Victorian Alliance Home Tour 2013: The Samuel F. Weeks House

The next featured home from this year's League of Extraordinary Victorians lets the sun shine in with a fine-art approach to restoration.

Photo by Ross Pushinaitis / Exceptional Frames This Italianate masterpiece was home to a middle-class family when it was built in 1881, then got carved into myriad apartments. Its return to beauty took an unexpected route. 

Jim Durfee has a habit of collecting and restoring castoffs. As a boy in Detroit, his route home from school took him through a blighted area, and "it would take two to three hours to make the trip, because I was walking down every alley, finding broken things." He had a particular fondness – or was it sympathy? – for religious iconography. "I would find broken statues in the trash, and I would take them home and fix them," he says.

As a young adult, went to Italy for training in art restoration, even stowing away overnight in a cathedral (up high, among the sculptures, with a sack lunch and a thick coating of dust) to get a closeup view of the Pope. (He was escorted out. His picture got in the paper.) 

So all this training made him an ideal owner for a brokedown palace of a Victorian. It also meant that he wasn't intimidated by the idea of restoring something to his own specifications. When he bought 989 South Van Ness for $70,000 in 1971, he knew one thing for sure: he didn't want the stereotypical elaborate interior that so many crave. "I couldn't deal with that heavy style," he says. "I would have felt stifled."

He had plenty of time to think about it. When he first bought the home, he lived in "the smallest, cheapest apartment in the building," and restored it over the next two years. "Literally, the day we finished, we moved into the next bigger apartment."

Throughout the renovation, he continued to rent out rooms in the house, though the number of apartments dwindled as he upgraded. There were sinks in each room, for instance; it's possible each studio apartment held an entire family at one time. Now, there are just two tenants. 

All of that communal living came later, of course. In 1881, when the house was built, Samuel Weeks was a successful businessman, and the Mission was a middle-class neighborhood. It has all the hallmarks of an elegant Italianate home: Corinthian columns holding up the porch roof, richly ornamented bay windows angling out over the street, understated wooden handrails, supported by simple, rectangular newel posts, going up the entry stairs. As with the other homes in the area, the devastation of the earthquake changed everything, and it became a boarding house.

By the time Durfee made it down to the main floor, the renovation had taken on monumental proportions. In the basement he had three chandeliers, bought for $100, that he would eventually take apart and reformat to make the two that grace the living and dining rooms – adorned, little by little, by dozens of crystals acquired little by little from auction houses over a 10-year period. The marble fireplace had been painted over and was sagging, in need of metal supports; he took it apart, wrapped the massive marble pieces in paper towels soaked with industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide from a beauty supplier, wrapped them again in plastic, and left them on the floor of the living room for three months. The last time this house was on the Victorian Society tour, 30 years ago, that's where they sat.

But the defining feature of the home is the light: The walls are pale, minimally adorned, and have a smooth, cool cast entirely different from the warm, but dark, wooden paneling it originally had. This is due to a unique approach that only someone with Durfee's level of training and experience could pull off, involving milled moldings, oil paint, a process of sanding perfect surfaces to look like warped boards with ersatz seams and pegs, glazing, and waxing.  It's – very hard to understand, even when he's explaining it to you. It's complicated, it's his life's work, and the results are soothing and fill the rooms with light.

The feeling is almost that of a mission or a monastery, which is apropos, as every room is filled with the lovingly restored Catholic iconography that started Durfee on his journey. 

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