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HOMEOWNERS — Alisa Gean, M.D. and Seth Gersch

LOCATION — Hillsborough, California

BUILT — 1999-2002

PROPERTY — Three acres on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay

STYLE — "The architecture and design capture the warmth of the Tuscan countryside"

INTERIOR — 9,000 square feet

FAVORITE ROOMS — "We relax in the kitchen and family room, work comfortably in the study, and sleep well in the bedroom"

HER FAVORITE ACTIVITIES — "Helping others brings joy to my life, whether it's interpreting a patient's brain scan, participating in outside charity work, or just making people laugh." Alisa also loves pets — or anything pertaining to animals.

HIS FAVORITE ACTIVITIES — Making things work better, tinkering with cars, collecting and learning about wine, community work with the San Francisco 49ers Foundation, and "a feeble attempt at developing a game of golf"

SHARED PASTIMES — 49ers football, classic sports cars, and, at the end of a long day, curling up on the chenille sofa in the family room to watch a good movie while sipping wine from their wine cellar

HOUSEBUILDING TIP — "Surround yourself with talent you can trust"

WHY FRONTGATE?  "When I sort through a huge stack of mail, the Frontgate catalog is one of the few things I keep. It's very tasteful, and I trust the quality the products." - Alisa Gean, MD.

Dining Room

Family Room

Living Room

Farro Essalat
Essalat Architects
312 North San Mateo Drive
San Mateo, CA 94401

John Cook and Paul McCann
Cook & McCann Contractors
538 Cypress Avenue
San Bruno, CA 94066

Interior Design
Joel Hendler
Hendler Design
2305 Washington Street
Suite 201
San Francisco, CA 94115

Aldo Ghiozzi
A. Ghiozzi Landscape, Inc.
1731 Adrian Road
Burlingame, CA 94010

Daniel McCarthy and Paul Gallagher
Advanced Masonry Company
1160 Fairmont Drive
San Bruno, CA 94066
(650) 952 7337

Murals and Faux Finishes
Andrew Johnstone
247 4th Street
Loft 303
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 835-8311

Hillsborough, California — Seth Gersch and Alisa Gean were at a stage in life where they were ready to make the home of their dreams. "We were getting married," says Alisa, "and we wanted to build something together." Having owned a number of different houses, they both had a good idea of what they wanted. And what they wanted was a house that embodied the warmth of the Italian countryside as well as the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere of a fine resort-in essence, a vacation home where they'd have the good fortune to live every day. And a view of the water was a definite priority.

Well aware of their style preferences, their real estate agent led them to just such a place: a Tuscan villa designed by its architect owner. As it turns out, not only was his home nearly identical to what they envisioned for themselves, but the property next door was for sale, a 1970s contemporary home on a three-acre plot of land overlooking San Francisco Bay. "We knew that was the spot," says Alisa. "We had a vision of what we wanted, and we knew that was the spot to build it."

The moment they met the architect, they told him, "We want to buy the house next door, tear it down, and have you design a home for us just like yours!" And that's exactly what they did.


"We took everything down to the dirt," explains Alisa, "dug out what looked like a swimming pool, put in a wine cellar, then built on top of that."

She and Seth felt that having the architect right next door was a stroke of luck as the house would no doubt move along more expeditiously. And while endorsing his faithful adherence to traditional Tuscan architecture, they also brought in a designer friend of Seth's to endow the home with the warmth and comfort they sought. Alisa likens the architect's concerns—size, scale, symmetry, and construction detail—to the skeleton of the body, while the designer's responsibility is putting meat on those bones. "The designer added the color and fabric and softness and lusciousness," she explains, adding that he was the ringleader of the interior design. "He had an eye for fabrics, painting, furniture, and appliances, and he had the contacts. He made our job very easy."

"My house is my friend," says Alisa. "Seth and I feel like we're on top of the world." Shop Outdoor Living.

He also helped them get acclimated to making selections scaled to the magnitude of their new home. "I had to adjust my whole thinking when choosing furniture and artwork," says Alisa. "The house is larger than you think, so whatever you put inside it shrinks. It requires pieces that are larger than life; we feel like we're in Alice in Wonderland." Take the entry table, for example. When Alisa first saw it in the showroom, her initial reaction was, "It's far too big!" Once the table was in place, however, "all of a sudden it looked small." Likewise, a painting that seemed ridiculously large in the artist's studio proved to be "a miniature version of its former self" when hanging on the wall at home.

The designer would choose the things from which Seth and Alisa would then make a decision, "and sure enough, it all fit beautifully." Alisa recalls the day her sisters danced about the unfurnished living room, dubbing it the ballroom. "They came back when it was furnished and were amazed at the transition from echoing ballroom to comfortable living room where everything fits. Nothing looks crowded, but it doesn't look empty."


Seth and Alisa poured themselves into the project heart and soul, assembling a talented team of individuals who injected their own genius into the process but allowed Seth and Alisa to have the final say. "There were so many variables involved in each decision," Alisa explains. "Unless you've gone through it, you don't understand how much effort, how much time, and how many decisions go into building a house.

"Whenever we'd go anywhere, we'd be thinking about our building project. We'd go into a restaurant, see some stone, and ask ourselves if we liked it. We'd see fixtures in other people's homes and look at them with the potential that they might work in our home. Once you put your mind to something, you focus differently. Pretty soon we were seeing exactly what we wanted to see.

"Fortunately, Seth and I have very similar ideas, similar likes and dislikes. It makes a marriage as well as a home. It certainly made the process a lot smoother. It was fun. A lot of work, but a lot of fun." The land, the architect, the contractor, the designer, the landscaper—"all the pieces of the pie fit perfectly. There weren't a lot of roadblocks," she adds. "We were lucky. Instead of a nightmare, we had a nice dream!"

She attributes much of that success to her husband. "He's Mister Fix-It, a can-do guy who's good at designing and facilitating and expediting. He gets things going and he gets things done. The two of us are perfectionists, but he knows how to let go and get things moving."

Elaborating on her own difficulty in trusting that everything would be done to her standards, Alisa says, "I'm used to being in control." (A neuroradiologist by profession, her critical thinking and assessment skills are vital to the correct diagnosis of brain and spinal cord injuries.) "When the wooden beams across the entryway were being stained, I initially said, 'It's too dark! We'll have to re-sand them and start over.' But sure enough, they were right. Once I went through that on a couple of different issues, I was able to let go and trust that things would work out."


Things worked out very well indeed. The house and every room in it are a never-ending source of delight to Seth and Alisa, starting with the master suite. "It's so quiet, we feel like we're on top of the world," says Alisa. She and Seth each have their own bath and dressing room, hers with a view of the garden, his with a view of the water, as was their preference. A glass shower connects the two, giving them privacy yet ensuring the ability to communicate easily.

The U-shaped study is arranged with Alisa's computer and networking equipment on one side, and Seth's workspace on the other. Because Alisa often works from home, researching and writing about her area of expertise, it was especially important to her that the study be friendly and conducive to working. "This is my living area when we don't have company," she says. An adjoining room houses a small refrigerator, sink, microwave, and espresso machine where she can grab a cup of coffee in a matter of seconds.

"The house is larger than you think, so whatever you put inside it shrinks."

The living room and dining room are the only formal areas in the house, but thanks to the designer's skills, says Alisa, they're nonetheless very comfortable and livable. "This isn't Versailles, an in-your-face home where you're afraid of spilling something. It's a style we're comfortable with." The dining room is papered in handpainted canvas and outfitted with Italian burlwood furniture made in San Francisco by Italian cabinetmakers. The living room is "a very grand, magnificent room with a spectacular ceiling" whose construction intrigued Alisa. "The woodworkers had to put the wooden geometric design together in such a way as to be structurally stable so it could support the weight of the chandelier. To test it, they suspended weights from it one weekend!"

Seth and Alisa spend a good deal of their at-home time together in the kitchen and family room, taking most of their meals at the Italian-tiled table in the breakfast nook tucked between the two rooms. The kitchen is user-friendly, says Alisa, "a place people like to hang." Explaining that Seth does all the cooking, she says, "He's like an undifferentiated cell, capable of cooking, fixing the car, building the house, building a business." At the end of a long day, the two of them often curl up on the chenille family-room sofa with a glass of wine and a good movie.

The two guest rooms, one upstairs and one down, are self-contained suites with private baths and views of the garden. A mini-gym is also located on the ground floor. One of the two garages houses the couple's car collection.


Adding to the home's authenticity are the Italian gardens. "The landscaper is Italian," says Alisa, "and he knows what an Italian garden should look like." Working only with foliage native to Tuscany, he further narrowed his selections to those plants that would survive San Francisco's climate.

The front garden, which includes numerous cypress trees, is designed to soften the home's stonework. A side garden runs off the entryway, but it's the back garden that Alisa finds most captivating. "It's very peaceful here, and extremely private. I love the garden, its sights and sounds and smells. We open all the windows to take in the fragrance of the lavender, rose garden, and blooming calamata." Hillsborough is rich in wildlife, she says—coyotes, squirrels, raccoons, deer, and lots of birds, including a plentiful array of little songbirds. "We've put out birdfeeders to encourage them to come to our house."

One of the two garages houses the couple's car collection. Shop Home Care & Storage.

The three cats wandering around the place "give it an additional bit of nature. Pets are gifts," says Alisa. "They provide a certain peace humans can't. I'd have more if I could, but we work too hard."


A homebody at heart, Alisa says she feels safe here up on the hill. "All I need is a moat to complete the equation," she quips.

"So far we haven't had any problems with the house, knock on wood. Everything works well here! When you walk down the stairs there are no creaks. It's good and solid, even here in earthquake country, and we're insulated from temperature and sound vacillations."

She is generous in her praise and appreciation of anyone who had anything to do with creating their home. "Every member of the team is world-class. The architect really is a genius. The designer is also extremely talented, and he has a heart of gold. The contractors are honest and professional gentlemen. We always knew that we were being treated fairly throughout the project. They all did a spectacular job.

"It's very peaceful here, and extremely private. I love the garden, its sights and sounds and smells."

"The unique thing about the people who put together this home is that they're not only talented but they're also good people. Those qualities were brought into the project. That's why the house feels the way it does: because the people who participated in it were so good."

She and Seth think of their home as part retreat, part resort. "I've been to a few resorts," says Alisa, "and this is as good as it gets-plus I have an endless supply of wine and a husband who cooks! It doesn't get any better than that."

Realizing their dream of creating a Tuscan getaway brings Seth and Alisa deep satisfaction. "We'll stay put here," says Alisa. "This home is just too magnificent to be away from very long. I travel around the world lecturing, and I love coming home. There's no place like home when you've put yourself into the making of it like we have. The house continues to give back a tremendous amount of comfort and joy."

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