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A fire's survivor

Flames took a landmark home, but not one artist's will to rebuild it.

September 06, 2007|By Christopher Reynolds and Times Staff Writer

Before James and Anne Hubbell's home was reborn this year, before it caught fire in 2003, even before its first indoor kitchen was built in the early 1960s, the place looked different from other houses. Like a hobbit's retreat, perhaps, or an oversized set of shells from some distant sea bottom.

Its materials were raw, its contours irregular and organically curved -- the designer wanted it to look as if it had grown out of the hilltop. But to really understand the place, you had to hear the story.

It went this way: In 1958, James Hubbell, an artist and artisan, and Anne Hubbell, a teacher and musician, decided to build their dream house in the backcountry of San Diego County, beginning with nearly nothing. They were in their 20s and James was working for Sim Bruce Richards, an architect and follower of Frank Lloyd Wright who relied on Hubbell for ironwork, stained-glass windows, mosaic tile works and fanciful sculptures.

The Hubbells decided that they would build their own place the same way, on a 10-acre ridge studded with oak, manzanita and granite boulders, the ground thick with chaparral. For the land they paid $3,500.

They built a room or two at a time, letting the lay of the trees and rocks dictate their plans, adding as new sons arrived and the needs of Hubbell's art studio arose. Over time the couple also added land, boosting the site to about 45 acres as Hubbell furthered his craft.

"Without the buildings as a way of trying out things," he says, "I probably wouldn't have evolved the same way."

Eventually the household grew to include four sons and a compound of eight buildings, loosely circled like frontier wagons around a hilltop pool. While Hubbell won steadily larger commissions from clients worldwide, his home became an architectural celebrity, cited in the American Institute of Architects' guide to significant structures in San Diego County.

Then came Chapter Two: a sky filled with smoke and flames.

This was the great Cedar fire of late 2003, which blackened 300,000 acres, destroyed more than 2,200 homes and killed 15 people. The Hubbells, who had been traveling in New York, saw the smoke from their landing plane. In a day and a half as the flames advanced, they grabbed what they could and fled.

The following morning, Hubbell sneaked past barricades and spent 45 minutes at the property, watching his home smolder. Four of the eight structures were gutted. Anne's harp, which she'd had since age 16, was gone. So were hundreds of heirlooms and artworks, along with tools, furniture and more.

The charred oak skeletons reached up like black, bony fingers. The stained glass had dripped and drooped into tangles worthy of a Dali nightmare. There was no insurance; carriers had told them the location was too vulnerable to fire, the buildings too unusual.

"I'm determined not to let it ruin the rest of my life. I'm not going to give it my misery," Hubbell told The Times that day. "We have a lot of friends, which is sometimes more important than money. Most times."

The next day, with firefighting helicopters zooming above and investigators probing the site where firefighter Steven Rucker died in the line of duty -- about 100 yards from the Hubbell property line -- Hubbell returned with his wife and three of their sons.

"The ground was gray, the sky was gray, everything was gray," remembers Marianne Gerdes, a family friend who joined the Hubbells that morning. "Your feet sunk into the ash because the ground was all burned, a few inches down." Yet Hubbell, she recalled, was already "pulling out philosophical words" about how the San Diego River would carry the house's ashes to sea, with transformation to follow.

"We just told each other we weren't going to be victims," Hubbell says.

And so to Chapter Three. Within a week, the Hubbells were cleaning up, scheming to get power restored, their well working and the rebuilding underway. Their son Drew, an architect, got the reroofing permits. Mark Tighe, a Ramona builder, artisan and reclaimed-materials specialist who had worked with Hubbell for years, took on the roofs, doors, windows and more, often laboring through winter rain and snow.

"It was a real adventure," Tighe says. Because so much of the stone, concrete and adobe work had been shaped around a now-absent wooden framework, Tighe had to "build it in reverse," fitting door frames and windows around the surviving walls and floors.

Though starting over in their 70s was a struggle, both Hubbells agree, it made them appreciate the energy and generosity of family, friends and community; it made them resolve to refine and streamline their living space. It also prompted them to ready the property so that it could serve as a cultural and educational venue when they're gone.

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