Home & Garden

Couple remodels 1949 SLO home but keeps funky, midcentury modern feel

In the front room, a yellow accent wall repeats the color of a set of dinette chairs.
In the front room, a yellow accent wall repeats the color of a set of dinette chairs. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Kit Gould and Ed Himelblau are enthusiastic collectors — shopping eBay, rescuing castoffs, welcoming in family heirlooms. Few pieces are valuable, but every piece has a story.

That’s partly why they were attracted to their San Luis Obispo home, a midcentury modern-influenced house built in 1949 by Helen and Herbie Betz, a local contractor. He added on as his family grew, until it reached its present square footage of 1,736.

Gould was six months pregnant when she and Himelblau first toured the house. She is an artist, and he is a biology professor at Cal Poly who also draws science cartoons. They admired its interesting angles, large windows, central courtyard and solid construction.

Even better, it was full of stories, told in part through the home’s one-of-a-kind, custom details. “Every hallway had some feature that made us smile and stare,” recalled Himelblau.

Herbie Betz had built many features for his children — some of which Gould and Himelblau would later discover through old photos. The courtyard had a koi pond, complete with bridge, waterfall and, at one time, a volcano. An old school bell mounted on the house allowed Mrs. Betz, who suffered from throat cancer, to call her children in from play. Wood carvings and wall murals spoke to the family’s eclectic tastes in art. They included a Madonna and child painted in a Japanese woodblock style above the kitchen banquette.

The couple made an offer, but was outbid by an investment group set on converting the Cal Poly-adjacent home into a student rental. Undeterred, they wrote a letter to the sellers, the adult children of the Betzes who grew up in the house. The sellers, won over by the young couple’s enthusiasm, accepted the lower bid.

Over time, the Gould-Himelblau family decided which of the unusual features of the home they would keep, and which needed to go in the interest of a simpler look. They kept the school bell, a hidden hallway wall safe, custom cabinetry, some of the wall coverings, and a couple of the light fixtures. The kitchen was left basically untouched, except for new appliances, and a reupholstering of the banquette “booth” in silver.

However, down came the 1960s wallpaper and the murals. Out went the assortment of flooring materials, including wall-to-wall daisy-yellow carpet in one bedroom. The couple replaced all of it with gray laminate that has the texture of slate. Hand-carved heads that previously gazed down from under the fireplace mantel finally got the axe after Gould decided they looked menacing. “I sawed them off while my husband was at work,” she said.

The master bedroom was Japanese in theme, with shiny wood paneling and sliding screens in front of the windows. The couple wanted a more neutral, restful space. They simplified materials and color choices, creating a good backdrop for showcasing art.

The couple received advice early on to decorate with two concepts in mind: simplicity and cohesiveness. To this end, they created “planes of color,” keeping a limited, consistent color palette across large areas of the home, both inside and out. They started with a simple backdrop of gray and beige, adding in splashes of color such as deep olive, turquoise and yellow.

They replaced the center courtyard garden with a large deck that has been ideal for entertaining and as a play space for their daughter. The koi pond “was impressive,” said Gould, but also a safety hazard for a young child, so it had to go. At the rear of the property, they installed drought-tolerant plants. And in the spirit of Herbie Betz, who once built an entire Old West town in the backyard for his children, the couple built their daughter, now 10, a clubhouse made mostly of reclaimed shipping pallets.

At the front of the house, they removed the lava rock yard, as well as a large wooden privacy screen that concealed the house and blocked views of Cerro San Luis. “I wanted something more lush and inviting,” said Gould. And so landscape architect Tom Hessel and concrete contractor Paul Morabito went to work. They added a concrete patio and new walkway. A berm covered in plants adds height and dimension to the previously flat yard. The new plant palette consists of drought-tolerant grasses, succulents, citrus trees, blueberry bushes and California poppies that self-seed each year.

The family has added their own collections to the home, each piece significant in some way. In the dining room is a card catalog from a physics lab at Southampton College where Himelblau once worked. The table was a castoff from a school in Wisconsin near where Gould grew up. The chairs are from the Amana Colony in Iowa, inherited from Himelblau’s grandfather.

They purchased other pieces for the home, most with a midcentury vibe, sourcing thrift stores, Craigslist, eBay, Habitat for Humanity ReStore and local businesses. They once scored an enormous discount off an Italian metal lamp because it was an office light fixture needing a missing part. They found their light green family room couch from a Cal Poly student who has sold vintage pieces to television productions such as Mad Men.

The Gould-Himelblau family continues to uncover new stories about their home, but at the same time they are writing their own. “I’m proud of what Ed and I have been able to do with our home,” said Gould, “to make it reflect who we are.”

Design tips

MAKE A CONNECTION: Continuity between each room, as well as between interior and exterior spaces, makes a home feel pulled-together. The Gould-Himelblau family chose a neutral, underlying color palette for the interior and exterior. They also kept their interior floors and exterior decking on the same level and in the same basic color.

ADD ACCENTS CAREFULLY: Accent colors add interest to a neutral color scheme, but be sure to use them sparingly. In the Gould-Himelblau front room, a yellow accent wall is repeated in the color of their dinette chairs, while the rest of the room is left neutral. On the exterior of the house, areas of red-orange punctuate the beige of the house and pick up on the color of brick accents.

MIDCENTURY ON THE CHEAP: Midcentury modern style is very much in vogue, but reproduction furniture and accents can be pricey. Often, you can find a bargain by purchasing vintage items from sources like eBay, Craigslist, estate sales and thrift stores. A willingness to refurbish a piece will save you even more.