Victorian Alliance Home Tour 2013: The Mayberry/Taylor House

Our final featured home from this year's tour is a masterpiece – in a completely unexpected way.

Photo by Ross Pushinaitis / Exceptional Frames One of two homes built in 1872 by prolific builder Edward Mayberry, 956 Van Ness is a leap of fancy away from tradition, yet embodying the Victorian tradition in other ways. (Note the tour's trolley in front!) 

"The Victorians were very worldly people," says Adam D. Smith, owner (with wife Mata) of 956 South Van Ness. "They liked things that were new and interesting, and brought the newest and best into their homes." Thus, he explains, the radical transformation of his home is entirely in keeping with traditional Victorian values, even as its appearance is the polar opposite of its across-the-street neighbor, The Samuel F. Weeks House.

This house was built in 1872 by a prolific builder named Edward Mayberry. It's got the standard Victorian details – Italianate style, colonnettes and quoins at the sides and corners of the windows, segmented arch windows. Its design is a bit simpler than those built and decorated later, when those ornaments were more readily available in San Francisco. It had an unremarkable life until 1996, when it became the home of Michael Brennan, a mural artist who specializes in restaurant design. For him, the blank walls and high ceilings were a sketchpad, a place to invent, a series of experiments, and he seemingly covered every available surface with rich, vibrant paintings.

Time marched on; Brennan had to sell, another buyer came in, and then they re-sold, in 2005, to Smith. Inspired by the creativity in evidence all around, and himself possessed of an artist's instincts, Smith fixed the place up (the basement tended to flood 2-3 feet each winter) and added his own bachelor-pad touches (an exquisitely turned-out bathroom has not only a bidet, but a urinal - why not!). The addition of his wife, then their son, meant the house had become a real, living home again.

It has been considerably rearranged, as many of the Victorians on the tour have – maids' rooms become extra bathrooms, or a nursery, or a dressing room – and it feels mysterious and inviting. The little family is not overly concerned about keeping things perfect. "There are bumps and bruises everywhere," says Smith, "so I'm sure we'll scratch it – but it's been scratched before and survived just fine."

He (obviously!) doesn't feel the need to adhere to strict standards of Victorian design. Rather, he says, he "pays homage" to the spirit of the age with flights of fancy like metallic-painted walls and moldings. Mata adds, "We're artists, so being surrounded by art, by baby stuff, by music, by warmth" are the most important factors. That the home happens to be nearly a hundred and fifty years old just adds to the general sense of conviviality. Even the Home-Depot-style childproofing of the balustrades add to the sense that this house can handle anything with good cheer and bonhomie

As for Michael Brennan, who created the environment the Smiths hold so dear, he's been by for a glass of wine and will be back whenever the Smiths can entice him. "I found his art group and emailed blindly," Smith said. "He came over and told us all sorts of crazy stories about the house, like how the 1920s-era stove was originally from the YMCA downtown, and it took two years for him to get it into working order." So while some owners of Victorians celebrate the early years of their bequest, the Smiths are focusing on a different, but just as vital, legacy.


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