The Abelson Guthrie House: San Francisco’s Modern Monolith
An interactive 15-part multi-media essay
By Max Eternity
There’s no shortage of unique and interesting homes in San Francisco, but at least one street in the city has more than its fair share, and it’s called Laidley Street.
Starting in the neighborhood of Diamond Heights at the intersection of Castro and 30th Streets, Laidley emerges at the base of Billy Goat Hill and rises in elevation as it traverses through Fairmont Heights. The first half of Laidey spans the Western border of Noe Valley; a tranquil, however gentrified, urban halcyon. As it continues, heading southward, Laidley rendezvous with the south-side segment of Castro Street, then immediately terminates at Chenry Street in heart of San Francisco’s super-quaint, understated Glen Park neighborhood.
All along its bucolic tree-lined way, Laidley offers up a built historical narrative of residential architecture—overlapping multiple decades, and demonstrating in brick and mortar San Francisco’s evolution in economic growth, taste and style—past and current.
Within its urban affluent hominess, a most interesting urban planning feature along Laidley is Harry Street, aka Harry’s Steps, which is one of San Francisco’s numerous sidewalk streets. And echoing the mountain-like terrain of the city, Harry’s is a very vertical stepped-pathway of interconnecting sidewalks and stairways. The street, which is nestled in a dense canopy of lush flora and fauna, winds upward away from Laidley, reaching toward, and ending at, Beacon Street.
For day trippers, architecture fans and urban planning enthusiasts, Harry’s is a definite must see. Though beware, it is somewhat of an arduous hike, however brief, so be prepared to get a burst of astringent cardiovascular exercise.
Back on Laidley, one of the newer and more notable homes is the Abelson/Guthrie House—a 21st century modernist masterpiece that sits directly at the junction of Laidley and Harper Streets, and looks majestically over Noe Valley.
Built for John and Christine Abelson by a team of architects led by Ross Levy, Principle Architect at Levy Art and Architecture, the Abelson/Guthrie House is a tour de force in engineering and design at the height of elegant urban living. And on a sunny and semi-windy San Francisco day, I met with Ross Levy and John Abelson for a conversation that lasted an hour, which first began outside on the sidewalk in front of the house, and concluded inside the cozy, single-room, authentic Japanese Tea House situated at the highest elevation of the property in rear of main house.
In the introductory audio clip, Levy briefly tells how his firm got involved with the structure, including some statements about the excavation of the site:
In addition to Ross Levy, a full listing of contributors to the Abelson/Guthrie House is as follows:
- Tom H. John, Designer, New York
- Ross Levy, Levy, Art and Architecture, San Francisco
- Laura White and Jude Hellewell, Outer Space Landscape Design, San Francisco
- Len Bracket, East Wind Traditional Japanese Architecture. Nevada City, California
- Chuck Handelin, Original Construction, Fairfax, California
- Nathan, Wizard of Metals, San Francisco
Beyond that, and expanding further, what follows is a multi-media essay—edited into 14 concise segments. All photos for the essay come courtesy of noted architecture and interior design photographer, Ken Gutmaker, and each section of the essay starts with a short descriptive statement, followed by a still image and corresponding audio clip(s).
In the 1st segment, described is the streetscape entryway, plus the first floor courtyard and stairway.
In the 2nd segment, the decorative and structural use of concrete for the entry of the house, and throughout, gets discussed.
In the 3rd segment, there’s more to be said more about the excavation requirements for this 4-story house, including the parameters that allowed for the installation of a discretely-placed elevator.
In the 4th segment, the first interior stairwell is discussed, including specifics about the “folded paper” ceiling, and the meticulously-wrought railing by Nathan, the owner of Wizard of Metals.
A dialog about the 3rd floor office space and hallway library ensues in the conjoined 5th and 6th segment.
While looking at inspirational illustrations by artist, Tom John, in the 7th segment Levy talks about the “defining architecture” of the structure’s terraced balconies.
Moving into the master bedroom, in the 8th segment Abelson points out the concrete walls therein, and this segues into a dialog with Levy about the “soft” and “reflective” nature of the room—a place of “repose.”
In the 9th segment the concrete tiled wall of the bathroom and its walk-through shower takes center stage.
The 4th floor kitchen is the topic of the 10th segment, which like the office below also has a set of Marcel Breuer chairs. As well, Abelson points out the interplay of wired and natural lighting in the space.
Looking out the windowed wall of the kitchen, the “bridge” with its 3 enjoined stairways is critiqued in the 11th segment, with Levy noting its lightness and elevation, and its function.
Without using physical walls as dividers, the partitioning of the various living spaces, including a 2-part living room opposing the kitchen, is the centerpiece of the 12th segment’s dialog.
The collaged, rear courtyard, with gardens on the right and a swimming pool and sunken hot tub to the left, is the highlight of the 13th segment.
In the 14th and final segment, my conversation with Levy and Abelson concludes in the authentic Japanese Tea House overlooking the rear courtyard and swimming pool.
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally written and published for MaxEternity.com in December 2013)