A Small Renaissance: Renovating a San Francisco Cottage

In San Francisco, a tiny Earthquake Cottage grows up by going underground.

| May/June 2008

  • The deep color of the dining area’s walls suggests a sense of separation from the kitchen, offering vibrant contrast to the green foliage and blue sky outside.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The tea and knife niche in the wall beside the stove, original to the kitchen, is painted in the dining nook’s pumpkin- spice tone.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The kitchen opens into the living room, where Alma’s dog and constant companion, Sabu, keeps watch over her front door.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The kitchen has the original painted wooden cabinets and tile countertops. The large gilt mirror adds a sense of space, light and elegance to the room.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The vignette along a painted ledge in the main floor bathroom is of an antique painted vanity and a three-footed copper pot with an orchid.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Oil paintings by Esta Kornfield harmonize with the wainscoting in the master bathroom.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Alma displays a few of the watering cans from her extensive collection on her front porch.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A terraced outdoor seating area features brightly colored pillows. The wall’s painted trim, sculptural objects and a mirror liven what was once dead space.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Radiant coral-red trim and red and pink pillows on Alma Hecht’s front porch bench welcome visitors, creating one of many small seating or outdoor entertaining spaces around her San Francisco cottage.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Alma styles small corners of her house and garden as their own distinct pocket spaces. Here, a small shady retreat is nestled into the far side of her front porch—replete with furnishings, art and plantings.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Alma hand-stained the concrete floors in her new studio and designed the watering can fountain outside on the patio.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The view from the front door through the living room and into the dining room showcases the oak parquet floor, which dates back to the 1920s. Alma had multiple layers of flooring removed to reveal the original fir floor in the kitchen.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Alma used repeating tones and textures throughout the house to create a smooth, elegant flow between the old space and the new.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The stairwell between the original and new lower levels became a blank canvas for Alma to display this carved Moroccan panel and lantern; the antique shop owner said the lantern was from Rudolph Valentino’s estate.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The walls of the media room, part of the new lower level, are finished with earth-friendly plaster. Because of the grade of the property’s natural slope, the new lower-level rooms have abundant windows and natural light.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is flanked on three sides by her garden, an integral part of the overall style. A spill jar welcomes visitors on the right; small trees, shrubs and vines shape an oasis. An evergreen clematis drapes the front porch, one of many scented plants that bloom at different times of the year.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne

A master of clever and elegant reuse, Alma Hecht is a Renaissance woman whose out-of-the-box thinking and strong eye for design helped her complete an award-winning renovation without adding much to her carbon footprint—or budget. Skilled in culinary and decorative arts, and the owner of Second Nature, a sustainable landscape design business, Alma remodeled her 1906 cottage in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood and won the Best Small Home Renovation award at the 2007 Build It Green Home Tour.  

Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is one of many tiny dwellings constructed for the laborers who helped rebuild San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906. It’s one of two houses on a parcel of land that slopes to the southeast. When Alma bought the property in 1999, she lived in and made minor improvements to the larger, 850-square-foot cottage that faces the street. But after renting out both cottages for a year while studying landscape design in Massachusetts, Alma returned home and had a change of heart. "I had an appointment to show a man the back cottage, and he was late," Alma says. "I sat there in the sun waiting for him and realized how much light and sky I saw, how quiet the yard around the back cottage was with trees and shrubs for the birds … and I thought, I should live here."

The only problem was that the smaller cottage was just 500 square feet. And as Alma’s home-based business grew, she and her dog, Sabu, were rapidly outgrowing the one-bedroom, one-bath space. "I’ve always been a cross between an antique collector and a Dumpster diver," Alma says. "So when I decided to add on to the cottage, I knew I would try to do it as sustainably and economically as I could."

The land down under

The renovation ultimately doubled Alma’s square footage, providing her with a second bedroom and bathroom, a library/media room, a proper studio and a pocket patio. Alma refers to it as her "undition" because she built an addition under her house instead of above it.

In creating the space, Alma worked closely with a young engineer who initially presented her with a traditional grid of square rooms for her nontraditional project. She got out her triangle, turned his squares on end, cut off corners—and handed his drawing back to him. Alma knew that straight lines and 90-degree angles would make the space feel small and staid. The oblique angles and shifts in perspective she added let the space unfold more slowly.



September 12-13, 2019
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