The Grand Tour at Home

By Dan Gregory

Architects Lucia Howard and David Weingarten designed this home around 3,000 architectural souvenirs!

[NOTE: This is an update of an earlier post.] All houses tell stories, but at Rancho Diablo, the Contra Costa County, California, home remodeled and expanded by architects Lucia Howard and David Weingarten, founders of Ace Architects, the story is a lively page turner about architecture itself. 

First there’s the original structure, an unusual-two story brick and timber ranch house by San Francisco Bay Area architect and scientist Lillian Bridgman dating from the 1920s.

Then there’s the collection of more than 3,000 vintage souvenir structures amassed by Howard and Weingarten and partner Margaret Majua — including miniature cathedrals, Eiffel Towers, Egyptian obelisks, war monuments, Roman columns

...and Pantheons and Colosseums, oh my! Not to mention the collection of 18th- and 19th-century architectural prints and romantic landscape paintings, which vividly complement the Lilliputian landmarks. 

Most of the objects illustrate the idea of the European Grand Tour; that is, they were created as mementos and souvenirs of traveling through the capitals of Europe, especially London, Paris, and Rome, which was a custom for young aristocrats and well-off families in the 18th and 19th centuries. But now with so many souvenirs in one place — I’d call them “monumementos” — the "grand tour" means never leaving home! And yet the objects themselves have travelled: the collection has been shown in museums across the U.S. and is now at the San Francisco International Airport, through August 13, 2017.

And finally, there’s the addition designed to store and display so many diverse objects while making the house more livable. 

Shown here is the new double-height living room and painting gallery. Note the stair-wrapped fireplace and ovoid balcony cutout inspired by the work of early San Francisco Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed San Francisco’s iconic Palace of Fine Arts for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. Cowboy, a Welsh Corgi, seems very much at home on his divan, if not a little underwhelmed by all the visual references. But wow! To other breeds it can be a sensory overload and a lot to

take in. Not to mention with all the other historical references, such as in the use of rusticated tile resembling classical masonry in kitchen and bathroom, and in symmetrical water courses recalling the fountains of Rome. Even the garden is metaphoric — a beautiful

desert-inspired landscape that’s studded with barrel cacti and century plants and oriented toward views of Mt. Diablo — hence the compound’s name.

I have known David and Lucia for many years, but every time I visit, I am astonished anew and admire once again their wonderfully innovative eclecticism. An architect’s house is often a design laboratory, but this is one where the bubbling beakers — and even the pool addition — are brimming with creativity.


If you are at SFO in the next few months, look for the above mentioned exhibition, which is titled All Roads Lead To Rome: 17th-19th Century Architectural Souvenirs from the Collection of Piraneseum. That made-up word, Piraneseum, combines the name of the famous 18th century Roman graphic artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi with the word museum, and is the name of David and Lucia's antiques company). Fittingly, the exhibit is on the Departures Level of the International Terminal. So let your imagination take wing as you prepare to embark, even if you're not bound for Rome. I recommend it!

Photos courtesy Ace Architects.

And if you are looking for designs that would make a good backdrop for your own art and memorabilia

displays, from Ranch House Plan 888-17, shown above, to Modern House Plan 496-18 below,

check out our Architectural Style Collections, here.

Wed Jan 25 00:00:00 PST 2017