Original Article appeared in the SFgate.com , Sunday, May 27, 2007
“I didn’t want it,” recalls Vincenzo Signoretti of the dilapidated Dutch Colonial Revival his neighbor offered to sell him. Signoretti, a specialist in historic-home restoration, knew enough to see that the house would be a nightmare to renovate. Built in 1920 for a prosperous attorney, the original single-family home had since been divided into apartments and then “horribly remodeled” into a rooming house. “There were squirrels and birds living inside, and the front door hung off its hinges.” The house didn’t have much going for it — except history.
In spite of himself, Signoretti fell in love with the house and its past. The first residential building built in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood, it was originally sited on three lots: two for the house and one for the tennis court. By the time Signoretti found it, the tennis court was long gone, but the bay views were still visible through the grime coating the cheap, aluminum replacement windows.
Many of the home’s original details were intact, despite the badly butchered room layout. To determine the original floor plan, “first we identified the basic concept, then — well, we guessed.” The two liberties Signoretti felt comfortable making were adding bathrooms (there was one), and enlarging the kitchen. “The kitchen was a small hole with one window,” says Signoretti. In deference to modern life, Signoretti opened the kitchen up to the family dining area and added French doors to the garden. Otherwise, the renovation is true to the original 1920 style, with elegant wood trim and wainscoting, white tile and period fixtures.
As befits a builder who describes himself as “too compulsive,” Signoretti’s emphasis is on painstaking restoration and material reuse. “There is no more green approach than not buying new stuff or knocking down old buildings,” he says. Signoretti refinished and reused hardware, woodwork, doors, hardwood floors and bathtubs. The kitchen cabinets were recycled from another Signoretti project. Where new building elements were required, the builder kept his eye on decreasing the house’s impact on the environment, using green materials ranging from no-VOC paint on the walls to Low-E glass in new wood doors and windows built to match the originals. The attic vent fan runs off of a small, solar, rooftop panel. Even the new insulation is made of post-consumer recycled denim.
“A lot of historic renovation is dirty, nasty, unglamorous work,” says Signoretti. “But it’s extremely rewarding to bring an old house back to life.”
Vincenzo J. Signoretti
Some of Vincenzo Signoretti’s favorite eco-building resources:
Just like the tiny panels you see on telephones alongside the highway, diminutive solar panels power Signoretti’s attic vent fan. No additional wiring is required for the fan, available at Economy Lumber in Oakland. The sun comes up, the fan goes on; www.economylumberco.com.
Time leaves its mark on everything, even porcelain bathtubs and sinks. Roll back the clock with a spray-on epoxy finish that covers chips, scratches and even rust stains. Signoretti relies on Porcelain Genie, which refinishes on-site (no lugging a 300-pound bathtub to the shop); (510) 793-1727.
If what you seek is a toilet that looks like it was made in 1920 but uses water like it was made in 2007, Omega Too is the place to go. They have a serious selection of reproduction wares ranging from lighting to faucets to handmade wrought-iron curtain rods; www.omegatoo.com.
Wood doors and windows
When an old wood window just can’t be salvaged, Signoretti goes to John Staton and Russo Windows & Doors for new windows built to look like old ones. Low-emittance (Low-E) glass and double-glazing will save on heating and cooling.
John L. Staton Inc. (510) 527-3114
Russo Windows & Doors Inc.
— M.R. and E.S.