hope triumphs
Out of the Cerro Grande Fire’s destruction rises an inspired home designed by the late architect George Pearl in Los Alamos.

This article first appeared in Summer 07 Su Casa

Home, whatever its imperfections, is the refuge of the heart. Past addresses may be long forgotten, but who can forget the sight, the smell, or the feel of a former home? Small parts of our lives seep into the walls of the places we call home, and our memories are forever bound there. Losing a home is a wound. But building a new one is an inspiration.

Joe and Sally Fitzgibbon’s home burned, melted, and simply vaporized when the Cerro Grande Fire raged through Los Alamos, New Mexico, in May 2000, destroying entire neighborhoods. “It was just a government-built duplex, but we really liked it,” says Sally of the house they’d owned since 1978. “It was the cheapest house for sale in Los Alamos,” says Joe, who works for the support services contractor at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “I figured we’d buy a bigger, nicer house in a few years.” But they never did.

Life ticked by. Two sons went to school just down the street. Neighbors became friends. Joe and Sally, always early risers, loved weekend walks in the adjacent forest. Joe moved up the career ladder, and they were happy. “We could have lived anywhere in town, but we didn’t want to,” he says. “We remodeled the kitchen and laundry, and we had plans to do more. I’m sure glad we didn’t.”

The fire started May 4, 2000, as a controlled burn within nearby Bandelier National Monument. Frenzied spring winds quickly blew it into a conflagration that threatened both Los Alamos and the ancient Native American ruins in the monument. But for several days, the Fitzgibbons, like most residents, felt safe. “Every firefighter in the world was here,” Sally recalls, “so we didn’t figure the town was going to burn down.” The Lab and the high school where she teaches art both closed after the first day. “We were just enjoying a mini-vacation,” she says.

Then the fire turned like a furious predator. Pushing hurricane-force winds and searing heat, it stalked up the ridge toward their neighborhood. “The police came up the street with a loudspeaker telling us to evacuate immediately,” Sally says. “The pine trees were so thick in front of our house that we couldn’t really see what was happening. I went to take the cats and the dog down to the car, and that’s when I could see that the whole mountain was a wave of fire, three times taller than the trees. The wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t even hold on to anything. I just panicked.”

“The sky was filled with smoke, and the sun turned it such a deep red color that it almost neutralized the color of the grass,” Joe remembers. “The sidewalks were orange.” Although they had thought the fire would be contained, the Fitzgibbons planned for the possibility of an evacuation. Sally left for Albuquerque while Joe stayed behind for an hour or so, loading their artwork and a few other cherished possessions in his truck. “I didn’t want Sally to worry,” Joe says. “So not long after she left, I just closed the door and walked away from what wasn’t packed up.”

No one ever expects his or her house to vanish. Seven years later, it’s still a painful memory. The couple hold hands and their speech hesitates as they tell the story. “It was the next morning when Joe saw it on TV,” Sally remembers. “He could see the big water tank on the hill, and our house was totally gone. Oh God, it was just the biggest shock in the whole world.” Theirs was one of more than 200 homes, plus nearly 50,000 acres of forest, lost in the maw of the fire.

It was a week before the Fitzgibbons could return to Los Alamos, to a house Joe rented over the phone. “It was so strange,” Sally says, “to walk into a place and think—I have nothing. I didn’t have a spoon or anything to cook with.” Fortunately, Sally had packed boxes with family treasures and important papers and sent them to Albuquerque before the evacuation, but their lifetime of belongings was seriously diminished.

Facing the ruins of their burned house was another struggle. When they were finally allowed back, they called their sons to join them. “I thought I would just break down,” Sally says. But curiously, the fact that there was almost nothing recognizable left made it easier. “It was just so amazing,” Sally says. “We felt like anthropologists sorting through it and figuring out how the fire worked. The front windows were blown clear into the backyard. Metal was melted all over. The ground was cooked like pottery.”

There were odd artifacts—watches that fell through the foundation with hands fused to the face—documenting the time of destruction. “I had a 50-gallon aquarium over a foundation wall,” Joe recalls. “The glass melted and ran down the wall just like candle wax.” Sons Jim and Scott found their collections of coins and marbles twisted into abstract sculpture. It was unreal. The Fitzgibbons were ready to move on.

