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Up in the Air

In a remote corner north of Napa Valley, designer Erin Martin updates a classic weekend house designed by architect Jim Jennings.

The result is simplicity with a touch of chic.

Almost 15 years ago, two San Francisco women, high-tech executives, broke the mold of cliche country architecture and commissioned Jim Jennings to design a modern weekend house for them on a remote property north of Calistoga.

“I envisioned a simple and informal residence taking cues from the silhouettes of archetypal California agricultural buildings of the 19th century,” says Jennings. “But I did not want mere replication, so I stripped the house down to the most basic gestures—a peaked roof, massive doors, industrial metal and unpainted wood.”

Today, Jennings’ astute and timeless building looks as inviting, orderly and modern as it did when he built it 14 years ago. New owners, a couple who reside near San Francisco and spend weekends at the house, are writing their own story here with the help of St. Helena designer Erin Martin. The updated interiors and terraces display a subtle palette of neutral colors, paying homage to Jennings’ original aesthetic.

“Someone had obviously been there before with a vision, and the house still feels alive and relevant, thanks to Jim Jennings,” says Martin. “I inherited a brilliant floor plan and the visual pleasure of repetitive patterns and open spaces.”

Martin’s clients, who have two children in high school, wanted a weekend retreat that would be calm, fresh and relaxed.

“My plan was to paint walls and wood-work a soft white to emphasize the dramatic views through any open doors,” says the designer, who owns decor den Martin Design in St. Helena and is well-known for her bold use of industrial materials and raw woods.

Jennings’ original challenge with the Calistoga property was that its 10 hilly acres of wild madrone, manzanita and chaparral had just one level building site. A flat sliver of land had been excavated on the north-facing slope of the highest hill.

As the architect’s concepts were formulated, he spent weekends on-site, watching the way the light moved across the land, breathing air scented by scrub oaks and wild sage, and gaining a sense of wind patterns. Imbued with the genius of place, he dreamed up a very straightforward rectangular house that would take best advantage of views to the west and attract all-day sun.

“The challenge was to make best use of this narrow site,” says Jennings, whose 35-year-old firm, Jim Jennings Architecture, is based in San Francisco. “It was just large enough for a house, terraces and a parking space to the side. I decided to make the house a straightforward extended rectangle. It’s a perfectly symmetrical 22 x 98 feet with no extensions, porches or bump-outs.”

Jennings’ elegant rectangle is almost five times as long as it is wide. He specified simple factory-made industrial materials—corrugated steel walls and steel decking—that were cost-effective and weather-resistant.

Surrounded by open countryside, the house sits on territory that was devastated by a wildfire 20 years ago, so the metal sides and roof are especially appropriate. A gravel terrace beside the house is sheltered by a pergola where white wisteria and grapes flourish.

“I love the industrial materials Jim selected, so I chose very relaxed furnishings—well-worn 1960s leather armchairs, an immense oak dining table and a rough-hewn coffee table,” says Martin. “I like to use furniture that has a past and a future. It’s a jewel of a house, and the neutral color palette keeps the decor from being too precious.”

Martin’s boldest design concept was to install dark-stained slatted wood panels on the peaked wall above the fireplace and also above the bed in the master bedroom. Sunlight from skylights concealed in the ceiling rakes across the slats during the day, creating dynamic patterns and adding texture to the all-white walls.

Indoors, the ceiling is an elegant off-white exposed struc-tural steel lid with steel trusses. Drywall painted a soft off-white has wood trim but no other ornamentation. The concrete main floor, waxed for ease of care, is cool in the summer and retains warmth during the winter.

The new owners have discovered two other important characteristics of this beguiling house: It’s low-maintenance and very undemanding. After a relaxing visit, they simply lock it and leave. Easy come, easy go—the perfect weekend escape

By Diane Dorrans Saeks.
PHOTO: Marion Brenner.


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