Out Of The Ashes: Larry Himmel's New Home

AS COUNTLESS TV VIEWERS watched in horrified dismay, local newscaster Larry Himmel reported live from the front lines of the Witch Creek wildfire as his family's "dream home" burned to the ground behind him. "It was hard to stand there and watch it go up in flames," Himmel says of his former 3,900- square-foot, Southwestern-style abode, which once sat atop a scenic ridge in rural Rancho Bernardo. "At least we knew our fate and could move forward with recovery."

Feeling fortunate to be "alive and well-insured," Himmel says his family took the tragic fire as an opportunity to redesign and modernize the home they had lived in for more than 25 years. "We're lucky it turned out well," says the veteran KFMB-TV newsman. "Now we have a new dream home that has literally risen from the ashes."

Two years after the devastating fire swallowed their home and everything in it, Himmel, his wife, Joan, and their 17-year-old son, Miles, are finally putting the finishing touches on their 4,400-square-foot house near 4S Ranch. It sits on the same rocky hilltop site overlooking the San Dieguito Valley where Himmel bravely reported on the wind- and fire-fueled destruction. The architecture reflects the same Southwestern style as the previous structure.

Days after his heartbreaking TV broadcast in late October 2007, Himmel was contacted by a longtime friend and business associate, Todd Jackson. A local homebuilder, Jackson quickly offered a helping hand.

"We reached out immediately and told Larry we'd be part of the rebuilding team," says Jackson, president and CEO of Jackson Design and Remodeling of San Diego. Armed with old photos and the original architectural plans, the Himmels gladly turned to Jackson's team of engineers, architects and interior designers to guide them in resurrecting the multilevel structure. Their goal was to re-create the beloved elements in the home, including its wooden beams, ironwork detailing, outdoor patios and courtyard swimming pool.

While the Himmels loved their old home, they weren't the original owners of the three-story, four-bedroom rambler that Jackson described as having a number of inherent design flaws. On the top of that list, the builder says, was "an awkward flow and tricky stairs that had twice seriously tripped up Joan. They quickly jumped on our proposed design changes that really opened up the floor plan and capitalized on the amazing panoramic views."

Clockwise from top: Local homebuilder Todd Jackson reached out to Himmel after the tragedy and offered to help him rebuild. Jackson's rebuilt the multi-level structure and incorporated beloved details including wrought iron and wood beams. The updated floor plan capitalizes on panoramic views. Joan, Larry and their son Miles.

Dozens of larger wood windows and oversized doors were added throughout the house. The living, dining and kitchen spaces were merged into a grand open-air room featuring a dazzling mosaic-tile framed fireplace. Flanking it are several informal gathering areas decked with comfy couches, leather chairs and colorful pillows.

Designer Tatiana Machado-Rosas worked closely with the Himmels to craft simple-yet-stunning interior living spaces. "They bring the outdoors inside and create a sense of warmth and family," she says. The gourmet kitchen, with its raised-seating bar and cooking island, blends modern function with natural and richly textured ingredients. Features include two tones of knotty alder cabinetry, quartz and granite countertops, rustic porcelain and slate tiles, stainless steel appliances and distressed-hickory hardwood floors.

"The kitchen is Joan's favorite," Himmel says. "It is truly the heart and soul of our new home, and where we like to hang with our friends and family, cooking and relaxing with a glass of wine."

Spread over 1,000 square feet on the level below, the expansive master-bedroom retreat is another big hit. Its cozy sitting area is anchored by a glowing fireplace and features an earth-inspired bath with boulder-rock sink basin, raised soaking tub and full-body steam shower.

Himmel finds refuge in his downstairs "man cave" a perfect chill room with its spacious bar, wide-screen TV and jukebox that plays his favorite baby-boomer hits from the 1950s and '60s. The former disc jockey says these new "boy toys" replace the antique pinball machine, slot machine, wide assortment of vintage vinyl records and cherished 1957 Wurlitzer jukebox that went up in flames.

In addition to those prized items, Miles also lost a collection of sports memorabilia. When the Himmels moved back home on Christmas Eve of 2008, a surprise awaited the young football fan. The builder had secretly commissioned a floor-to-ceiling Chargers mural in his bedroom, highlighting Miles' favorite players. "No posessions or material things are more valuable than the acts of kindness, like this mural, that we received from friends, neighbors and complete strangers," Himmel says.

To meet the county's stricter fire codes and shelter-in-place requirements, Himmel had to install a high-tech fire alarm and flame-resistant landscaping to protect his new home. He also put in a special fire hose that pumps water from the swimming pool, and expanded the paved driveway to accommodate fire trucks.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster, but thanks to our amazing team, the whole rebuilding experience was smooth and seamless," Himmel says after returning to the neighborhood he has loved for so long. "We now feel settled back in and safely sheltered from any future firestorms.

"All's well that ends well."

Clockwise from top: Rich textures and modern functionality combine in the new kitchen. Himmel's refuge is complete with a full bar and flat screen. Jackson surprised Miles with a floor to- ceiling Chargers mural in his bedroom. Even the soaking tub in the master suite was oriented toward the views.

Jackson Design and Remodeling