Swan Levine House – where the past creates modern history
May 10, 2014
How would you describe a home with more than 200 windows, 50 doors and 300 pieces of artwork? Frankly, no all-encompassing word springs to mind.
Arty, sometimes quirky? Yes, that’s exactly what you would expect from its innovative owners, Howard and Peggy Levine.
Both have degrees in Fine Art Printmaking, and have made their respective marks in San Francisco’s vibrant art community. Howard currently teaches at Sierra College.
They serve on many local nonprofit boards, and much like their home, each is an integral part of our community’s landscape.
Their home is an anthology of history, art, community spirit and connection. Howard and Peggy left the Bay Area, and moved into the 8,000 square foot, four-story home in 1975.
“It was in a terrible state with an unbelievable amount of work to be done, but the idea of rehabilitating it and sharing it with our family, guests and fellow artists was irresistible,” Howard said.
Built in 1867 by John and Catherine Fahey, partners in the Allison Ranch Mine, they sold it to mining merchant, William Campbell. Following a fire, the huge home was remodeled.
The property was later purchased by brothers Carl and John Jones, and it became a hospital, complete with surgeries, training facilities with living quarters, and an elevator.
“Peggy and I were determined to restore the structure to its original state,” Howard recalled. “We literally rolled up our shirtsleeves, and started peeling layers of linoleum, carpet, paint and wallpaper to reach the home’s original Queen Anne-style character.
“We learned as we went and much of the progress was trial and error,” Peggy added.
Now bear in mind that while they were restoring this massive structure, they were raising their three children (who helped with the painting and sheet rocking). They also grew as artists – and became enthusiastic forces within our community.
What was once a derelict carriage house became one of their two art studios. What used to be a hospital room was converted to a large guestroom with an en-suite bathroom, complete with a claw-foot tub. And what used to be an old ward (or was it staff housing?) became a second studio.
A ‘cuppa’ in the cupola
Situated just off the integral studio on the third floor is a bright yellow cupola, furnished with an equally colorful, 1950s’ table-and-chair set.
The view of the nearby Sierra is breathtaking, making it one of many ideal places to sit and savor a cup of inspiration.
Original fir floors, fireplaces and wainscoting have been returned to their early glory as well – and what used to be the elevator shaft is now a bold, bright gallery with a skylight above. A huge portrait of a young Shirley Temple Black adds to the drama.
The furniture throughout the home spans many eras from Victorian times through the 1930s, the 1950s – and more recent.
A 1954 Seeburg Select-o-matic jukebox and an upright piano add to the nostalgia. One built-in cupboard features what Peggy describes as “funny things” found in the walls, from an old doughboy to bottles and knives.
While your eye is intrigued by the many pocket doors, the ceiling roses, the dust corners on the staircases, and the plethora of antiques, it’s the artwork that grabs and holds your attention. It’s everywhere.
“We have over 300 pieces including Dutch artist Peter VandenBerge, our children’s art, Peggy’s and my offerings, as well as those by other local fine artists,” Howard said.
Breakfast in the royal-blue kitchen
“Over 60 percent of our bed-and-breakfast guests are repeat customers who have become friends and Howard’s the cook,” Peggy told me.
“Eggs and tortillas, French toast with local fruits, and savory frittatas have become his signature dishes.”
The kitchen is large and appears to be in constant use. The cabinets were sprayed with bright-blue automobile paint in 1983, and their hard-wearing finish is still going strong today.
With 11 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, you might wonder about energy efficiency. I learned that eight-and-a-half kilowatt solar power panels conserve energy use considerably, as does the low-emission wood-burning stove.
Over the years, I’ve often heard people ask about the practicality of renovating homes this old.
“Did you know that tearing down buildings wastes 20 gallons of petroleum per square foot? To have torn down this place would have been the equivalent of wasting 160,000 gallons!” Howard exclaimed.
Not long ago the Swan Levine House – complete with its over 200 windows and 50 doors – was featured in Old House Journal. Rich in history, the home has enjoyed a renaissance under the skillful, dedicated hands of its owners, Howard and Peggy Levine.
Courtney Ferguson has written home-and-lifestyle articles for many years, both in Nevada County and in England. Contact her at email@example.com.