Ablitt House Stands Tall As a Towering Work of Art

Ablitt House Stands Tall As a Towering Work of Art

(Originally published May 26, 2008)

The uniquely designed home in Santa Barbara has won over even those who once opposed the project.

Deep down, we all want to be able to tell the naysayers, “I told you so.”

In rare instances, the words don’t even need to be uttered for the general sentiment to hang in the air.

Owner Neil Ablitt is offering free tours of his unusual abode, the Abblitt House. At 53 feet high, the home is among the tallest structures in Santa Barbara. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)
Owner Neil Ablitt is offering free tours of his unusual abode, the Abblitt House. At 53 feet high, the home is among the tallest structures in Santa Barbara. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)

Such is the case with the Ablitt House, by many accounts the most fantastical home in Santa Barbara. With its 20-foot-by-20-foot footprint, four single-room floors, infinitely detailed interior design and 360-degree rooftop view of the city, mountains and ocean, the house is considered a bona fide work of art by even the most vocal of former naysayers.

The proud owner of this narrow tower of a home at 13 W. Haley St. is native Santa Barbaran Neil Ablitt, the retired founder of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Launderers a few paces away. His daughter now manages the operation.

At 53 feet high, the not-so-humble downtown abode is among the tallest structures in town, yet is oddly difficult to spot by passers-by on State Street. The skinny house is tucked into an alley behind State Street’s Velvet Jones nightclub, with only its bell-towered top peaking above the buildings on the main drag. Now, even the hotel manager who once opposed the project and the planning commissioners who denied it admit the house is a gem.

For Ablitt, it has been a long journey.

The Ablitt House has four single-room floors. The contractors incorporated Neil and Sue Ablitt’s love of ‘books, tile and wine’ into the design. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)
The Ablitt House has four single-room floors. The contractors incorporated Neil and Sue Ablitt’s love of ‘books, tile and wine’ into the design. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)

Things started OK in 2002, with the Historic Landmarks Commission, but hit a snag in early 2004. Facing opposition from the Holiday Inn Express, the Ablitt House was narrowly rejected by the Planning Commission. Ablitt appealed to the City Council, which was charmed by the design and unanimously overturned the commission’s decision. In December 2004, architect Trevor Martinson made an 11th-hour attempt to derail the project. It failed.

In November 2005, construction crews broke ground. On Dec. 17, 2006, Ablitt and his wife, Sue, moved out of the boat they had been living in for 14 years and into the house. However, they had to sleep on floor mattresses for five months while their bed was custom-designed to fit in their bedroom.

Since its completion, the house already has won at least one national design award for the tile work.

To thank the community, Ablitt has been giving free tours of the structure, which, for earthquake safety, digs into the ground nearly as deep as it is high. In the 14 months since the house became inhabitable, about 1,500 visitors have toured the home, ascending the home’s 72 tile-decorated stairs in wide-eyed wonder.

“Around every corner, there’s a little adventure,” marveled Eva Kirkpatrick, who was taking a tour with a handful of others.

“It’s the most creative, most original house in Santa Barbara,” visitor Susan Billig said.

In the past few months, Ablitt has channeled his inner tour guide, peppering his spiel with good-natured barbs about the naysayers and revealing his own free-spirited temperament. “The only thing we told the contractor is that we like books, tile and wine,” he likes to say.

On the tour, Ablitt takes a modest tack, deferring all credit to architect Jeff Shelton and the handful of artists who worked on the home. “My only job has been to keep my mouth shut, sweep the alley and stay out of the way,” he says. “These guys are geniuses.”

Contractor Dan Upton said the job led to many sleepless nights, but he wouldn’t have wanted any other contractor to claim the burden. “My job is to give the house a soul,” he said. “This was an easy one, in a way, because so many good people worked on it.”

Of course, genius design and a soulful construction don’t come cheap. Initially, Ablitt estimated he could build the house for about $480,000. The actual bill was triple that amount, and it’s still climbing.

But to Ablitt, it has been worth every penny. “It’s a work of art, and a work of love,” he said.

