A fresh start after the Tubbs fire: Couple renovate Montecito Heights home to suit their lifestyle
Peter Lasalle and Mark Ritter had no time to pack anything when they went outside the night of Oct. 8, 2017, and saw an orange glow only hundreds of yards to the east bearing down on them.
They leaped into one car and tried to outrun the flames that would quickly consume their beautiful home in the upper hills of the Mark West area off Riebli Road.
The pair continued to stay a few steps ahead of the disaster. Four days later, while the Tubbs fire was still blazing, they put an offer on another house in town. Lasalle and Ritter knew that they would quickly be competing with tens of thousands of displaced fire victims, all scrambling for housing in a county that had just lost more than 5,300 dwellings.
“Our theory was that every place was going to get sucked up right away, and we figured it's going to take forever to rebuild,” said Lasalle. “In fact, they were so fast out of the gate that Wells Fargo Bank tried to implore them to hold their horses because they hadn't yet dealt with a single fire victim and were uncertain of the procedures.”
But the two men persisted, and by the end of October had received their insurance money. Like many victims of the firestorms, they were underinsured, even though they had purposely opted for a policy with the maximum coverage on their previous house. But they used some of the funds to pay off their old mortgage and have managed to start anew.
They made their sad but soft landing in a house nestled like a treehouse into a hillock in Montecito Heights, a woodsy neighborhood not far from Fountaingrove Parkway where so many homes burned.
It proved to be a good decision on so many levels; perhaps most significantly, Ritter became mysteriously ill right after the fire and within a couple of months was diagnosed with lymphoma. Thus began months of treatments and hospital stays. A nurse for Kaiser, Ritter now found himself the patient - one with nothing left to give to rebuilding a house from scratch. Lasalle took over, juggling caregiving and his own work while taking the lead on a complete makeover of their “new” home. But the makeover was so much easier than trying to rebuild from the ground up.
They bought the 1973 split level from Jeffrey Kahane, a professional pianist and former conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony, who had moved to Southern California.
The house was dated, but it had some significant virtues, including high A-frame ceilings and views looking out over the treetops into Santa Rosa.
The pair wasted no time enlisting interior designer Steve Marraffino of Marracar Design to make this home, bought in a desperate hurry, a place that felt truly like their own.
A year later, they celebrated with a multipurpose party just before Christmas. They were marking many milestones - their newly completed remodel, Lasalle's 60th birthday and Ritter's recovery.
What guests saw was a much more contemporary home than the one Lasalle and Ritter had purchased.
“It was a fine house but the thing that made it awful was that it had split levels. Half of the house was 30 inches lower than the other half,” Marraffino said.
“The kitchen had this peek-a-boo window that looked into the dining room. Each room felt like it as its own individual space. It didn't have an open cohesive feeling. In modern construction, everyone wants an open flow on one level,” he explained.
It would have been just too difficult to completely re-engineer the house to be all on one level. But they did end up moving up the dining room and west-facing bedrooms to the upper level and created a more open entry space between the living room and formal entry on the lower level and the relaxed living space above it.
A front porch was expanded to 14 feet, becoming more of a deck to take in the views.
They made other notable changes in the house, including adding a wide mudroom off the kitchen, foreshadowing the arrival of a Christmas puppy, and pushed the house out to add a bedroom and office beyond.
Ritter and Lasalle have been together for many years and have redone other homes, so they know what works for them.
Maraffino took out an imposing two-sided red brick fireplace between the living room and the family room that was distracting from the view and also consuming a lot of floor space with a spreading hearth.
“In the living room, we moved the original fireplace to a wall that allowed me to create a sitting area where one can enjoy the stunning west view through black-framed Marvin windows and the ambiance of a fire at the same time,” Marraffino said. “We used a beautiful porcelain tile that mimicked weathered metal to surround the modern linear fireplace - Ferroker by Porcelanosa.”