From East Coast Mansion to Monte Vista Manor

A mile and a half from downtown San Antonio is the largest historical district in the United States. The Monte Vista Historical District was designated as a historical landmark in 1998, and it contains a mixture of small bungalows and mansions that are architecturally unique. Queen Anne, Prairie, Tudor, even Spanish Colonial Revival homes are all present in this neighborhood.

Monte Vista’s historical architecture was a main attraction for Dana Sasse and Dr. Florian Safner. The couple relocated here from Connecticut, where they had lived in a historic stone mansion. “I must say that San Antonio was a revelation to us,” says Florian. When they pictured Texas, they thought of boots, spurs, cowboy hats and people riding horses, not a state that offered the diversity of theater, art and culture that Texans recognize. “However, it has been such a great experience for us!” he exclaims. Florian’s employer wanted him to relocate to San Antonio. The company assigned a Realtor, and after a brief interview, the Realtor said they’d want to live in the Monte Vista or Alamo Heights areas because of their love of historic homes. One day they parked on Bushnell and began walking down Elsmere Road. They were drawn to the street and the neighborhood, as well as a two-story brick home covered in ivy that had been built in 1926. “I saw this house and said if I could own it, I’d move here,” Florian says. It took several more visits and a number of months before the couple decided they really could leave Connecticut behind and begin a new life in San Antonio. The 5,500-square-foot house on Elsmere was available for sale.

“The style of this home reminded us of our home in Connecticut,” Florian says. “We walked in and knew this was the home we wanted. We immediately started bonding with this house, which bonded us to San Antonio. The people we met in the neighborhood are phenomenal and so welcoming. It’s been an enchanting experience right from the beginning.” The house was in move-in condition when the couple bought it. “There wasn’t anything really wrong with it, but it wasn’t our color palette,” Dana says. “We started out to make only a few changes and ended up gutting parts of the house.” Fortunately, he holds a degree in interior design and served as the general contractor for the renovation. “Dana has amazing vision for creating the right ambience for a home,” Florian says. “He could see exactly what needed to be done to make this the home we needed. The result is that we love this house more than our beloved home in Connecticut.”

“The general contracting part wasn’t that hard,” says Dana. “The biggest challenge was the entry floor and stairs. We went to Materials Marketing and found a floor we really liked. But I wanted to change it a little, combine marble and wood. Explaining that to the gentleman who laid the floor was a little difficult, but he did a great job. I was also impressed with Alex Laytano of A Square Tile, who did all the floors, the fireplace and the bathroom tile. His people did a phenomenal job.”

“What really impressed us was that the tradesmen who worked on this house really wanted to make it a special home,” Florian says. “We’ve renovated a number of houses and never had this experience before.”

One of the best things about the house was that the pair needed very little in the way of new furniture. “The furniture we had worked perfectly in this house,” Dana says. “What little we needed I found at Restoration Hardware, where I work.” The home’s gravitas begins with the solid front door, which opens into a small foyer. This floor is Dana’s design, made of grain cut marble and oak. The staircase to the left is of oak, accented by a wrought iron banister. Tucked into one corner is what appears to be a small chest of some sort. “This,” Florian says with a smile, “was Enrico Caruso’s chamber pot!” It’s just one of the antiques Florian and Dana have collected over 20 years, and it’s a nod to a bit of whimsy in their décor. To the right of the entry, the spacious living room is divided into two sections by different ceiling treatments. The furnishings vary in style from a traditional sofa to an Oriental table and rug to Victorian paintings. Dana ties it all together with a masculine color palette that makes the room warm and inviting. Dana emphasizes layers of lighting in his design. Throughout the house, chandeliers, recessed lighting, table lamps and floor lamps provide the warm glow that accents the home. The living room has its own chandelier, which came from the Connecticut house. The landscape over the fireplace is by Robert Cardinal, a famous painter of the Realist and Impressionist schools. The painting is of the Provincetown shore, a nod to the couple’s East Coast roots. “While we like landscapes, we’re also fascinated by portraits,” Florian says. “We have several painted by Kathryn Becker.” Adjacent to the living room is a small hall that the pair calls “the terrier collection room.” Displayed on a table are nearly 50 statuettes of different kinds of terriers, all cast in metal. The hall leads to the dining room, an elegant space with a cabernet ceiling. “When the lights are down low, everyone looks good in this room,” Florian says.

Dana added white crown molding as a contrast to the red ceiling. “You’ll notice the crown molding is much deeper than traditional molding,” he says. It adds a sense of elegance, as does the crystal chandelier over the table that seats 10. Dana framed a piece of an antique sari and hung it next to a Chinese wedding cabinet that came from New York City. At the end of the room, tall windows look out over the serene swimming pool. The next stop is the kitchen. “We gutted this room,” Dana says. “It didn’t look bad, but the kitchen layout was not logical for someone who cooks. The cabinetry was inefficient. We wanted a kitchen that was both functional and beautiful because the kitchen is the heart of the home.” Dana turned to Jennifer Hissa, a nationally recognized certified kitchen designer, of Cabinetry Designs on Broadway. Cabinetry Designs represents Wood Mode®Fine Custom Cabinetry, a custom manufacturer in Pennsylvania. Their cabinetry is of furniture quality; everything is made to order. “I knew I wanted a custom design for the kitchen,” Dana says. “Jennifer and I knocked out this design in a weekend. It wasn’t too hard because the design is similar to the kitchen we had in Connecticut.” After the demolition was completed and the new walls were up, the team chose paint the color of caramel and cream. White Brookhaven cabinetry by Wood Mode was installed, with countertops of honed granite from Keystone Granite Company. A kitchen island, surfaced with quartzite, completed the cabinetry. All the appliances were upgraded to commercial grade.

One of the most unusual features of the kitchen is the stained glass backsplash over the Viking range. “This is real glass cut into random widths,” says Gene Philipps, owner of Cabinetry Designs. “These glass tiles are a hot product right now. They helped make Dana and Florian’s kitchen a killer. I love it!”

Beyond the kitchen is the spacious den, which Florian suspects was added in the 1940s. The room is perfect for entertaining, with its long wooden bar with a pass-through window into the kitchen. The beadboard ceiling has a lavender tint that is an excellent complement to the gray and white tones in the room. French doors open into the backyard, and white shutters cover the windows. A large rock fireplace anchors one end of the room. “Lighting is key in this room because it is so large and the ceilings are low,” Dana says. “We did major electrical work in here.” A combination of recessed lighting, lamps and natural light from the windows keeps the room from looking like a cave. The lighting also shows off Dana’s McCoy Pottery collection and paintings by Debra Conant and Anna Kwasnik.
Upstairs, the four spacious bedrooms all have walk-in closets. One bedroom is outfitted as Florian’s home office. The gray walls are a somber backdrop for the African fertility mask and the large circular mask, both from the Congo; the portrait of a Tunisian gentlemen; and the glass-fronted beehive bookcase. The wooden desk has a marble top and is a mate to the credenza behind it. Several chairs are positioned about the room. The guest room next door is nicknamed the Asian Suite because of its décor. The black iron four-poster bed provides a comfortable place to watch the television hidden in the Chinese cabinet. The tall narrow windows overlook treetops, giving the room a tree house feeling.

The master suite is one of the largest rooms in the house. The focal point is the gas fireplace raised off the floor, so anyone lounging in the bed can actually see the flickering flames. A flat-screen television is mounted over the mantel. Dana chose a palette of gray and white for the room. Built-in bookcases hold favorite novels and mementos of world travels. Comfortable seating flanks the fireplace. The white upholstered headboard on the king-size bed adds a touch of luxury, as do the white bed linens from Provence and the fluffy white rug at the foot of the bed. The dressing room between the master bedroom and bath is small, but every inch counts. Two stacked rods on one wall hold the men’s suit coats. Cabinet doors were added to a storage area. One wall, a legacy from the former owner, is a padded ribbon board, designed to hold invitations to events. Several are already tucked beneath the ribbons. “We gutted the master bath,” Florian said. They tore out the old shower, replacing it with glass tile like that in the kitchen. Glass shower doors and modern fixtures added clean lines to the room. Special deep mirrored medicine cabinets and the vanity are from Restoration Hardware’s 1930’s Stainless Steel Laboratory line. The floor has a “rug” of Carrera marble mosaic set into 6-by-12-inch tiles.

Outside the master bedroom, down a short, steep staircase, is a surprise bedroom. “This is a teenager’s dream,” Florian says. “It has its own outside entrance and small kitchen. It has two killer closets, built-ins and a wood floor. It has its own tiny bathroom. There’s a king-size bed and a large flat-screen television.” The yard is meticulously landscaped and hardscaped. Outside the back door is a large flagstone patio with two seating areas overlooking the large swimming pool and hot tub. A fire pit awaits the return of cooler weather in the fall. The ivy growing up the red brick walls is neatly trimmed around all the windows, as are the bushes that provide privacy along the property line. Tucked into a corner is the 700-square-foot guest house. This cottage has a tiny kitchen, living area, bedroom and bath. “We never thought we’d leave the East Coast for Texas,” Florian says, “but we’re glad we did. We’ve found so much art and history to explore here, and we’ve made so many great friends. When our friends come to visit, they are always surprised at the beauty of this city, and they say our home is a perfect reflection of our personalities. Then they ask when they can visit again,” he says with a smile. “That’s how we know we really are at home in Texas.”

By Robyn Barnes
Photography by Al Rendon

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