From the beginning, the house has been a media darling. In addition to the play-by-play write-ups in local publications during the city hearings, the story caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which in 2004 ran a front-page story on the house. It was picked up by The Associated Press and ran in about 60 newspapers across the country. Shortly after, Ablitt got a call from the TV show Good Morning America, which wanted exclusive footage of the interior. The interior didn’t exist at the time, so the deal fell through.

Soon, the Ablitt House will be the focus of a half-hour production on HGTV (Home & Garden). Ablitt doesn’t own a television, “and I never will,” he says.

Ablitt purchased the small lot in 1984 for $6,400 – quite a deal in Santa Barbara, where land is so valuable that a small bungalow home can sell for upward of $1 million.

At the time, the lot seemed useless. For starters, it was too small. The city’s commercial-district zoning laws required that residential buildings in the downtown area be set back 10 feet from all neighboring property lines. Given that the size of Ablitt’s lot is 20 feet by 20 feet, that gave him zero room. “Technically, I couldn’t even put up a flagpole,” he says.

Plus, a severe drought had caused the city to issue a moratorium on new water connections. Without a water connection, a landowner could not obtain a building permit. But in 1987, the city held a lottery for water connections. Out of hundreds who applied, Ablitt was among about a dozen winners.

A decade passed and nothing was done. In the mid-1990s, Ablitt and his wife set sail for Mexico and didn’t return for seven years. When they came back in 2001, Ablitt went to his dry-cleaning business and was bedazzled by a new development next door. It was called the Zannon Building.

Ablitt walked around the premises and happened across two strangers: Shelton and Upton. He struck up a conversation with them, complimenting the building. He told them about his tiny lot. Shelton’s first response was terse: “I’m not taking any more work.”

But when Ablitt walked the men to the site, Shelton grew animated. A wave of inspiration had come over him. The next day, he approached Ablitt with a rough sketch design.

To get around the mandatory 10-foot setbacks, Shelton made a coy move. He stuck an office in the house, thus qualifying it for “mixed use” status, meaning it was no longer strictly residential. (The city later dropped the requirement for them.)

Shelton said he was expecting city staff members to disapprove. “To my surprise, they were not only not against it, they were sort of delighted,” he said.

Still, the architect knew the staff members weren’t the deciders. It would be up to the commission and the council. Before meetings, Shelton said, “I just kept telling Neil, ‘Don’t worry about it, just keep smiling and don’t complain.’ “

As it turned out, the Planning Commission was less amused by the design. Commissioner John Jostes said Ablitt was asking for too many special favors, which in the planning world are known as “modifications.” For instance, residential homes need a yard, but this home certainly wouldn’t have one.

Then-Commissioner Bill Mahan found it unfair that Ablitt intended to build his home right on the property lines of his commercial neighbors, none of whom had expanded their structures to the edge – yet.

Commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White thought the land could have been put to better use, maybe to build more high-density homes downtown, he said.

Now, all three say they love the finished product.

“It is extremely playful and interesting and unique,” Jostes said. “And being in the middle of the block, it’s not nearly as visible as I thought it would be.”

Mahan said it’s only a matter of time before the house becomes a local landmark. “There’s no question the architecture is a delightful thing,” he said.

Mahan, who earlier this year launched a ballot initiative to lower building-height limits to 40 feet in downtown Santa Barbara, also said he has no qualms with this particular 53-foot structure. “It’s really more like a tower – towers don’t bother me at all,” he said. “I think they bring a nice variance to the skyline.”

White echoed the praise. “It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship,” he said.

However, asked if he would vote for the project now, knowing what he knows, White and Jostes declined to speculate.

White added that Ablitt one day could face the bleak prospect of watching tall walls being built mere inches away from his windows. “If I were Neil, I would probably not be happy if people came in and built to the property line all around me. I would feel hemmed in,” he said. “So we’ll see how those things unfold over time. Maybe it will never happen.”


