For a distinctive Presidio Heights mansion with a walled garden, designer Hillary Thomas turns back a century of neglect and falls in love in the process
After Sawyer’s parents died when he was a child, he went to live with his ward and uncle, Leland Stanford, the industrialist tycoon and founder of the eponymous university. Sawyer, who graduated from the first class of Stanford University, went on to study in France. Deeply inspired by his time there, he returned to San Francisco, was hired by the venerable Potter family to build them a stately manor in the heart of the city, and thus broke ground for the fortified edifice. (Sawyer, learning a lesson from the 1906 earthquake that all but leveled the City by the Bay, was one of the first architects to use reinforced concrete in single-family-home construction.)
“I wanted the opportunity to do something really special,” recalls Thomas of finding the property, which “was desperate for light and a youthful point of view.” With its unusual walled-in garden and location adjacent to the foggy forests of San Francisco’s historic Presidio district, the home feels like a country house in the center of town. But doing “something special” also meant working hard to turn back decades of ill-advised alterations and neglect. The property, sold for the first time in 1960 to the kingdom of Belgium to become its consulate, later fell into total disrepair. “It was a Grey Gardens situation,” comments Thomas. The residence would be traded three more times—in 1982, by a family who made it into a separate home for their four children; in 2005, when it became a decorators’ show house; and then again in 2006—before Thomas entered the picture in 2012.
The designer happened to be visiting friends across the street when she caught sight of the place. “The house felt like a timid grand dame; she needed light and love,” she says. “With so many owners, she was ready for love.” And like so many great love stories, this one has a rather unexpected ending: Both the house and Hillary found lasting companionship in the process. Indeed, Thomas fell in love with the house and its owner. It only took a century, but at last the formerly patchwork building became a unified home filled with youthful design.
“We wanted it to be a family home first and foremost: At any time, we have lots of kids running around, and we wanted a warm backdrop for everything from intimate dinners to grand parties and events,” says Thomas. “We changed everything—we reversed the flow. Now it feels right, it feels loved, and it feels like home.”