Old farmhouse for new lifestyle
Small home reflects family's belief in not wasting space
John Ribovich and Lisa Alba weren't looking for a big house for their family -- but it had to be old.
"We only looked at houses built before 1940," John said. "I grew up in a mid-century house."
They loved their Cape Cod-style bungalow near downtown Oakland, which they'd spent 10 years renovating and filled with their arts and crafts collection. But by 2003 they had two young children and wanted something in a good school district and closer to where they work -- Alba teaches the second-third grade at Vintage Hills Elementary, and Ribovich teaches AP English at Milpitas High.
A Realtor brought them to a little 1915 farmhouse in downtown Pleasanton on the corner of Rose Street and Peters before it even went on the market. They immediately saw the possibilities.
They especially loved the formal dining room.
"So many houses are set up like sport bars," Ribovich said.
With the dining room table the only comfortable place for them all to gather to eat, they spend mealtimes sharing their days with each other and their children, Natalya, 12, and Max, 10. An older daughter, Leslie, 24, is out on her own.
The house is 1,200 square feet, with a living room, dining room, three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen and a back porch they've dubbed the "mud room."
"We're using every square inch of the house," Ribovich said, pointing out workspaces and arts and crafts oak shelves filled with books.
"We have a bigger collection of furniture than this," he added. A lot is in storage.
Ribovich has been collecting antiques for years, and his family never knows what he will bring home or when.
"When I was little he went jogging and came home with a chandelier he found at a garage sale," Natalya remembered with a laugh. Other finds he had to drive back for included a file cabinet and a bumper pool table.
When you have less space you actually accumulate fewer things and keep everything neat, Alba pointed out.
"One of the secrets to a smaller home is proportional furniture," Ribovich explained. "Our stuff is oak but it is not massive."
The home was built by the Fiorio family, which had its Market and Meat Service for over 40 years on the opposite corner. Ribovich said he talked to Jack Fiorio before he died at the age of 88 in June 2010. He asked why the 10-foot ceilings in the living room and dining room had been lowered to 8 feet somewhere along the line and said he had restored them to their original height.
"Why would you want to do that?" he recalled Jack asking. "That's a lot of work."
Before 1938 there were no sewer pipes; when they were installed, the house was also enlarged, Ribovich said, making the kitchen bigger and adding a bedroom and the mudroom.
"It couldn't have been more than 700 square feet in its original configuration and didn't have an indoor toilet," Ribovich said.
John and Lisa had the ceilings in the front rooms raised to their original 10 feet before they moved in, the family recalled. John stenciled around the tops, a decorative touch that draws up the eyes. They placed lace curtains at the windows to allow in light but keep their privacy.
The bathroom still has its first clawfoot tub, and they installed tiny vintage tiles in keeping with the era. It also has its original bead board wainscoting as does part of the hallway and the back bedroom.
The windows and most of the hardware in the home are also original as are the kitchen's black and white Deco tile around the sink. The stove and oven are in the opposite corner next to a small countertop wrapped around a corner and a chopping block.
"Most great meals are cooked in small kitchens," Ribovich noted.
A desk in the extended part of the kitchen allows for a laptop to do school projects or other paperwork.
"Because there's not room for an office we have these mini workspaces," John said.
Adjoining the kitchen is the mudroom, which has the refrigerator plus a line of hooks holding jackets, purses, backpacks, hats and scarves. Ribovich pointed out that he keeps his clothes simple and his wardrobe small but said they would all like more closet space.
"All these coats would be in closets," he said, if they had them.
They said they also would have liked a larger back yard, but there's plenty of room for outdoor furniture with a canopy. They enjoy walking their dog AJ on Main Street, and Natalya and Max can also play at Veterans Plaza Park on Peters, which backs up to their house.
Their detached garage serves as a comfortable family room, which helps alleviate the crunch and allows room for yet more bookcases and an old oak file cabinet.
The move almost 10 years ago was a challenge, recalled Ribovich and Alba, with the two younger children only 3 and 1.
"It was early November when we decided to sell the bungalow, buy the farmhouse and remake it into an arts and crafts home by Christmas," Ribovich said.
The "to do" list included installing central heating and air-conditioning; refinishing the hardwood floors in some of the rooms and installing them in others; raising the ceilings; restoring the bathroom; repainting the entire interior; and replacing fixtures and hardware with vintage fixtures where needed.
Ribovich, who is artistic director and resident playwright for the Calaveras Repertory Theatre, attributed his ability to complete the renovations in time to his work in the theater.
"I'm used to doing big projects on a short schedule," he said. "We once did a full production of 'King Lear' with only four short weeks of rehearsal.
"This was my fourth old house and I had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done."
They decided that in their after-work hours, Lisa would take care of the kids and John would work on the new house. He called upon the expertise of his brother-in-law and also hired professionals. Even before the house was officially theirs, he began to assemble hardware, fixtures and lighting.
"On Dec. 3, the agent handed us the keys," he recalled. "Our first symbolic gesture was to remove the giant home entertainment center that took up a quarter of the living room."
They painted the arctic white kitchen a warm honey yellow, which unified the different parts and make it appear larger. Professionals re-grouted the kitchen tile, reconfigured the bathroom and installed the pedestal sink.
The bathroom was finished Christmas Eve, Ribovich recalled.
"My mother-in-law and I finished the painting on Christmas Day," he added.
"We moved in on Dec. 26, tired but happy."