Santa Barbara School Board May Close the Door on GATE Program

Administrators propose melding Gifted and Talented Education with the Honors curriculum to help balance the racial mix of students in higher-level courses

In an effort to address the thorny issue of racial imbalance in classrooms, the Santa Barbara school board is considering ending the Gifted and Talented Education program for students in seventh through 12th grades.

The move would fold GATE into what is perceived to be a second-tier group of high-level courses, known as the Honors program, by as early as next school year.

Before a sparse late-night audience of about 20 people Tuesday, the school board took the first step toward the major overhaul. Four years ago, the board considered a similar proposal that would have merged honors and a third-tier program called “college prep,” but the plan was abandoned amid outcry from a well-organized group of honors parents.

This time, district-level administrators are strongly recommending the change, and a majority of the five-member board appears enthusiastic about the idea.

“I’m thrilled to be on a board that’s contemplating this change,” said school board member Susan Deacon, one of the two newest trustees who was elected to the position in November 2008. “The time has come.”

The issue of unintentional classroom segregation has rankled the district for years. School principals have long tried to improve upon the disproportionately low numbers of Latino students taking higher-level courses.

In Santa Barbara, while Latinos make up nearly half of the nearly 10,000 students attending public middle schools and high schools, they total just 18 percent of the students in GATE. White students account for 44 percent of the total enrollment, and 69 percent of the GATE population.

Historically, the aim of GATE has been to serve students who are thought to be “gifted,” meaning their rate of learning is so advanced as to render them bored in the traditional classroom setting. Entry to the program requires scoring high marks on what resembles an IQ test. In general, some experts say the curriculum should serve no more than 5 percent of any given student population. But in Santa Barbara, where middle school and high school students who do not test into GATE can get into GATE classes through teacher referrals, the GATE population has ballooned to about 20 percent.

Todd Borden, a GATE English teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, said at his school it’s about 31 percent.

“You’d think that might be an encouraging sign, but it really hasn’t been,” he said. “The ethnic breakdown really hasn’t changed. … White students are able to kind of play the game better and get into the classes more effectively.”

Top district administrators are adamant that the change would lift all students up rather than dumb the classes down, and came armed Tuesday night with data that they said supports this claim.

For instance, in English, the average test scores of the district’s honors students and GATE students were very close, with both comfortably in the “advanced” range.

Perhaps even more notably, district administrators presented data that seemed to undermine the notion that GATE students who tested into the program consistently outperform GATE students who got there through referrals. In junior high GATE algebra, for example, the average GPA of the referred students, at 3.39, actually bettered that of the bona fide GATE students, at 3.36.

However, Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske, who strongly supports the change, admitted that the math scores of the GATE students is well above those of the honors students.

Though the crowd Tuesday night was sparse, those who attended supported the change. Some were students who shared their stories of classroom alienation.

“Six years ago, when I was at Adams Elementary School, I didn’t really know what GATE meant,” said Abril Lopez, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School. “All I knew was that you had to be smart in order to be in that program, and there were mostly white people in GATE.”

Pepe Gil, a junior at Santa Barbara High School, said when he first entered the classroom of an advanced chemistry course, he was shocked: Just five of the 35 students were Latino.

“My fellow classmates and I felt isolated, and began to wonder why we were even in the class,” he said.

On the school board, the most vocal critic of the proposal was trustee Bob Noel, who said the district hasn’t yet shown that its teachers are ready to instruct classrooms filled with students whose academic skills vary widely.

“I’m almost sure it’s going to be very hard, especially for a lot of senior high school instructors,” he said.

Trustee Ed Heron — the board’s other newest member — said he would like to the district to inform GATE parents of the coming debate ASAP.

“I’m a believer you just don’t bowl your way through,” he said.

The other three board members expressed effusive support.

Trustee Annette Cordero said she was on the board when the similar issue came up several years ago.

“I was horrified for the lack of political courage,” she said. “The board bowed to pressure from a very particular group of the community. … I’m encouraged by what I perceive as the courage of this board to tackle this issue head-on. It is time for us to put the majority of students’ needs over a small minority of students’ needs.”

Also voicing support for the idea was Santa Barbara High School Principal Mark Capritto.

