One evening a few years ago, San Francisco designer Ken Fulk happened to hear at a dinner party that one of the city's finest houses was for sale. The very next morning, he dropped by, "just for a look," and in a heartbeat, he was on the phone to longtime clients with three grown children, who were on vacation. "I think I might be standing in your new house," he announced. But then he told them about all the suitors panting for this exceptional Gilded Age, quasi-Jacobean landmark that overlooks the Presidio.
"Buy it," his fearless clients replied. So (the also-fearless) Fulk pulled out his checkbook and wrote his own check for a nonrefundable deposit. Two weeks later, when the couple returned from Montana and asked to see what they had bought, the designer staged a dazzling reveal at their new house, hiring musicians and arranging for a splendid candlelit dinner. They loved it, of course.
A wonderful backstory, indeed, but one with a final, astonishing twist. His clients didn't return to their new house until its reconstruction was entirely complete—four years later.
Fulk didn't waste a minute of those four years. He punched holes in period ceilings and floors; created and installed a four-story spiral stair case; configured a basement theater and gym; designed a palatial master bedroom; constructed a 60-foot-long new kitchen; added skylights; planted a fern court. And he also waited—the full four years—for a French craftsman to deliver the dining room's standout flower-encrusted wall lights and chandelier.
He started with the living room ceiling. "The house was lovely," Fulk recalls, "but it didn't have a lot of drama. That's why I thought we should cut a hole in the ceiling." (Talk about fearless!) "I just wave my hand grandly," he explains, laughing, "and trust that the brilliant architects in my office will make it all work." And, naturally, they do.
Which is why that living room today, a rich mixture of antiques and just "enough furniture to feel comfortable, not dense," opens spectacularly to the new sitting room above: an airy space with a fireplace and tall French doors that lead to a Juliet balcony. Its handsomely balustraded "hole in the floor"—together with an opulent leaded-glass skylight—floods the house with glorious light and lends it an "almost spiritual quality," Fulk declares. "It's uplifting to be there."
The circular dining room, with its hand-painted murals drifting ceiling-ward, has been totally redone as well. It wasn't even circular, for starters. And those aren't merely murals on its walls. Behind several camouflaged doors are closets painted robin's-egg blue that are filled with crystal, china, and silver.
The herringbone floors in this room—arranged in a starburst—are also entirely new. Carried throughout the whole house, they're actually the result of a happy accident, because Fulk just couldn't find the right color for the floors. His accommodating workmen would stain a "whole, life-size room sample" in a color and finish he was positive was "the one," and time after time, he'd see he'd been wrong. Then one day, he happened to be there at just the moment they'd stripped all the color off. Taking one look at the bleached, plain flooring, he announced, "That's it." All they needed was wax.
The castle-like home theater and gym were a little easier. Carved out of what was once the utilitarian basement and opening out to the garden, their combined spaces share the footprint of the large and comfortable kitchen on the floor above. In addition to being fitness buffs, the family members are also highly musical, and they enjoy having musicians perform on the professionally lit stage.
Three floors up, off the master bedroom with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, delicate plaster tracery, and regal 18th-century bed hangings, there's a dressing room that the husband adores. Based on the most luxurious of Pullman cars, it incorporates a shower, a sink, and even a secret door, so he can leave for work early in the morning without walking through the bedroom and waking his wife.
The venerable house retains much of its original character, though, some of which is due to the antiques: the inlaid chairs in the library, for instance, and the melon-ribbed Italian cabinet in the family room. Fine old furnishings convey substance and gravitas.
But such character isn't overwhelming, because the family can—and do—go barefoot in the house. They also allow unrestricted access to a happy pack of rescue dogs, for which the upholstery has been well prepared—there are gray-flannel slipcovers for all those muddy paws.
"This house brought out the best in everyone," Fulk says. It was clearly well worth waiting for.