Sacramento Victorian Updated for 21st Century Family
For owners Diana Williams Corless and James Corless, a major rehabilitation results in a storybook ending
James Corless: When we moved from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, we were looking for something in an area like Capitol Hill in D.C., which is incredibly walkable. My job as a transportation planner is right downtown, and we wanted the kids—who are 15, 14, and 12—to be able to get around by foot. We love older houses and came across this three-story Victorian built around 1899 near Midtown Sacramento. It was so interesting and intriguing, like something you’d see in a storybook.
Diana Williams Corless: It was a house out of a fairy tale. It had a turret with curved, leaded-glass windows; a “musician’s balcony” over the staircase where theoretically a few musicians could stand to serenade people; a kitchen/dining room pass-through cabinet; a vintage intercom system with speaking tubes; and architectural flourishes everywhere.
It had been on the market for quite some time. My guess is that people were scared off by the work it needed. The sellers did disclose that the roof—which is like the Alps, with so many peaks!—was leaky, and replacing it alone would cost $100,000. Whoever was going to take this on would have to either be really naive or have the stomach for this kind of project. Our real estate agent must have said to us 50 times, “It’s gonna be more time and more money than you think,” which is exactly what happened.
We went for it anyway. We saw some lovely houses in other areas, but they didn’t have the personality or history we were looking for and were further from downtown. In the end, the renovation cost about as much as the purchase price, but we got a one-of-a-kind house that we love.
The No. 1 thing we wanted to change was the kitchen, which was a narrow galley kitchen, around 8.5 by 15 feet. The other big thing on the list was the unfinished attic. It was like a ship’s hull; the pitch was so steep, and the crossbeams went on forever. We wanted to turn that into a usable space.
James: The attic was reportedly built as a ballroom—it was one giant room.
Diana: I knew that the house was on the city’s list of historic resources, and met with Page & Turnbull, architects who specialize in historic preservation. It was all women in their office in Sacramento at the time, and they knew the house, which is sort of famous locally. They had a great mix of expertise and humility and helpfulness.
The architects fleshed out the plan for the kitchen, which was to take down the walls between the galley kitchen and an anteroom that probably had been a butler’s pantry/prep space and a weird laundry room, and make the three into one bright space. The attic became a family room.
We got through the permitting process pretty quickly, interviewed several contractors, and landed upon Rocky Fletcher, who is a carpenter by craft. His exacting attention to detail really shined in the restoration.
Pretty soon after work started, there was a big, unpleasant surprise. We thought that the basement had been reinforced during a previous renovation, but it turned out that one wall wasn’t adequately reinforced to the extent it needed to be for us to build out the attic. So we had to stop everything for a month and deal with the wall. We also ended up rehabilitating all the windows, replacing all the plumbing and the wiring, and installing a new HVAC system.
I now know that rehabbing a house is a lot like peeling an onion. You think you know what you’re going for, but you remove a layer and it’s a decision point. You can’t go any further until you decide what to do. Sometimes things needed to be fixed right then; other times it was like buying an insurance policy. Rocky would say, “If you go ahead and replace the pipes now, the whole time you’re here, you will never have to worry about it. But if we put the boards back now, given the age of the pipes, you might have to deal with it later.”
We were also taking care of this thing that was bigger and going to live longer than us. It felt really wrong not to take the high road, though it was crazy-making and expensive at times.
Some of the most interesting parts of the renovation were finding people who had the skills necessary for projects that aren’t everyday work—refurbishing original windows, plastering coved ceilings, remaking woodwork so it appears seamless with original items. I’m a freelance writer and used to be a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, so I made some calls and tag-teamed with the architects to figure things out.
I was always impressed by the talent we were able to find. The glass in the curved windows in the turret had to be replaced, and it turns out that there’s only one guy in California who can do this. There’s another guy in Texas, and one in upstate New York, and they’re all over 80. I’m not sure how much longer there will be people with these skills around.
James: We moved in on Christmas Eve in 2018. The house wasn’t really done and our entire lives were packed up in boxes. We got takeout ramen from a local restaurant, and the whole family was sitting around the table. We were exhausted and relieved, and we thought about all the people who had helped us get into the house.
I had a feeling of what it might have been like for Caroline and Fred Mason, the original owners of the house. It must have been a lovely christening for them. Fred was a German immigrant and Caroline was the daughter of German immigrants. They had a laundry and a haberdashery; they were clearly very successful. We believe it took them about two years to build the house, and they must have been incredibly proud of it.
Diana: They knew they were building something special. We felt this incredible satisfaction and awe, and excitement for how our lives were going to unfold within these walls.
The house has been a refuge in this [pandemic] time. It’s so light, it’s got different spaces we can retreat to yet also spaces where we can come together. I’ve been feeling incredibly grateful that we’re here. Like this house has seen it all and we’re going to be fine.
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