“I arrived three years ago, and one concern I had about Santa Barbara High School was that the achievement gap was widening,” he said. “The GATE program is the most natural barrier that we have. … We’ve got to get rid of the ‘two schools’ (within a school) mentality.”

He added that most high schools do not have a GATE program. What’s more, he said, the UC system doesn’t recognize GATE as being a higher-level program than the honors coursework, even though it’s considered to be so here.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at


Couple Severely Burned in Tea Fire Continue Slow Recovery

Couple Severely Burned in Tea Fire Continue Slow Recovery

The couple who suffered severe burns in last month’s Tea Fire are gradually improving. The husband remains unconscious under sedation and is hooked up to a ventilator; his wife has begun to breathe on her own.

Lance and Carla Hoffman suffered major burns in the Tea Fire. (Jim Mills photo)
Lance and Carla Hoffman suffered major burns in the Tea Fire. (Jim Mills photo)

The medical conditions of Lance and Carla Hoffman, both 29, have been upgraded by doctors at UC Irvine Regional Burn Center from critical to serious and fair, respectively, family members and hospital officials said Monday.

(Related: For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire)

Lance, a security guard at Paseo Nuevo, and Carla, a manager at Metro Entertainment on West Anapamu Street, suffered second- and third-degree burns all over their bodies when leaving their rented cottage on East Mountain Drive shortly after the fire broke out Nov. 13. The blaze consumed 210 homes, including theirs.

On Monday, family members said doctors expect the couple to stay in Irvine for three more months. Nonetheless, relatives were pleased by their progress.

“Since all this happened, we’ve been in a state of depression,” said Alice Mills, Lance’s grandmother. “As of yesterday, we finally can start seeing really positive improvements, and we’re jumping for joy.”

Both victims are expected to undergo skin-graft surgeries this week, said John Murray, media relations manager for the UC-Irvine Medical Center.

Although Carla is no longer in a medical-induced coma, she is still under heavy sedation and had not yet begun to converse with people, Murray said. “But she is responding to them,” he said.

Family members said the couple’s swelling has improved significantly, as well as their smoke-damaged lungs.

“Before, he was so bloated like a balloon you would not have recognized him,” said Jim Mills, Lance’s grandfather.

On the evening of the fire, the couple apparently were running to their car from their cottage when they were overtaken by a flash fire.

Although badly burned, the couple drove to Santa Barbara Fire Station No. 7, at Stanwood Drive and Mission Ridge Road.

From the station, they were transported by ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and later were flown by helicopter to Irvine.

Twenty-two percent of Lance’s body was burned, and 9 percent of it was covered in third-degree burns, Jim Mills said. About 30 percent of Carla’s body was burned, although she had fewer third-degree burns, he said.

“It’s going to be a crawl, but that’s all right,” Alice Mills said of their recovery. “We’re on cloud nine right now.”


For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire

For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire

Josie Levy Martin, a Holocaust survivor, struggles again with being one of ‘the lucky ones’ after her and her husband’s home was miraculously spared by the blaze.

Josie Levy Martin stands in the doorway of her home that, mysteriously, was spared by the Tea Fire despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes. Martin, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by a renewed sense of guilt. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Josie Levy Martin stands in the doorway of her home that, mysteriously, was spared by the Tea Fire despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes. Martin, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by a renewed sense of guilt. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

For nearly 24 hours after the Tea Fire ravaged the populous foothills, Josie Levy Martin and her husband, Ed, were among hundreds of families wandering around Santa Barbara, wondering if they were homeless.

Eventually, the Martins learned the unbelievable news: The fire devastated their side of the block on Mount Calvary Road, but had stopped, mysteriously, at their home. Despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes, their yellow-ochre Spanish hacienda was unscathed — not even a singe.

For both, it was a major relief. But for Josie in particular, the joy was short-lived. It didn’t take long for a sense of guilt to settle in — one that, for her, was all too familiar.

