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Honors for heritage homes

Awards recognize houses that keep Pleasanton's historic character

Heritage homes are all about gracious living, says John Ribovich, co-chairman of the Pleasanton Heritage Association awards committee.

"They are an important part of the texture of where we live," he said. "They have that gracious notion of living, a neighborly way."

The association recently recognized two homes for the owners' commitment to preserving the historic character of the downtown neighborhoods.

The New Construction Award in a Heritage Style went to Steve and Erin Iversen for their home on St. John Street; the Heritage Preservation Award was given to Tom and Karen Pico for the extensive renovations on their 1903 home on Railroad Avenue.

The Iversens' new residence is modeled on the Elsnab house, which was home to Morris Elsnab and his wife Ellen, the town midwife. The new house, which is nestled in a bower of heritage trees, was designed by architect Mark Molinar and built by contractor Jeff Debernardi in 2008 and harkens back to an earlier time.

"The Iversens really stayed true to the original house," Ribovich said. "It is three times the square footage. They expanded it out, but it literally looks exactly like the house they modeled it on. It looks like it's been there forever."

The Pico home was built in 1903 on Main Street by the town's wagon makers, the Biltz family.

"Back in those days, the wagon makers were wealthy," Tom Pico said, pointing out that in 1903 everyone needed wagons for transportation and farm work, just as they now need cars.

Pico, who served on the Pleasanton City Council for eight years then as mayor from 2000-04, also has a CPA practice and was interested in living and working downtown, he said. He bought the Railroad Avenue house in 1999 from owner Birdie Bianchi, a town activist who started the Valley Emergency Fund to aid the needy. She helped the Picos with financing.

"She was concerned that someone was going to tear the house down and build apartments there," Pico said. "It was in real disrepair when we bought it."

He remarked that because he was mayor he did not deal directly with the city during the home restoration process. His brother, Rod, and the architect handled the permitting.

"I was quite fortunate in that I had a brother that was a master contractor and carpenter," Pico said. "He spent four years helping me to restore and rehabilitate the structure. The main problem was getting permits to do the engineering work that was required to make it structurally sound and to be able to remodel the upstairs to little apartments."

Bianchi had moved the house from Main Street in 1950, turning it around and placing it on a solid foundation on Railroad Avenue, freeing up the lot where Domus was built, now Workbench Main Street hardware store.

At some point, the residence became a boarding house, Pico said.

"It had two little funky apartments upstairs that had been vacant for a few years," he said. "Birdie lived downstairs."

Pico and his brother painstakingly recreated the Queen Anne showpiece.

"My brother was the primary contractor, and I was his helper -- when I had time, we worked at it. It shows a lot of love and care in the work," Pico said.

"It was absolutely a much bigger project than I anticipated," he added. "Nothing was square or straight. But it was a work of love."

They renovated the upstairs into two "neat little one-bedroom apartments," which have interesting roof angles. They are now rented out.

"It's a nice little kind of community," Pico said.

He and Karen have a second home on 5 acres in Oregon, a refuge they visit often.

"Everybody helps each other when we're gone," Pico said. "The tenants take care of the place and the gardening."

Pico said the location in the heart of downtown has its pluses and minuses.

"On the whole, it's positive," he said.

In the past, Pleasanton Heritage Association board members decided which homeowners to honor. But this year, Ribovich said, it nominated four restored houses and three new ones, and the entire membership of about 200 voted on the winners.

He noted that those who own heritage homes, himself included, are involved in their stewardship. Pico agrees.

"We tried to keep it looking as much as we could like it was originally," Pico said about his Railroad Avenue home. "We are caretakers of the place."

"The awards are our way of seeking out and rewarding those people who have really done a nice job of preserving our heritage downtown," Ribovich said.

For more information about the awards, call Ribovich at (510) 853-1427.

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