In Vino Veritas: Robert Baumann Incorporates Old-World Elements into a Mediterranean-Style Sonoma Home


Robert Baumann brought authenticity to a new Mediterranean-style home by incorporating old-world elements tracked down by the owners.

Every Friday afternoon while working at his desk in a San Francisco law firm, Ken Adelson would begin daydreaming about his house in Sonoma County. “I would start counting the hours until we could get into the car and go,” he says. “It all seemed to get better once we crossed the county line. I felt more relaxed, the air smelled fresh—my blood pressure probably dropped.”

Ken and his wife, Karen, purchased the Sonoma County property in 1999 as a weekend getaway. Karen, a former interior designer, describes the original house as “scary.” Ken calls it an “unimpressive house on a terrific lot.” The two-story builder’s special was perched on a narrow slice of ground that had been cut out of the side of a hill and leveled. A steep driveway led up to the house, and with no turnout, drivers would have to back down the way they came, leaving many guests’ cars with scratches as a souvenir of their visit. The view of the surrounding vineyards from the deck, however, was so lovely that it stuck in Ken’s mind throughout the workweek.

The idea of making the weekend getaway a full-time residence was born after Karen injured her leg and chose to recuperate in the Sonoma house. “I was splitting my time between my office in San Francisco, our home in the Crocker Highlands neighborhood of Oakland and Sonoma County,” says Ken. “Both of us realized how much we loved living here, so we decided to make a permanent move.”

The house had been fine for a couple of days out of each week, but it was not satisfactory for a full-time residence, so the couple hired Sonoma architect Robert Baumann to help them build their dream home. Although Karen had remodeled many homes during her career, she had never built a house from the ground up. “It’s a wonderful privilege to get to do it. But when you start from scratch and are confronted with limitless style possibilities, it can be overwhelming,” she says. “We decided that the most important thing was that the house fit the property.”

When deciding on the style, Karen and Baumann had a meeting of the minds. “The Adelsons wanted the design to be Spanish, Mediterranean, Moroccan or Tuscan—places that they and I have both visited,” Baumann says. “In the end, we came up with an eclectic style that’s more Andalusian than anything.”

Baumann admits that Mediterranean style has had a bad rap, due in part to its popularity among developers. “But true Mediterranean architecture is different,” he says. “You can’t just put a red-tile roof on a home and call it Mediterranean style. The authentic design of that region has many traits, such as thick walls, that make it perfect for the climate in Wine Country.”

Influenced by her travels around the globe, Karen was after a look with more of a mixed pedigree. “In the Old World, houses were assembled over time,” she says. “A wing was added when an older relative came to live in the household, and decorative accents and architecture were influenced by the reigning political power. The result was a rambling, eclectic mix. That’s what I wanted for this house.”

After showing the couple some design books (in which Karen tabbed dozens of images), the architect got started on the plans while Karen searched for old doors, vintage windows and architectural artifacts to complete the look. “I wanted to use old pieces in the new construction to avoid a cliché, stereotypical look,” she says. “As a designer, I got so very tired of going into houses and seeing the same old thing. I wanted authentic pieces. So I started searching salvage companies and stores all over the world via the Internet. Most of my pieces are finds from the 1920s and ’30s.”

Baumann notes that working with old materials can be difficult and time consuming. “But in this case, it was a lot of fun,” he says. “The idea was born of passion and was a driving force behind the design. The clients were a big part of the design of this house.Karen and I would play ideas off each other, and many times we would be emailing each other as late into the night as 12:30 or 1 a.m.”

One of Baumann’s big ideas was to create a home where light comes in on two sides—a tricky feat on a narrow hillside lot. He accomplished it and upped the authentic ante by creating a two-story courtyard at the front of the house. The colorful tiled space with a burbling fountain at the center not only exudes charm, but it also allows light to enter on the south side of the home and provides better circulation around the building and gardens. “With the old house, there really wasn’t much room to be outside,” says Baumann. “By siting the new house a little differently, we made it easier for the Adelsons to be outside on their property.”

Karen worked hard on sourcing new materials with a careful eye to keep them authentic as well. “One of my favorite rooms is the master bathroom,” she says. “I wondered what type of tile would be used in an old-world house. When I researched it, I found that people in the 1920s and ’30s used glass tile. So that’s what we chose.”

This attention to detail may make the house look as if it has existed on the site for many years, but it is totally modern in its use of green materials. The house is constructed of ICF (insulating concrete forms), which are energy-efficient interlocking panels. “These are usually used in very modern, very boxy homes,” says Baumann. “While their linear forms proved to be a bit of a challenge in the design of this house, the material’s R-value (the ability to resist heat flow) is a perfect fit for this climate and this site. We were also mindful of using low-VOC materials for healthy indoor air quality. Traditional houses aren’t necessarily associated with green architecture, but they can be green too.”

For the Adelson family, their globally influenced dream home has just one drawback. “We feel like we are surrounded by Italy, Greece and Spain,” says Karen. “So when we are planning a vacation, where do we go? This year, we went to Hawaii.”

More news: