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Houses Rebuilt, But It’s ‘Not the Same Yet’

Times Staff Writer

Alex Arguello is building a palace in Normal Heights, where the little stucco house he bought for $24,000 went up in flames last year. Cathedral ceilings, balconies, arched windows trimmed with Mexican tile: He wonders if he is the subject of neighborly envy.

Across the canyon, Kay Haines has replicated her old house--"just a modest two-bedroom, living room, dining room, activity room and kitchen.” There are just a few small differences: The new fridge has a water dispenser in the door and the bar is a four-seater.

In between, on the promontory at the end of Ellison Place, the charred ruins of a lone house remain untouched. Two car hulks crouch in the driveway. Across the canyon, someone has scrawled on a concrete wall, “All is lost. The pain still burns.”

Normal Heights is awaking from a long winter, one year after a fire destroyed 64 homes. A few people have sold their lots and moved away. But most, in a testimony to human resilience, are rebuilding their houses and lives.

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On the whole, the aging neighborhood will be a grander place. Two-car garages are replacing carports, and there are basements for electric trains. A miniature Moorish castle has sprung up on Cromwell Place, complete with turret, stained glass and whirlpool bath.

But the neighborhood has become a more public place, too. The disaster stole some of its privacy and anonymity. Now the curious--Pat Schaitel calls them “lookie-loos"--cruise through like tourists. Neighbors know intimate details of each others’ insurance settlements.

And gone forever are intangibles that insurers don’t cover, like lop-eared rabbits and a cat put to sleep because of burned paws. There was a Torrey pine outside the house Steven Day’s grandfather spent 40 years building; the pine was ruined, along with the fruit trees.

“It’s weird. You’ve got a nice new home. But it’s not the same yet,” Schaitel said last week, outside her house on Panama Place. Her husband, Dan, said of the fire, “We kind of don’t talk too much about it any more. We’ve kind of talked ourselves out.”

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Like Dan Schaitel, a retired engineer who helped design his new home, residents have immersed themselves in the complex task of building a house. Many of them retired, it’s a job few would have chosen, had they had any say in the matter.

First, there was demolition and clearing and leveling of land. Then comes soil stability tests, sometimes necessitating the removal of tons of dirt. Then comes the city bureaucracy and permits and hiring of contractors. Finally, there are months of construction.

Arguello, 71, and his son, Michael, hired a Normal Heights architect who sent out letters after the fire offering reduced fees for fire victims. Better covered than many, Alex Arguello figures his insurance policy will have footed nearly $350,000 in bills.

These days, the elder Arguello watches the finishing touches, a big balding man leaning on a cane beside his car on North Mountain View Drive. He boasts proudly that his house is beautiful--"the best in the area,” a couple in a passing car once told him.

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Inside, working with the contractors, is Michael Arguello, robbed by the fire of two years’ worth of research toward his doctorate in history at UC San Diego. With his career set back three years by the blaze and rebuilding, the younger Arguello buries himself in the house.

“For some people, the process of rebuilding can be exciting,” he said optimistically.

The day after the June 30 fire, Kay and Doug Haines called a friend--an architect who knew their Cliff Place house and was able to design a copy from memory. The Haineses were the first family to move back into “the burned area.” They arrived on Christmas Eve.

From the outside, their new house looks like the old one. But inside, it isn’t the same. There’s a second-hand dining room set but no crystal. Replacing their wooden gazebo, in a canyonside garden overlooking Mission Valley, is one now made of plastic.

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“Everybody said, ‘Build your dream home,’ ” said Mrs. Haines, a compact, energetic woman who got away from the fire with her humor intact. “Well, you’ve got to have some money to build your dream home.”

Fortunately, the Haineses liked their old house: It took 23 years to get it that way, Kay Haines points out. Having retired they don’t want to take out a bank loan or start the shrubs from scratch. “My husband says, ‘Put in big bushes. I haven’t got time for them to grow.’ ”

Some people opted for something simpler this time around. Carol Eicholz, 74, came back with two bedrooms instead of three. Two small, potted orange trees have taken the place of Dan Schaitel’s orange grove; his lawn is an expanse of crushed brick.

“That was all grass,” Schaitel said last week, coiling up the garden hose after watering the remaining sliver of grass near the sidewalk. Surveying the rust-colored sea around his house, he said matter-of-factly, “This is my lawn from now on.”

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Ten houses in “the burned area” have been rebuilt.

Another 36 are under construction, ranging from concrete pads to mini-Taj Mahals in the making. Twenty-one lots remain vacant, either awaiting construction, up for sale, or with their futures undecided.

On Hawley Boulevard, one lot is completely level, the only sign of life an old swimming pool, ringed with chain-link fence. Three doors down, a small, charred bungalow still stands, its lintel smoke-burned. The shades are pulled, the lawn overgrown.

Only a few people--elderly, for the most part--have moved away. A woman in her 90s sold her lot to a doctor, who has built a large, modern house with a big view. One man is in a nursing home, neighbors say, oblivious to the fact that the fire took his home.

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There has been one death of heart failure, a month after the fire. Arguello had a heart attack and one woman had a stroke. One older pair has gone, because they had no insurance; they’d had a fight with the agent six months earlier, neighbors say, and had not renewed.

There have been other strains in the months since the blaze, such as the strain of carving out homes within homes of parents and in-laws. There were weeks in hotel rooms and unfurnished apartments, and the joyless job of proving home ownership when all records were burned.

The Haineses got away with $27 and a cat and a beagle. That first night, the only motel that would take pets wanted cash. They drove from cash machine to cash machine, finding each one out of funds. Finally, Mrs. Haines says, her husband began to cry.

So they drove to Arcadia to stay with Mrs. Haines’ sister.

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Steven Day and his wife and two young sons moved in with his in-laws in Bay Park--arriving simultaneously with a sister-in-law and her entire family from Arizona. Over the past year, the Days have learned to savor public spaces, Mission Bay and winter storms.

Cameron Patterson’s family has “camped out” in a rented apartment in South Mission Hills, living largely on director’s chairs and an old spool table. Their Brittany spaniel, let out by a fireman, never turned up. Patterson remains convinced the dog is alive.

His 5-year-old daughter pulled through with flying colors, though.

“She handled it well,” Patterson said, stopping by to photograph the foundations of his new house one afternoon last week. “She became quite a hero at school.”

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These days, the neighborhood is alive with the whine of buzz saws. There are small celebrations at ground breakings. Kay Haines’ low-slung beagle, Heidi, is on a crash diet after eating too many doughnuts from doting construction workers.

Mrs. Haines and others regularly make the rounds, poking in front doors, learning neighbors’ floor plans and jawing with carpenters. There is talk that one new house resembles an office building, and much clucking about who is and isn’t maximizing their view.

Gossip travels quickly now. There are rumors of rising roof lines, domestic turmoil and aesthetic insults. There is still bewilderment about the capriciousness of the fire--how some homes mysteriously remained standing, like bowling pins in a 7-10 split.

Take the house at the tip of Cliff Place: “The plants on the front patio weren’t even wilted,” recalls Mrs. Haines.

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Next door to Steven Day’s rubble, a small stucco house stands. Just one window blew out, and the hammock shriveled up.

There is talk about rising property values: Some people see them coming, and welcome them, while others fear escalating taxes. Observed David Wilson, whose mail route winds through the neighborhood, “The people in the neighborhood are amazed at the price of the vacant lots.”

Somehow, the community feels more exposed, Dan Schaitel said. Maybe its the publicity, or just the attention, or all the strangers around. North Mountain View Drive is a bike route now, he observed. Cars seem to cruise past faster.

Ironically, the disaster appears in some ways to have benefited Normal Heights as a whole. The exposure that it brought is believed to have helped Normal Heights win designation by the League of Municipalities earlier this year as an “All American City.”

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The award, which community organizers hoped would help with fund raising for community projects, was based on volunteer work that began years before the fire, said Steve Temko, president of the Normal Heights Nonprofit Community Development Corp. But the attention that the fire drew, and the strong cooperative effort it triggered, strengthened the community’s case, he said.

For that reason and others, Temko said, it has been a good year for Normal Heights. There’s a new community center and the community newspaper is finally self-supporting. A business improvement district has been formed, and the annual Adams Avenue street fair now fills 2 1/2 blocks.

There’s a city watchdog committee to ensure city officials live up to the promises they made to fire victims after the blaze, and a new recreational center. There are plans to approach the city about opening a small park on Ellison Place.

“I think the community has recovered really well,” said Lois Miller, the former president of the community association, now rebuilding a house on 34th Street. “I think the community is closer together than it was before the fire. I think the neighbors care more about each other.”

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Said Temko, “The people are the same, and that’s the important thing. Our neighbors are still our neighbors. The houses they live in may be different. But a community is made up of more than sticks and stones.”


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