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Home Matters: House With a Past, and Now With a Future

from Julie Foster's Home Matters column in the July 2006 issue of Inside East Sacramento, and republished here with the publisher's kind permission. Note that other images of the home, all courtesy of that publication, are available on Flickr.

Curtis Park is home to a house with a past.

The structure at the corner of Portola Way and 26th Street was built in 1917 to serve as a volunteer fire station. It later did duty as a Boy Scout headquarters, from 1950 to 1970. Over the years, it was neglected and fell into disrepair. Following a total makeover, it’s now a stunning one-of-a-kind home that’s reclaimed its history.

Several years ago, while riding their bikes through Curtis Park, Cindy Bechtel and Rich Baumhofer spotted the dilapidated firehouse and dreamed of restoring it. But it wasn’t on the market.

“Friends called us a couple of years later and said, ‘Your house is for sale. That’s what they called it, because we’d been talking about it for so long,’” Bechtel said Baumhofer, a general contractor, has a soft spot for the tough job of remodeling old houses.

“New construction is easier and cleaner — your subs are happier and you probably make more money. But then I get drawn to these old things and I just like the work,” he explained.

It took seven months for the city to grant all the building permits, and a year to gut and rebuild the structure. The couple moved into the house in November 2005.

Originally, the building was 3,300 square feet. By adding a dormer and a stairway, the couple created a secondfloor living space with three bedrooms and a bath. They built a new garage and also created a 750-square-foot apartment from a structure that was added during the Boy Scout period. Now, the 1917 firehouse is a stylishly renovated 4,400-square-foot Craftsman-style home.

The couple did most of the work themselves. “He’s the general contractor, I’m the designer and we are the architect,” Bechtel explained. As owners of a beautiful but derelict shell, they had the opportunity to exercise choices. “We really could have done anything in here. We could have gone urban or really modern, but we like the Craftsman style and Rich has experience with that, so we decided to go that way,” Bechtel noted. While they had some leeway to choose a style, the existing building materials imposed limitations. The structure is built of interlocking clay tile brick nine inches thick, with a stucco exterior and plaster interior. Bechtel explained, “You don’t add or move many windows or doors, but work with the existing openings.” The search for windows sent them to Urban Ore, a Berkeley salvage yard.

“This is a really cool place where people from the Bay Area bring their stuff when they tear down their houses,” she said. “There are thousands of windows and they have tried to sort them by size and shape.” It took several trips. While looking for windows, they were sidetracked by other treasures, including a salvaged laundry sink of which Bechtel is especially proud.

Several years ago, while acting as general contractor on a project to remodel Sacramento’s only Greene and Greene house, Baumhofer salvaged some architectural gems: two doors, which he was able to use in the firehouse.

The couple’s great room once housed two fire engines. They converted what could have been a large, dark space into a room filled with light and warm color. They poured a new concrete floor, which Bechtel and her daughter stained to look like worn leather. Dividing the sitting area from the kitchen is an alder bar, topped with a spectacular piece of honey-colored onyx that’s illuminated from below. This was an element Baumhofer badly wanted to incorporate into the home - the couple had seen a similar bar at San Francisco’s Fog City Diner. Four pendant lights are suspended over bar. A Craftsman-inspired skylight, installed in the 15-foot-high ceiling, allows light to pour into the room. The original entrance for the fire trucks provided a challenge.

“We looked at airplane hangar doors and barn doors, but none of them would have worked,” Bechtel said. They ended up with four custom doors made by a company in Oregon. A local shop made the jambs. What had been the firehouse office is now a stunning living room topped with a new tin ceiling. It boasts a beautiful bay window with an oversized window seat.

The ceiling remains an in-the-works project.

“It was too shiny, so we wiped it with muriatic acid to tone it down,” Baumhofer said. “But it’s still changing slowly so now we have to put something on it to stop the process.”

And though Bechtel’s color choices in most of the house are in the warm family, including autumn vineyard, restrained gold, chamois and bamboo shoot, she took a different tack in what was the firehouse kitchen. That room is now her office. She left one wall of exposed clay tile alone, along with the brick chimney. She painted the other walls a cool blue. The upper level was attic space. They considered staying on just one floor, but history got the better of them.

“We couldn’t have had a fire pole with just one floor, and the attic space was just too good to not use,” Baumhofer explained.

In the entry, visitors are greeted by a 16-foot-tall brass fire pole. Historic photos of the firehouse line the staircase. A mosaic made out of floor tile bears the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” and eagle emblem. It’s inset in the landing beside the fire pole.

They discovered it in the floor during the demolition of the building. Baumhofer explained it had been covered by plywood, linoleum and funky shag carpet.

For those considering the restoration of a historical structure, Bechtel offers this advice. “Try to maintain the building’s original integrity, since you will encounter some unforeseen obstacles and limitations,” she said. “Try to enjoy the process of overcoming them while you’re transforming the space.” “This was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and it came out the way we wanted it.” Bechtel said. “There’s really nothing that we would’ve done differently.”