“We knew right away that we wanted to rebuild here,” says Joe. But paperwork for both insurance and federal reimbursement was staggering. Neighbors helped neighbors, sharing information, time, and resources to navigate the complexity of the aftermath. Every Saturday morning, the Fitzgibbons rose before dawn, got coffee, and watched the sunrise from their old homesite in a ritual of hope.

The late George Pearl, a respected Albuquerque architect, came into the Fitzgibbons’ lives just a few days after their house was destroyed. He was well-known for gracefully blending Southwestern and modern styles in his designs for public buildings and also for his great generosity of spirit. Although there was little time for designing individual homes during his career, he indulged himself in retirement. “He loved working with people on a personal basis,” says Michael Dickson, a friend and former colleague at SMPC Architects in Albuquerque. “He had unique abilities and liked to design homes that expressed the personalities of their owners.”

At first Pearl helped the Fitzgibbons with advice. But he saw the site, now high on a scorched, barren ridge, and was drawn to it and also to Sally and Joe. When he offered to design their new home, the Fitzgibbons couldn’t believe their luck. “We didn’t try to tell him what we wanted,” Sally says. “We talked about how we live and what we like, but we wanted the house to be his design.” As their new house, a striking construct of stucco and glass, evolved, so did the friendship between the Fitzgibbons and Pearl.

George Pearl died in 2003, before ground was broken on the house. “At his memorial, the first man who spoke asked how many of us considered George our best friend,” Sally wistfully recalls. “There must have been 300 people there, and every one of them raised their hand.”

Today, the house is a tribute to Pearl’s uncanny ability to shape space to its residents. Its glass expanse frames sweeping views of the valley in the front and creates an intimacy with the recovering forest behind. It is spare, modern, and airy, filled with elegant architectural touches. A trip up the industrial metal stairs, for example, invariably startles visitors as they reach the top and feel thrust into space over hundreds of miles of mountain scenery.

Upstairs, the loft master bedroom, which shares the magnificent vista, is open, but private, thanks to ingeniously placed panels on the outdoor deck railing. They block the sight line from outside but not from inside the house. “I can lie in bed at night and see the lights of Santa Fe,” says Sally. There is no need for a curtain or shade in the entire home. Another inspired element, an elevated walkway, extends from the second level deck to the foot of a forest path—an invitation to birdsong and solitude.

The kitchen is actually two kitchens. “We always gather here,” Sally says, “but I wanted a nice, clean line.” Glowing pear wood cabinets and gleaming stainless steel countertops face the great room. Just behind is a separate work area with its own sink, the laundry, and specialty appliances such as a steam oven and built-in coffeemaker.

Fancy finishes in this house would be out of place. The proportions of the rooms and the relationship to the landscape are a powerful artistic statement. The floors are concrete, the walls a barely there shade of gray, warmed by the golden pear wood. The gas fireplace is a tall rectangular block with flames that leap through a bed of rock. “George called it a fire event,” Joe explains.

Although the house seems seamless, the second-floor guest rooms and a third-floor belvedere that is like a lookout tower with 360-degree views can be completely closed off. “We’ve always wanted to have a bed and breakfast in our house,” Sally says. “But I didn’t want to do it if it meant sharing our space,” adds Joe. A dumbwaiter from the kitchen area lifts food to the comfortable aerie.

The fire consumed all the Fitzgibbons’ furniture except a table and two chairs Joe took to Albuquerque. The table, a substantial, rustic piece of history, once belonged to the Los Alamos Ranch School, an outdoor-oriented prep school that closed when the government seized the land during World War II for the secret facility that built the first atomic bomb. Now the table’s hand-hewn simplicity fits in perfectly with the classic modern furniture that was one of the rewards of starting over.

Drive through the neighborhood today, and evidence of the horrific fire is not immediately visible. The first impression is of newness, with young trees and houses being built. It takes a pause to gaze beyond and see the charred tree stumps as the forest renews itself. Metaphors about rising phoenixes or silver linings state the obvious but understate the loss. Nonetheless, the Fitzgibbons’ home is a proud monument—to their perseverance and to George Pearl’s talent and humanity. It is impossible to ask him what he thought about as he designed the house, but the answer is clear. He thought about the Fitzgibbons living in beauty every day of their lives.

Award-winning journalist Marsha McEuen is a freelance writer and editor based in her hometown, Santa Fe.