When Geraldine Knatz and John Mulvey set out to renovate their 1936 Long Beach, Calif., home -- with its exquisite leaded glass windows, clipped gables, and charming shingled roof and walls -- the one person Knatz knew to call for advice was a man she had just spent months battling in court.

The contractor, Peter Devereaux, is known for historic renovations and is on the board of directors of Long Beach Heritage, a nonprofit conservation group.

Devereaux's group sued the Port of Long Beach, of which Knatz was the planning director, over its plans to demolish vintage buildings at the Long Beach Naval Station. The Port wanted to turn the station into a container terminal, whereas Long Beach Heritage wanted the city to retain the buildings, designed by prominent African-American architect Paul Williams, for use as a civic center.

After months of lawsuits and controversy, "I won," Knatz says. The buildings were demolished.

Still, when Knatz called Devereaux for advice about renovating her newly purchased vintage home -- situated in the upscale Virginia Country Club area and designed by another acclaimed architect, Kirkland K. Cutter -- he didn't turn her away.

Mark Lohman Photography Before

"I respected her from the moment I met her," Devereaux recalls, but he admits, "that was a surprising call."

Devereaux suggested that Knatz contact designer Bob Crouch to work up a design.

As Crouch determined and drew up what the couple wanted -- adding a spectacular kitchen and family room with a 1930s ambiance and restoring other parts of the house -- he told Knatz several times, "Peter is the guy to work on this house."

Knatz agonized. "Do I really want to work with a guy who keeps suing us?"

Plus, she thought, "What if Peter doesn't want to work on my house?"

The enlarged kitchen is housed in a bumpout that is as big as legally possible, according to setbacks required by the city of Long Beach.
Mark Lohman Photography The enlarged kitchen is housed in a bumpout that is as big as legally possible, according to setbacks required by the city of Long Beach.

Nevertheless, she asked Devereaux to bid on the project, and after the homeowners and contractor agreed "no more lawsuits," they signed the contract on a time-and-materials basis (see "Time-and-Materials Billing," below). Because the couple added more work as the job progressed, such as replacing the roof, their final tally for the project was $250,000.

Big plans

The original two-story cottage had been built for Dr. John Jimmerson, a popular pediatrician who wanted an unpretentious cottage with a New England flavor. The Jimmerson family owned the house until a few years before Knatz and Mulvey bought it, and the second Mrs. Jimmerson had kept it as original as possible.

A huge island in the middle of the room and an adjacent breakfast area organize the space and leave plenty of room for the family of four to move around.
Mark Lohman Photography A huge island in the middle of the room and an adjacent breakfast area organize the space and leave plenty of room for the family of four to move around.

When Mulvey first saw the house, he wasn't impressed. But Knatz says she "could see the potential right away." Where Mulvey saw an aged home with ancient wiring with screw-in fuses and a bland kitchen, Knatz was agog over the wainscoting, thick moldings, wide-plank floors, and a luxurious library with teak walls and a mahogany ceiling that came from a clipper ship.

The Details

The couple's main goals were to enlarge and remodel the kitchen and to build a new family room to accommodate their two rambunctious boys, J.R. and Patrick. "Them running around [the library] with their Tonka trucks doesn't appeal to me," Knatz explains.

For the kitchen, Mulvey says they "wanted the biggest kitchen we could legally have," according to setbacks required by the city. They also wanted the kitchen sink to face the street so that the sociable couple could wave at and invite in neighbors who were passing by. As well, they wanted stainless steel appliances, lots of decorative tile, and lavish moldings.

The design Crouch came up with included a wide arch leading into an octagon-shaped kitchen, with a large island in the middle and an adjacent breakfast area surrounded by true divided-light windows and low bookcases for Knatz's collection of cookbooks. All the cabinets would have either raised-panel doors or doors with glass inserts. A wide, tiled hearth would surround the Wolf stovetop.

Credit: Cheryle St. Onge

Old and new

Because of the home's historic significance, in a neighborhood of equally distinctive homes, the exterior of the kitchen and family room additions had to blend in with and complement the original house.

According to the design, with input from Long Beach architect Rex Hoover, 620 square feet would be added to the original house. The roofs and windows of the two added rooms would match the existing house, and the kitchen's exterior would include a brick wainscot to match the front of the house.

Matching the 18-inch-long bricks would be tricky, and other contractors Knatz contacted wanted instead to use easily obtainable standard-sized bricks. Devereaux, however, scoured brickyards to find a pile of old 18-inchers that blended perfectly (see "Finding Salvaged Materials," below).

Once demolition and construction started, in September of 1999, the family put a microwave oven in the dining room and "camped out" for the next six months.

Mark Lohman Photography

Fine details and custom touches are the hallmark of the new kitchen. The raised-panel cabinets were custom made, and decorative tiles were fitted on the drawer fronts into hand-chiseled cavities. Mulvey helped out by installing the cabinet pulls.

