It’s a now all-too-familiar San Francisco real estate story: A landlord looking to cash in decides to sell his Mission District building, telling the occupants—a varying crew of creative types—that the unbelievably spacious and affordable live-work lofts they’ve called home-and-studio will no longer be available to them. But this story comes with a twist. Instead of taking the news hopelessly in stride and moving on, one of the tenants, single mother and widow Silvia Poloto, sees the opportunity to strike out on her own and buy a building—one that matches her dreams.
Poloto, originally from Brazil, is a woman whose energy is palpable and whose positivity is infectious. “I always dreamed of having a 6,000-square-foot warehouse. It was one of those oddly specific things I said many times and never stopped wanting, even though I knew it was crazy,” she says. Until it wasn’t. As soon as her landlord gave the word in 2011 that he was selling, she started her hunt with an online search. “I think I typed in ‘warehouse, 6,000 square feet,’” she remembers. The gods of Google smiled on her, and up popped such a place—with a shockingly low price tag—in India Basin. The property was so perfectly suited to her vision that she believes her husband’s spirit must have been at work aligning the stars for her.
In the double-height living room, the eclectic mix of furnishings is both full of personality and rich with meaning: The church pew spent years in Poloto’s former loft before finding its rightful home here, the bubble chair was a gift from a friend, and the piano was played daily by her musician husband before he died.
The view towards the front door offers a glimpse of Poloto’s top floor office, the main floor dining room, and the stairs leading to the kitchen, media room, and extra guest bedrooms.
The building, which then served as a church, lacked architectural interest. It was a dilapidated box with terrible carpeting covering concrete floors and a coating of grime thicker than the layers of paint in a Jackson Pollock. But Poloto saw it as a canvas—one situated next to the Bay. The property was in foreclosure, hence the fire-sale pricing, and at this time few people (and, more important, few investors) were interested in the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood. Poloto bought the building, signing the contract on Valentine’s Day in 2012 and the anniversary of her late husband’s 2009 death. (She met him briefly during carnival in Bahia, Brazil, when he asked for her number; he waited an entire year to call her, but when he did, they were married two weeks later. He died from a brain tumor just a month before their 20th anniversary.)
Poloto’s most recently completed project is the kitchen, outfitted with sleek white cabinetry from Ikea—but thanks to custom lighting, vintage stools, and a peerless collection of art and objects, the space is decidedly anything but off-the-shelf.
Because she was planning on using the space as a gallery and studio as well as a family home, Poloto was able to secure a modest commercial loan. She would stare into the wide, empty space and visualize what it would become—her largest artwork. First, she painted the double-height living space gallery white. Then, she transfored the mezzanine into sunny, top-floor bedrooms for her son Liam, 14, and herself. Wood floors were refinished and bathrooms were revamped.
As you might expect of a woman who has mastered the welder’s torch for the construction of her own sculptures, she did much of the work herself, sourcing elegant yet inexpensive materials from the neighborhood Home Depot. The existing stairs that connected the main space to the lower level were freshened and refinished, leading to a sleek, all-white kitchen that opens into a moody dining room with gray walls and a vintage industrial chandelier.
A second, more intimate dining space is adjacent to the kitchen. White dominates the walls throughout the house, but here Poloto chose a smoky gray color to create a moodier atmosphere.
She furnished the space with pieces she had collected over the years. “It was as if this were the house they were meant for,” she says. They include an antique church pew, which now sits against a living room wall, and a mod hanging bubble chair suspended from the rafters in the center of the living space. “I had all these in my last place, but they never really fit until we moved here.”
The three-story home seems to go on forever, opening into yet another bedroom (Poloto’s boyfriend has his own spacious man cave, strewn with guitars and leather jackets) or a lounge area (a dim and cozy media room features an oversize sectional and a sauna). “There is a whole other space below this that I want to do something with one day—maybe a pool,” she says. Such are the musings of a person with vast and inexpensive square footage.
Poloto’s bedroom, along with her son’s, is perched in the sunny aerie of the top-floor mezzanine. Skylights brighten the white rooms.
But Poloto is anything but extravagant. Five days a week, she heads over to the nearby Hunters Point Shipyard to continue her artistic work. Initially she worked at home but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rejoin the creative community there, where she’d had a studio years before. In her studio, she paints, photographs, and prints. Members of the public can visit her workspace through the popular Open Studios event each fall. Otherwise, she invites those interested in her work over to her home, which doubles as a gallery with ever-rotating exhibits. The walls are all hung with her pieces, and a sizable storage space near the entry holds even more. “I prefer to have people here to see my work,” says Poloto, whose emotional openness is reflected in the personal artwork on the walls—she clearly has no problem inviting others in, literally or metaphorically.
And nowadays, few hesitate to accept. “I used to have friends asking if it was safe to park their fancy cars here when they came to visit,” recalls Poloto, who insists this is the quietest and friendliest neighborhood she has ever lived in. “Now they themselves are trying to buy down here, but it’s not as easy as it used to be.” Well, not if you don’t have the stars working in your favor.
Poloto’s outsize personality is expressed through her artwork and furnishings. A Bishop’s chair is of a different era but of the same spirit as the three pieces from her autobiographical series, “Mad Rose of the Winds,” hanging behind.