Home & Garden

The Pitkin-Conrow Estate in Arroyo Grande is lovingly restored to its former glory

The gardens of the Pitkin-Conrow Estate are frequently used for weddings.
The gardens of the Pitkin-Conrow Estate are frequently used for weddings. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In 2000, interior designer Melanie Hodges was shopping around for a larger home and ended up with more than she had bargained for.

“I was seeing tract homes for what I considered high prices at the time, and my friend and real estate agent mentioned that the Crystal Rose Inn was being sold at a discounted price,” she said.

The stick-style Arroyo Grande Victorian, known as the Pitkin-Conrow Estate, was built around 1890 by the Pitkin family, which farmed fruits, nuts and vegetables in the area. Since the mid-1980s, it has been a bed and breakfast, a restaurant, and a wedding venue. Hodges learned that its lowered price was due in part to its need for extensive renovations. But she was not discouraged.

“As an interior designer who had done a lot of designing for others, but not for myself, I looked at the property as a great design challenge that would be very rewarding,” she said. “My husband, however, saw all the work and wasn’t as excited as I was.”

The project would be more than a simple home renovation. Along with the main house, there is a barn, a banquet room and small bunkhouse on the 1.5-acre property. All of the buildings needed work. The 3,000-square-foot main house had a leaking roof and extensive water damage. The interior, which had been renovated at various times, was stuck in many bygone eras. Unfortunately, for the most part, Victorian was not one of them.

“My goal in my design was to restore Victorian period details in the house,” Hodges said.

Once they purchased the house, Melanie and husband John moved in and began to chip away at a lengthy list of projects that included replacing roofs and repainting all of the buildings. They also converted part of the barn into office space that John used for his law practice for 12 years.

Plans for a more extensive remodel were jolted into action by the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake that caused significant damage to the house.

“In lieu of earthquake insurance, which we now could not afford, we decided to do an earthquake retrofit so as to preserve this beautiful house,” Melanie Hodges said.

They hired Fred Schott & Associates to do the design work. Their original plan was to live in the home during the remodel.

“After the first day, we decided we needed to be gone,” her husband said. The couple lived in a portion of the barn for about a year, from mid-2004 to mid-2005.

In addition to making the home structurally sound, contractors removed old plaster and plywood shear and added drywall. They completely renovated the kitchen, which had acquired a red sink, red electric stove and vinyl flooring from a 1970s remodel.

The interior restoration preserved original elements such as the coal-burning parlor fireplace, ceiling medallions, fir floors, and the stained glass attic window. When rebuilding water-damaged windows, they made an effort to save the original glass, though less than half of the panes survived the process. They had special cutters made to replicate the original redwood window and door trim when replacing damaged portions.

Melanie Hodges took great pains to use historically accurate materials for the house including Carrera marble countertops, beadboard wainscoting, white subway wall tiles and hexagon floor tiles in the bathrooms. The kitchen has period details such as cabinets with recessed doors, seeded glass fronts, and an upper tier typical of the Victorian era.

Melanie traveled to the Bradbury & Bradbury manufacturing facility in Benicia to witness how the company reproduces historically accurate Victorian wallpaper designs. The meticulous process involves silk-screen printing each panel by hand on massive tables. She chose vibrant designs for four rooms of the house, including the parlor and master bedroom. The wallpaper was painstakingly installed to hide seams and disguise modern features like wall sockets.

When the couple purchased the house, they owned just one antique: a dining room table. Over time, they have assembled a collection of mostly Eastlake-style antiques to complement their home’s interior. Some have come from local antique shops and others from the Rosa family, who lived in the house in the 1970s. Melanie Hodges received a phone call from a family member asking if she would like to purchase some pieces owned by the Conrow family who lived in the house during the first half of the last century.

“I emphatically said yes!” recalled Hodges.

Most of the furniture for the parlor came from the Rosas, including one of Melanie Hodges’ favorite pieces, a barrel-top desk. The couple also uses one of the Conrow family’s dressers in the master bedroom.

“Older furniture may not be as easily functioning. The drawers don’t glide as easily. But the details are far more interesting — in fact, that’s what I like about the house,” Hodges said.

The front parlor is wholeheartedly Victorian in design and furnishings. The “sitting room,” where the couple does most of their living, is designed more for comfort and convenience with traditional-style furniture, a wood-burning fireplace, and a large built-in cabinet to conceal audio and video equipment.

The Hodges decided to continue to rent the gardens and banquet room for weddings and other events.

“We felt that in addition to sharing this treasure with others, it might help defray some of the cost of restoring and maintaining it,” Melanie Hodges said.

Previous owners had installed a gazebo and colonnade in the garden, which the Hodges rebuilt because of extensive water damage. They hired a company in Eureka to craft redwood columns for the gazebo to match details of the house.

The scope of the project went far beyond what the couple originally envisioned, but they have learned from the process and enjoyed it as well.

“We love this wonderful house. It has been an adventure for us,” said Melanie Hodges.

Reach Rebecca Juretic at rajuretic@sbcglobal.net.

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