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Built to Last : Adobe's Still in Style for Builder to Rich and Famous

June 12, 1989|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

When Jack Weir says they don't build homes the way they used to, his point of reference is 6,000 years ago.

He talks of homes he has visited in Egypt which, he says, have been habitable for six millenniums. They were built of adobe.

It's the same stuff Weir and his Escondido-based, family-owned business has used in building more than 200 homes in Southern California--ranging from the first two-bedroom houses he built in the 1940s in Encinitas to the $15-million, 21,000-square-foot residential palace he spent 15 months building for football team owner-turned-horseman Gene Klein in Rancho Santa Fe.

If nothing else, they have one thing in common: exterior walls built of mud, the earth's most ready supply of construction material.

No flash cube architecture here. Just 16-inch-thick earthen walls, built of bricks made of sand and clay, mixed with water and sweat and dried under the sun, treasured by Indians and the elite alike for the qualities both thermal and ethereal.

"People either love adobe or they wouldn't even stable their horses in it," Weir reflects.

But for reasons that frustrate Weir--including a bad rap by federal regulators a few years ago that temporarily gave adobe a bad name, and a paucity of architects willing to encourage clients to turn to adobe--adobe construction is on the slide in San Diego County. The last adobe home Weir built was two years ago--for Juli and Dan Fouts in Rancho Santa Fe, a kind of spiritual sister to the couple's log cabin home in Oregon.

While there are no adobe homes on Weir's current schedule, he is hardly looking for work. The business that Weir is now turning over to his son, Bob, also has won a reputation for building upper-end custom stucco and wood frame homes as well. Weir, at 65, has become a rich man building homes for those who build entire communities for the rest of us.

Weir is currently building a new home for Harry Summers, the founding father of Rancho Bernardo and who is himself responsible for building 20,000 homes in San Diego County. Weir is building his third home for shopping center developer Ernest Hahn. And Weir is also building an expansive Spanish pueblo in Bonsall for thoroughbred horse owner and industrialist Allen Paulson, perhaps best known for netting a $450-million profit when he sold his Gulfstream Aerospace Inc. to the Chrysler Corp. in 1985.

Another recent Weir customer is Jay A. Pritzker, billionaire financier and hotelier involved in the recent bidding for Eastern Airlines.

So when you ask Weir what it'll cost for him to build you a home--adobe or otherwise--he's got the simple answer: "We won't tell you. We'll just ask you for your checkbook."

But you won't find Weir in a penthouse office in San Diego's Golden Triangle or a quaint home-turned-office in Rancho Santa Fe. The company and its 80 employees--some who work at job sites, others who make custom cabinets in the back shop--are based in an Escondido industrial complex. And Weir lives in--get this--a condominium in Del Mar. "It's a cracker box, but it's got a good ocean view," Weir says.

For fun he spends time on his cattle ranch in Arkansas or hunts for just the right kind of wood to serve as the beams in his homes.

His target is Douglas fir timber cut from virgin forests in the Northwest at the turn of the century, which were used to shore up the old Black Diamond Coal Mines in Washington state. He re-mills and hews the beams for reuse, and sings the praises of the wood.

"The finest timbers date back to the turn of the century--wood that was cured over the years with its bark still on it, not the kind of stuff that is cut today and sold in lumber yards 10 days from now. This wood is so fine the heart line runs straight and sure for 50 feet."

Weir couldn't always offer the quality spiel. His first home--his first dabbling in adobe--had walls with hay sticking out of it.

Weir was a naval aviator who, after World War II, hoped for a job as an airline pilot. But there were plenty of fellow pilots in line for the jobs, so he decided to wait for his turn by doing odd jobs in Encinitas, doing this and that for local mechanics and others.

He decided to build himself a home, and cut a deal with a fellow who owed him some money: Take these old adobe bricks, instead. Don't let that grass growing up through it bother you; this is great stuff. Weir shrugged and, consulting books in a library at night, set off building himself an adobe home.

Used Soil on Property

Before he had it finished, he sold it to another person, getting enough cash to start over again. This time he used the soil on the property for his adobe, and molded and cured his own bricks. By the end of 1948, Weir and his brother, Larry, had built six homes on Windsor Avenue in Encinitas, all with unencumbered views of the ocean--vistas that today are blocked by apartments.

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