painting.
Then one day Richard, an attorney, realized he really wasn't too good at it all, and that the use of his own labor was actually uneconomic because of the amount of time it consumed.
After that, he and his wife did the careful planning and designing and then set out to find the best workers they could locate to modernize the kitchen, add a bathroom and two-car garage, rebuild the foundation, build a new staircase, and restore the interior and exterior detailing and embellishment.
In furnishing their capacious Victorian, the Massas explain, ''We simply allowed ourselves to grow with the house. As it progressed, we progressed with the interior decoration.'' Mrs. Massa inherited some family antiques that enhance the house and blend well with their more contemporary possessions.
About 30 months ago they felt ready to tackle the last part of their job, which included the restoration of all original exterior trim and the choosing and application of paint, inside and out. This job, they knew, would give the house its final pristine and distinctive appearance.
At that time they sought out one of the professional teams of restorers now operating in San Francisco to assist the owners of Victorians. They spent $115, 000 on this last leap, but it included excavation work, a new retaining wall, a garage, and about $20,000 for the restoration of the facade.
The Massas estimate that they have now poured about $160,000 into their original $60,000 purchase. But they believe their house would bring more than double that total in today's real estate market.
The Massas agree that their nine-year effort has been more than worth it. ''We like the bigness and the roominess of our house,'' Mrs. Massa says. ''We love entertaining in it and having our friends appreciate and enjoy it, too. There's a lot of satisfaction in completing a project like this. You feel you have not only done something for yourself, but for the city as well.''