Knatz wanted an old-looking countertop material, but she didn't want marble, because of the stone's porosity. Instead, she sought out a light-colored granite that would look like marble but hold up better to a family's rugged use.

In addition to a standard refrigerator, the couple added two Sub-Zero freezer drawers and two cooler drawers so food would be low and accessible to the boys.

Mark Lohman Photography

Detail oriented

Devereaux subs out the plumbing, electrical, and roofing work, and his crew of 10 does almost everything else -- demolition, concrete, framing, tile, plastering, drywall, and painting. Because his company has a reputation for high-quality renovation and finish work, keeping most trades under his roof ensures that level of service. Some of his crew members have been with the company for 20 years, and the company is so sought after that there is a lead time of about six months.

Of course, unexpected things always happen on a remodeling job, and the telling variable is how the challenge is handled. One day, Knatz came home from work to inspect a thick marble slab that had just been installed near the baking center. However, much to her chagrin, she realized that due to the thickness of the slab, her KitchenAid mixer would not fit into the appliance garage that was designed to hold it. "And I'm a baker," she says.

The next morning, the crew found a sign taped to the appliance garage that said "no way!" When Knatz came home from work that day, a layer of marble had been etched out to accommodate the mixer, and there was a chocolate cream pie for her in the refrigerator.

For the final touch, an artist came in to hand-paint scenes and sayings around the kitchen's frieze. One says "Cafe; Knatz," another "Chateau Mulvey."

While some people have near-mental breakdowns when their houses are under siege by construction crews, Knatz thrived on it. "It was really fun. I actually miss it," she says. "I looked forward to coming home to the crew."

The family room was built on the old patio between the kitchen and library. It's a welcoming space where Knatz and Mulvey's sons can hang out, while the adults claim the library for themselves.
Mark Lohman Photography The family room was built on the old patio between the kitchen and library. It's a welcoming space where Knatz and Mulvey's sons can hang out, while the adults claim the library for themselves.

The dust settles After the project was done, the second Mrs. Jimmerson, widow of the doctor who had built the home, came to visit with a gaggle of relatives. The renovation and addition were met with great approval. As a gift, Mrs. Jimmerson gave Knatz a needlepoint pull from the days when the maid was summoned by an "annunciation system" throughout the house, a system composed of pulls and bells.

In retrospect, Knatz says she has just one thing she doesn't like: the dust that collects on the edges of the kitchen's ornate moldings, including on the cabinetry. If she had it to do over again, she would opt for European-style cabinetry where the drawers and doors fit flush into the frames.

"I'm the kind of person who can't stand dirt," she says. The vintage needlepoint pull from Mrs. Jimmerson hasn't helped, Knatz adds.

"I'm still waiting for the maid to show up." --Freelancer Kathy Price-Robinson writes about remodeling and green building from the central coast of California. She is the author of an award-winning remodeling series, "Pardon Our Dust," for the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Time-and-Materials Billing

For Peter Devereaux's company, time-and-materials billing is preferable to a fixed bid with subsequent change orders. "In any remodel, you'll be surprised when you tear into it," Devereaux says. But when change orders are required each time a surprise arises, he says, "you are always talking about how much it costs. You don't want to have that discussion every day. It gets old."

Plus, he says, numerous change orders may cause the client to think the bid was seriously lower than it should have been, which leads to an erosion of trust.

Rather, his company provides a careful estimate of expenses based on the plans and the clients' requests regarding the level of finish quality. In the course of the project, Devereaux Construction furnishes a weekly cost report, showing current activity in each category of the cost estimate breakdown.

This allows the client and the company to stay current, relating activity to budget.

"This provides flexibility and leads toward quality, away from compromise or corner-cutting," Devereaux says.

Of course, clients who agree to time-and-materials billing must respect and trust the remodeler.

Devereaux Construction measures its integrity by how well it serves its clients. "This works well for us," Devereaux says, "since our projects are in a comparatively small area, and we find ourselves 'passed around' from client to client, and then often back again."

Finding Salvaged Materials

Peter Devereaux says his company prefers "interesting" projects. This often brings his crew face-to-face with a vintage home in need of restoration.

Finding old, salvaged, or reproduction materials for such a job could be prohibitively time-consuming without an established network of sources.

While Devereaux doesn't claim to know where to find every needed material, he says, "we have a good place to ask."

In general, networking for sources for old materials includes joining preservation groups and attending preservation fairs and trade shows that give slide shows of old buildings.

Devereaux helped found a group called California Preservation Action, and he calls on preservation-minded contractors and suppliers in Los Angeles and San Francisco when he's looking for something in particular.

"We had some contacts," he says of the architecturally compatible materials he found for the Knatz/Mulvey project. But more than that, he had the desire to make sure the materials were appropriate. "Mostly we had the intention that you use the right materials."