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Midcentury Makeover

After moving some walls and an imposing staircase, one Mill Valley couple gets the home they’ve always dreamed of.



Photos by Dave Adams

Four years ago, when Cathryn and Ron Ramin decided to renovate their 1990s Mill Valley spec home, they encountered a big obstacle. Or rather, a big set of stairs. They had just begun to explore their options, hoping to turn their Cape Cod into a midcentury-style home, when they invited three different architects to take a look. Each walked into the two-story entryway, stared at the enormous staircase (with a landing halfway up), and scratched his or her chin.

A few suggested the Ramins tear the house down. Each said, “I’ll get back to you.” But none of them ever did.

The staircase — which dominated the first floor and blocked the home’s views to a Richardson Bay lagoon — was only one of the problems plaguing the house. When the Ramins first bought it in 1997, the house was filled with tiny rooms, each separate from one another, and the home had little sense of flow. The floors were covered with mushroom-colored carpets. The cabinetry and fixtures had been foraged from other neighborhood construction sites and were often mismatched. The walls were made of cheap drywall textured with an “orange peel” surface. And there was no yard or deck, only mud.

It was the height of the late ’90s real estate boom and the Ramins had just moved from L.A. They looked for a place big enough for their family, which included two young sons. This place had four bedrooms and 3,000 square feet. There was enough room for a grand piano for Ron, a composer. And there was also room for an office for Cathryn, an author and investigative reporter. “We knew it was a bad house even when we bought it,” says Cathryn, “but we needed a place to live.”

The Ramins made a few upgrades over the years, changing out carpets and putting in hardscape for a garden in the side yard. But as their youngest son prepared to leave for college in 2012, they started thinking about what they really wanted. “We both have a similar taste,” says Ron. “We like midcentury modern. We like a clean, tailored look, not a lot of frilly stuff and not much clutter.”

After getting nowhere with architects, the Ramins started looking for a new home. They were shocked by how much prices had risen. And Ron, in particular, felt loath to leave their location, which abuts a waterfront walking trail and offers front-row seats to a parade of ducks, egrets, herons, pelicans and seals.

That’s when Cathryn’s mom suggested they contact Steve Lochte. A San Francisco–based architect, Lochte had built a career specializing in retail spaces. He designed stores for Prada, Fendi, Bulgari and Celine — as well as two boutiques in Westchester County, N.Y., for Cathryn’s mother. The Ramins thought he’d probably be too expensive, but they contacted him anyway.

Lochte, who was gearing down from his San Francisco practice, came over quickly. He walked in, saw the staircase and remained undaunted. He thought the house was fixable. “And,” he says, “I like a challenge.” He turned to the Ramins and said, “I know what you don’t want. Can you tell me what you do want?”

They rattled off their wish list: they wanted to walk in and see through to the lagoon. They wanted a modern house with an open floor plan and plenty of room to entertain. They wanted a deck out back, from which they could enjoy a late afternoon drink and watch the sun setting over Mount Tam. They also wanted the back of the house — which people see as they stroll along the walking path — to have some character instead of looking like, as Ron said, “a flat box.”

From there, everything unfolded with an ease rare in renovations. The Ramins had already engaged a builder, Jon Morales of Floyd Construction, who, like Lochte, had come with an enthusiastic recommendation. Lochte drew up plans, which included gutting the entire bottom floor; simplifying the staircase and moving it a few feet closer to the bedroom area upstairs; creating an open, airy floor plan; and adding on a deck. The design also included an option for Ron and Cathryn to live on the first floor, should that ever become necessary as they age.

Cathryn, Ron and Steve Lochte spent a year working on plans and permits and picking out finishes. Cathryn was particularly adamant that every surface be durable and that it be able to withstand parties and, one day, grandchildren. She juggled all this while also writing her book about the back pain industry, Crooked (which comes out in May 2017), and caring for her East Coast–based parents, both of whom were dying.

By the time Floyd Construction began demolition in March 2015, the Ramins had decamped to a tiny apartment in New York City to be near Cathryn’s parents. They stayed there the entire year of the renovation, with Cathryn flying home occasionally to oversee construction. But even when she was gone, the project flowed smoothly, due in part to the constant communication between Lochte and Morales’ crew. There were phone calls back and forth, constant tweakings of plans and little changes that sometimes saved a lot of money.

When the Ramins moved back in April of 2016, they were thrilled with the results. Where there had once been a Cape Cod–style house, there was now a sleek stucco-and-cedar home with a tall chartreuse front door. Even better, when visitors walked through the door, the first thing they saw was the lagoon, on full display though windows in the dining area and kitchen.

Because of the lot size, Lochte couldn’t add any square footage to the home. He did, however, shave a few feet off the back of the house, pulling a flat wall in to create contour and texture, and used the extra feet to create a larger entry in the front. The entryway now is airy and open and anchored by a dramatic round chandelier, which looks like cast iron but is, in fact, paper. A slatted walnut screen separates the

A slatted walnut screen separates the entryway from the living room, a formerly dark room that is now long and elegant and filled with light. Much of the light emanates through the room’s corner windows, which Lochte chose as a way to highlight the home’s beautiful side yard, designed by landscape contractor Paul Lauer, and filled with Japanese maple, azalea, carpet bugle and Scotch moss. “We wanted to make the corners of the room almost disappear,” says Lochte, “so all you’d see was the outside.”

The living room is anchored on one end by Ron’s grand piano and the other by a curved Della Robbia couch, which sets a midcentury tone. In shades of green and gray, the room is filled with vintage chairs and ottomans and a fun petrified wood side table, many of the items purchased from Chairish and 1stdibs.

It’s what’s above, though, that makes the room. To create contour, Lochte popped up part of the formerly flat ceiling and inserted long walnut beams. Between them, he placed slender steel channels with uplighting. “I like the rhythm created between the big beams and the shorter ones in a different material,” says Lochte. “It made it more interesting.”

The first floor of the home is now filled with walnut beams and posts, which Lochte chose to add warmth to the modern design. The look is simultaneously dramatic and simple, and it’s repeated in the kitchen, where there’s a ceiling of walnut beams with white globe lighting in between. The kitchen’s walnut cabinetry — all of the woodwork was custom-made by Kinross Cabinetry — contrasts nicely with the room’s stainless steel pulls and appliances.

The kitchen feels simple and clean, but includes details that Cathryn, an avid cook, loves, including a pull-out butcher block, a sixburner Thermador stove and leather-finished chocolate granite countertops.

The house also has the flow that the Ramins craved, with the kitchen opening on one side to the family room and on the other to the dining area, a hub for entertaining. A long gray table with ceramic finish anchors the area and can be expanded to seat 12 — which is important to the couple. “I come from a big family,” Cathryn says, “and we entertain often.” On a warm night, guests can also spill out onto the new synthetic walnut deck, which straddles the length of the house.

The Ramins’ remodel included a first-floor bedroom, which they’ll use if they ever have trouble navigating stairs. And they left the second floor mostly intact, updating bathrooms, carpets and details like closet doors — it’s dramatic and stylish, like the first floor, and there is a continuity of colors and materials. But what’s really changed is how you travel between the two.

Where there was once a staircase that dominated the house and blocked views, there’s now a simple set of stairs with oak floors and a gray-carpeted runner. With a minimalistic walnut and steel railing, the staircase is sleek and subtle and blends seamlessly with the house. It’s the highest form of praise to say that you hardly notice it at all.

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