Rebecca and Tom Allen lived in Turin, Italy for nearly two years, soaking up the culture, learning to make wine, and learning more than a little about Italian architecture.
When they returned to the United States, they put that knowledge to good use. In 2003, they purchased a hilly 40-acre lot in Paso Robles and began the process of building a Tuscan-style home on a hilltop — almost entirely by themselves. Tom, a retired corporate CEO, and Rebecca, an attorney, forged ahead on plans for a 4,300-square-foot estate.
It would be no simple structure, with its grand towers, arched entrances and extensive masonry work. Their goal was to recreate the look and feel of a genuine Tuscan country villa, “without the overdone Italianate look often seen in the U.S.,” said Rebecca.
The couple began by studying photographs they had taken of country homes and wineries in Tuscany. “We were very particular and had high expectations going into the project,” she said. She drew up a floor plan and exterior sketches. Tom spent around 50 hours creating a scale model of the house. From these plans, home designer Will Bateman and architect Ted Webber created blueprints.
The couple only used sub-contractors for a few projects, such as foundation, stucco, drywall, roof tiles and showers. Together, the couple handled framing, electrical, plumbing, masonry work and landscaping. They lived on site, in an apartment over the garage, tackling each project carefully and deliberately over the course of three years. Tom learned so much during the process that he eventually passed the California General Contractor exams.
Rain was the biggest obstacle. The year they started construction was a wet one. Trucks and tractors became stuck in the freshly graded earth. Material deliveries were delayed.
Each day of framing began by clearing water out of the structure. So they enclosed it quickly, a move that created other problems. For instance, it eliminated the option of using a crane to lift the massive great room beams into place. Instead, they used a manual hoist and scaffolding to raise them the necessary 20 feet.
Also tricky was the masonry so essential to Tuscan design. Eldorado stone veneer covers multiple surfaces, including the 24-foot high tower (inside and out), the breakfast nook, workshop and interior bar wall. Tom learned installation techniques from the supplier.
Still, it was a slow and laborious process, working with scaffolding and ropes to install the heavy stones that needed to be pieced together very precisely. “It was like creating a very large mosaic,” he said.
Rebecca took on the challenging project of covering a half-barrel ceiling in the bar area with over 1,300 bricks — a feature she had admired in a Rancho Santa Fe home. She completed the entire project while lying flat on her back upon scaffolding. “I love it and am thrilled it’s there, but am not sure my neck could do it again,” she said.
Rebecca, who worked in interior design before becoming an attorney, considers four elements critical to Tuscan design: stone, wood, earth and water.
“We tried to keep these elements in mind while designing, building and decorating,” she said.
With each element, there is a balance between rustic and refined. In the living room, for instance, there are rugged wood ceiling beams as well as an intricately carved fireplace surround. Eldorado stone is organic in shape, while the travertine floors add contrasting refinement.
The Allens weighed each decision carefully, minding every detail and adding elements of surprise. Building the house themselves afforded them the luxury of making changes “as ideas came to us,” said Rebecca.
Luckily, they have similar tastes, she added. Together, they came up with the idea to add faux leather with wood moldings to bring warmth and texture to the library ceiling. In the kitchen, a counter is covered in beautifully aged copper. Floor-to-ceiling paneling in the dining room adds drama and also conceals a hidden doorway that leads to a private guest suite.
There are handcrafted details: a hand-painted tile mural from Positano, Italy on the kitchen backsplash and hand-painted Italian tiles on the staircase risers.
To Rebecca, Tuscan is synonymous with comfort. The couple made a trip to the famed North Carolina High Point Furniture Market to select some of their furniture, such as their round Italian-style dining table that, with a leaf, seats up to 14. Their dining room buffet is hand-painted — a feature typical of furniture in Italian homes. And their sideboard was built from reclaimed wood sourced from Venice.
The Allens call their home Villa Vetta, which means “summit home.” They both agree that they would not change any part of the house, and consider the three years of hard work well-spent.
“Most of all, it is very much like reliving the wonderful times we had in Italy,” said Rebecca, “but with all our family and friends close by.”
TUSCAN WARMTH: Tuscan style gets its warm and welcoming look from the use of natural elements like stone, wood, metal, and water. Try to incorporate as many as you can in each space. An earth-inspired color palette is also essential.
DO DIY WISELY: When considering a DIY project, consult multiple sources. In addition to online guides, read books and talk to experts. The suppliers of materials you are using can often provide useful tips on installation.
SEE IT IN PERSON: Photos are fine for inspiration, but seeing a home in person can offer details that you might not pick up on in a picture. While planning their home, the Allens toured many homes in Italy, as well as Italian-style homes in the United States.