Tropical Punch

San Francisco (Best in Chow Our Annual Food Issue. Read It and Eat.)



Photographs by Matthew Millman


Touches of Morocco and Miami make this once-traditional Panhandle home as refreshing as a sea breeze.


When friends show up at James Nunemacher and Manuel Alvarado's Edwardian in the Panhandle for a party, they have a habit of walking straight down the hall and out to the back deck, where the drinks are being mixed. Lately, though, when they make their way back inside to gather in the living room – margarita or gin and tonic in hand – they discover a new, blue paradise.


A beach lover and real estate developer whose multiple phones ring incessantly, Nunemacher has owned the house since 1995. Three years ago, when Alvarado, a student at a beauty institute in Hayes Valley, moved in, they decided it was time for an update. "But I wasn't interested I having someone tell me what to do or what's fashionable," explains Nunemacher. "I'd rather they listen to me and figure out who I really am." He called interior designer Charles De Lisle, at Your Space Interiors (now Philpotts & Associates, Inc.). The two had worked together on some business projects, and Nunemacher liked the designer's sense of fun and acute ear for a client's preferences.


In this case, De Lisle's clients were looking for a house that would work both as a party pad and as a refuge. Nunemacher and Alvarado love to entertain, whether they're hosting a fancy holiday bash, a costume party for a friend's birthday, or a weekly meeting of Nunemacher's philosophy discussion group. But at the same time, they treasure their quiet mornings together, reading newspapers and drinking coffee and juice on the deck. De Lisle's makeover lets the house work both ways.


From the curb, the home is the quintessential Edwardian. But step inside and it's a different story. Right about the time Alvarado moved in, the couple bought a penthouse in Miami, and they were inspired to bring a bit of that very un-San Francisco look back home. In an attempt to re-create the feel of Miami's blue-water and blue-sky views, they installed a skylight atop the wide central staircase and had De Lisle paint the living room and dining room three shades of blue: light Tiffany, medium turquoise, and a steely shade just lighter than midnight. At night, when the natural light goes, three chandeliers – two of which are fairly fussy glass, the third steel and quite modern – and a custom-made mirrored coffee table steal the show. A trio of Moroccan lamps hanging over the table sends shards of light everywhere.


A painting of a palm tree and a scattering of conch shells and starfish recall Miami, Morocco, and other beachy climes, giving the rooms an eclectic, tropical look. De Lisle removed some of the Victorian spindle work from the living and dining rooms, simplifying the lines and clearing the way for an unabashed blending of masculine blues with the pretty chandeliers. He also put in sumptuous seating in festive colors and textures so there are plenty of places for the couple's guests to sit. Most of the furniture was custom-designed by De Lisle. Two velvet-covered armchairs face a down-filled couch that fits five, and the 11-foot-long lightwood dining table seats eight easily. "We like the number eight for dinner parties," Nunemacher says. "It's the most lively."


Even the visually playful De Lisle, who has worked on several of the famously whimsical Joie de Vivre properties around the Bay Area, including Hotel Del Sol and the Kabuki Spa, was surprised by some of the couple's bolder choices. "I had two crazy fabrics in my briefcase for a meeting with another client. These were options, not a combination," he remembers. "Jim saw them and asked if we could use them both – together – at his house. When the sofa manufacturer got our order, they called to see if it was a mistake." The result is a large couch covered in a brown and white floral print piled with fuchsia pillows. It sits in a chocolate brown-painted room with a flat-screen TV, a large potted palm, and heavy window shades: Just add popcorn and a movie.


Mixed in with the whimsical touches are enough classic pieces to keep the home's aesthetic comfortable and grounded. Familiar red geraniums spill from window boxes in front. The three fireplaces still have their original decorative tiles, some depicting Greek classical figures. White leather dining chairs are downright understated, and the bedrooms upstairs are a visually quiet oasis, upholstered and painted in soothing olive greens and grays, with comfy armchairs and traditional striped curtains.


Nunemacher and Alvarado so enjoyed redesigning and redecorating that when they finished the project last spring, they decided to bring De Lisle back to remodel their bathrooms this fall. "I love this house more than ever," says Nunemacher. "It's always morphing. I think that's important. A house is supposed to be alive."