Don’t get mad, get even—especially in matters of houses and ex-spouses. That seems to have been the message Mary Alice Huntington hoped to send when, in 1910, fresh off her divorce from her railroad-heir ex-husband, the San Francisco socialite built the architectural equivalent of a revenge dress. The mansion was one of the grandest the city had ever seen, with nine bedrooms over nearly 12,000 square feet, a Tudor Revival facade of Shakespearean dimensions, and a seriously sexy view out to San Francisco Bay.
And so it stood for more than a century until in 2018 the house went on the market, and a neighbor, living two doors down with her husband and children, became obsessed. True, the two-toned exterior, with its brick chimneys and timber corbels, exuded a certain archaic glory—no match, one would think, for a dynamic philanthropic couple whose art collection includes works by Lorna Simpson, Mark Bradford, and Richard Prince.
But she saw the potential. “I had always admired its beauty,” she says. Her husband, who is in finance, initially disagreed. “He thought it was the ugliest house he had ever seen,” says designer Nicole Hollis, who oversaw the renovation alongside the architect Stephen Willrich. “He didn’t think we could do anything with it.”
Today, the meticulously restored landmark exterior is elegant in charcoal gray. And the interiors are utterly transformed—a testament to the power in combining bespoke design with a professional’s vision and a homeowner’s unbridled enthusiasm. The tone is set in the entry hall, where a mirror-polished bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama is framed by a swooping white-plaster staircase; it was Hollis, who was hired midproject, who proposed replacing the traditional picket staircase with this dramatic, modern gesture. “That just blew everybody’s socks off,” the owner says. “It has this Guggenheim feel. It’s just extraordinary and edgy.”
Hollis, whose modernist interiors are layered with work by the artisans she seeks out around the globe, filled the house with surprises: Just steps from the entry lies a dark-walled powder room where a fluorescent-tube light installation by American artist Johanna Grawunder hovers over a blue-resin vanity by Dutch designer Sabine Marcelis. The photogenic, Dan Flavin–like space is a hit with the couple’s two teenagers.
On the second level, a massive picture window overlooks a thicket of trees, San Francisco’s lush Presidio Park visible just beyond. The living room features a sculpture by Larry Bell and a painting by Josef Albers—both homages to the square. But if the art is all about right angles, every-thing else in the space, from the Pierre Paulin chairs to the oval cocktail table by the Campana brothers, has rounded corners. “It was unintentional,” Hollis says, “but at one point I realized that everything curves, from the staircase to the furniture.”
When she pushed the couple to take some chances, they were persuadable—and stuck with the plan even when the pandemic made everything more complicated. This is how they came to have an entire kitchen, including decorative fronts for built-in appliances, handmade in Tuscany from a single block of pale, purple-veined Breccia Capraia marble. “It’s so tricked out; you knock on the dishwasher, and it opens,” Hollis notes. “There’s no need for hardware.”