By Nancy Keates www.online.wsj.com
Landscape architect John Wong is best known for his work integrating some of the world’s tallest buildings—including the 2,717-foot-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai—into their surrounding neighborhoods.
So Mr. Wong was hardly intimidated by his most personal project, a dilapidated three-story house perched on a steep cliff overlooking the Pacific. Located in the appropriately named Sea Cliff district, the four-bedroom property sat unsold for many months until the Wongs decided to buy it.
“You can’t improve the site, but you can always improve the house,” said Mr. Wong, who declined to disclose his age. “I knew it was the perfect site.” Buying the property for $1.9 million in 2003, Mr. Wong and his wife, Mildred (“Milky”) Sum-Wong, an interior designer, turned to Michael C.F. Chan, a Harvard classmate of Mr. Wong’s who designed John McEnroe’s Malibu beach home and La Belle Vie, a Bel-Air home that sold for $40 million in June.
Finished four years later, the new 4,000-square-foot, three-story house sticks out even further over the cliff, supported by 48 concrete piers. Backing onto Presidio National Park, it takes advantage of the fact that its location makes the home almost invisible from the street—and from neighbors.
As with his skyscraper groundscapes, Mr. Wong’s goal was to connect the inside with the out. But in this case, he focused on the inside: There are so many glass walls and skylights, the Wongs rarely turn on lights during the day. Much of the glass is on the north side, including a 23-foot-high glass wall in the kitchen, showing off unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Baker Beach.
Since the house is set back, Messrs. Wong and Chan were also able to install large windows along the sides of the home that give views of the neighbors’ back gardens instead of into their windows.
In an area where most homes are mere feet from the street and right next to each other, friends say they still can’t believe they’re in such a densely populated area when they’re at the house. “It feels completely private, like being in a tree house,” said Gaylord Dillingham, a longtime antiques dealer whose twin daughters are the same ages as the Wongs’ daughters.
All-white walls make the details of the materials stand out, from the designer furniture (chairs by Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, tables and benches by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) to the limestone fireplace in the living room. The only wall with color is the main-floor powder room, painted Imperial Red, a nod to the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
The focus of the interior is a stairway, flanked on one side by a steel cable railing and on the other by a two-story-tall wall of square cubbies filled with books, vases and architecture magazines. Traditional 1-foot-deep stair treads are interrupted by 6-foot-deep treads, creating a feeling of a ramp. Made of 6-inch-thick hunks of laminated teak, a material Mr. Wong sourced in China, the stairway rises like a bridge, terminating at a floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking a wall of vines which is topped by a long, narrow skylight.
Near the top of the stairs, along the wall of cubbies, is an 8-foot-high glass door that opens to a very narrow balcony overlooking a neighbor’s garden. More info