When people say, “They don’t build them like they used to,” the team at Robson Homes might beg to differ.
Robson Homes, based in San Jose, California, is a homebuilder with many years of experience in historic home restoration projects. The company recently completed work on two 1920s era homes in Fremont, California—the Starr Estate and the Best Estate. The homes are currently being offered for $4.5 million and $5.1 million respectively.
“These are classic 1920s estates, designed for grand living and entertaining with bold detailing and wide sweeping staircases,” said Mark Robson, president and owner of Robson Homes.
Robson kept much of the original detail of the houses. This included restoring elements like leaded-glass windows, original ironwork and hand-painted murals in the style of French Rococo artist Jean-Honore Fragonard.
“The ornate moldings and fantastic murals give these homes so much character,” Mr. Robson said. “They are timeless reminders of craftsmanship.”
At the same time, the floor plans of both homes have been opened up to bring light into the homes, maximize views and accommodate modern living.
Robson worked with project architect Salvatore Caruso of Salvatore Caruso Design in Santa Clara and interior designer Marie Peterson of Chelsea Court Designs in Los Gatos to create floor plans which flow beautifully for entertaining and living. The kitchens and bathrooms have also been re-proportioned to accommodate today’s lifestyle and updated with state-of-the-art appliances and fixtures.
Mr. Caruso credits Robson for “fully supporting every effort to preserve the architectural integrity of these two amazing examples of “Great Gatsby”-era homes, but with all the modern amenities to support two magnificent estates.”
The Best House. Photo: Eric Figge Photography
The side-by-side homes look out onto the pristine 5.4-acre Gardens of Palmdale in Fremont’s Mission District. The meditation garden is home to 200 horticultural species from around the world and mature trees, including a Monterey cypress that is over 300 years old, according to the Garden Conservancy website.
The garden was originally laid out by E.L. Beard in the mid 1800s, right about the time when California became a state.
“The setting is spectacular, and the views out of the large leaded glass windows to the gardens are really what set these homes apart,” Mr. Robson said. “Inside, the light from the gardens sparkles.”
A dining room at the Starr House. Photo: Eric Figge Photography
All in the Details
Robson Homes has carved out a niche restoring historic homes in the Silicon Valley. Although the process is time consuming and expensive, it’s worth it to Mr. Robson and his team.
Robson takes great pride in the details of each home, according to Darren Holland, the company’s Director of Operations. For this project, Robson brought in artisans and craftsmen from around the country to restore and, in some cases, replicate elements that couldn’t be salvaged.
“We had some great craftsmen who could do leaded glass and iron work and the plaster moldings in the house. A lot of those needed to be remade and fixed,” Mr. Holland said.
“The history of these homes dance throughout each living space, and it really gave us the chance to put ourselves back in that period of time,” Mrs. Peterson added. “It was critical to preserve and protect windows, doors, moldings, fireplaces, ironwork and paintings that were incorporated into many entertainment areas.”
Workers were hired to refinish oak flooring in the Tudor Revival-style Starr House. In the Best House, which had most recently been used as a venue for weddings and other events, the floors had to be replaced.
“That house has brand-new oak floors that we put in to try to mimic what was in the original house,” Mr. Holland added.
When Robson purchased the homes, the Best House was covered with a red composition roof, but they knew that it originally had a cedar shingle roof. They debated whether to leave the current roof, which was functionally in fine shape, or to restore the roof.
“We really wanted to bring the house back to its original beautiful condition,” Mr. Holland explained. “We made the choice to try to find an artisan who could restore that roof...it has these rounded eaves that require you to steam the shingles and it's a tremendously expensive process and there's not a lot of people in the United States who do it.”
They ended up hiring a company from Florida to do the work. The company completely disassembled the roof and reinstalled it from scratch with new cedar shingles.
The kitchen at the Best House. Photo: Bernard Andre Photography
A Modern Take
One of the obstacles with restoring historic residences is making them livable for modern families. For instance, in these homes, the kitchens were very small, without storage or room for appliances. And people are looking for more open-floor plans in homes today, unlike the separated spaces of the past.
“The biggest initial challenge was revising the floor plans, while trying to preserve as much as possible of the original layout of the homes,” Mr. Robson said.
“Both of these homes are so unique and so beautifully proportioned for their time,” Mrs. Peterson added. “We were striving for contemporary living in a traditional setting. We adjusted the bedrooms and bathrooms to appropriate proportions and updated lighting, cabinetry, hard surfaces… all this is required to meet today’s homebuyer.”
The Starr House. Photo: Eric Figge Photography
For the Starr House, that meant adding about 150 square feet onto the back of the kitchen, which became a mudroom and a pantry. The house also had very small bedrooms, so the upstairs layout was reconfigured. In addition, they moved the master bedroom to the other side of the house to expand it and take advantage of the views.
“The front of the house has these beautiful leaded-glass bay windows,” Mr. Robson explained. “We wanted to put the master bedroom in the front, where you could take advantage of that.”
The raised Parlor in the Best House. Eric Figge Photography
Now the 4,642-square-foot Starr House offers four bedrooms, with three full bedrooms, two half-bathrooms and a large basement on more than half an acre of land. There’s also a 1,311-square-foot guest house with two bedrooms and a bathroom connected to the detached two-car garage.
The 6,404-square-foot Best House has five bedrooms, four bathrooms and one half bathroom, as well as a 500-square-foot studio with kitchenette above the detached three-car garage. It features an open foyer, a spacious grand room with a fireplace, a gourmet kitchen with two marble islands and a dining room “where you could put a table for 20,” Mr. Robson said.
The Gardens of Palmdale. David Ball Photography
A Rich History
Homes like these “add historic and visual character to our neighborhoods, and they inspire us as we design and build new homes,” Mr. Robson explained.
Robson Homes is primarily a new-home developer and builder, but many of their projects are done in conjunction with preserving and restoring existing historic residences. The company has even moved historic houses to more prominent locations on a piece of land, and then built new homes around them.
In the case of the Best and Starr Houses, Robson Homes developed and built The Abbey, a collection of 79 new homes on the other side of the gardens. Mr. Robson said that the design of the new development took cues from the two historic homes.
The land on which the Best and Starr homes were built has a long history. It was most recently owned by the Sisters of the Holy Family, who acquired both the homes and the gardens in 1948. Now the sisters reside in two new age-in-place buildings built by Robson adjacent to The Abbey.
Before the Sisters of the Holy Family came to the property, it was sold in the 1920s to Irene Wagness Hansen and Hazel Wagness Starr. Irene married C.L. Best and Hazel was married to Oscar Starr, both executives of the California-based Caterpillar Tractor Co. (C.L. Best was Caterpillar’s co-founder and long-time chairman of the board). The homes take their names from these families. Before that, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the land was owned by Juan Gallegos, who helped develop the area around Fremont and created one of California’s largest vineyards.
Because of their history, both homes belong to Fremont’s Register of Historic Resources and qualify for significant property tax reductions under California’s Mills Act.
“These projects are extremely challenging, but we feel it is important work and we enjoy it immensely,” Mr. Robson said. “Historic homes are links to our past, and restoring them enhances our community.”
“Mansion Global - Northern California's Grand Estates Honor History-With Modern Upgrades.” Mansion Global - Find Luxury Homes and Mansions for Sale, Mansion Global, 9 Dec. 2019, www.mansionglobal.com/sponsored/northern-california-s-grand-estates-honor-history-with-modern-upgrades-134076.