Like many people whose homes were spared, Josie began to suffer from a bout of what therapists call “survivor’s guilt.” The term originated from the feelings experienced by many survivors of the Holocaust, but can apply to people wracked with guilt over their escape from any number of traumatic experiences: combat, car accidents, layoffs, natural disasters.

In an eerie juxtaposition, there’s nothing left of the home next door to the Martins. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
In an eerie juxtaposition, there’s nothing left of the home next door to the Martins. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Josie can attest to the validity to the term’s historical origin: her renewed sense of guilt is familiar precisely because she is a Holocaust survivor.

“It’s so random,” she said of the fires, adding that no amount of precaution — watering the roof, clearing the brush — could have spared her home. “It happens because the wind blows one way or another. So much of the Holocaust is like that as well. The amount of luck that enters into these things I think is 75 percent of it. So the survivor’s guilt is very powerful.”

Roberta Ainciart, a retired marriage and family therapist who has been providing free counseling services to Tea Fire victims through the Red Cross, said many residents are suffering from survivor’s guilt.

“Sometimes, that is just as difficult as losing your home,” she said. “You’re in this totally devastated area, and it looks like a war zone, and your neighbors have lost everything, and here you’ve got your home.”

Ainciart said she gives people stricken with survivor’s guilt the same advice as those whose homes are no more: Stay in touch with friends and family; eat right and try to get plenty of sleep; don’t be afraid to talk about the trauma; and, above all, understand that the feelings are normal.

“There are good days and bad days, good memories and bad memories; it’s all to be expected,” she said.

As for Josie, she has experienced the trauma of living in an actual war zone.

In 1944, she was a 6-year-old child living with her parents in France when the Germans invaded. Realizing the gravity of the threat, her parents found a nun at a Catholic school who agreed to take her in. Josie was given a new, non-Jewish-sounding last name — L’Or — and was instructed never to reveal her true identity.

It’s a good thing she didn’t: Her teacher turned out to be a Nazi collaborator. Josie lived at the school for nine months before her parents, who had gone into hiding themselves, returned for her.

Josie, who in 2002 published a memoir on the experience called Never Tell Your Name, said the guilt she experienced from surviving the Holocaust didn’t set in until later in life.

As a teenager living in Los Angeles, her mother would remind her that so many of their relatives had had it worse. One of her aunts had lost her two children, husband and father in the concentration camps; the son of a cousin escaped “from the very mouth of the crematorium of Auschwitz.”

“I was the one in 10 Jewish European children who survived, the ‘lucky ones,’ as my mother intoned,” she writes in the book. But “too often I felt estranged, unworthy, guilty without knowing why or about what.”

This week, as her neighbors began sifting through the ashes of their homes, she again felt like the lucky one. It’s a distinction that can be embarrassing.

When her less-fortunate neighbors drive past, she cringes, unsure whether to wave. Over the weekend, when she and her husband saw their neighbors lay eyes on the smoldering devastation for the first time, the Martins shouted from a distance: “If there’s anything we can do!”

But there was nothing they could do.

For his part, Ed has processed the event differently.

To be sure, when the Martins learned from a police officer that their home was spared, Ed reflected on the bittersweet nature of the news. While they were feeling relief, others so nearby would be under duress.

The overwhelming sensation for him has been closer to thankfulness than guilt. “I continue to be really, really appreciative of the fact that I have a house to eat dinner in,” he said.

Ed attributed their different reactions largely to their radically different upbringings.

Josie lived for a year without parents in an environment of terror, and Ed grew up in a family “where there was never a question about safety and the future.”

His father was a local fundamentalist preacher who instilled in him the maxim: “I know the Lord will make a way for me.” And although Ed said his childhood family’s religious convictions are no longer a part of his own conscious belief system, he said they seem to have contributed to his inherent sense of optimism, and confidence in the future.

“If we were all the same, think what a miserable thing that would be,” he said.

Conversely, Josie, who has worked as a teacher and a school psychologist, said she — like many wartime survivors — spends a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She said her husband sometimes chided her for packing up a grab-and-go bag after wildfires destroyed many homes in Malibu last year.

“I have moments where I’d like to live in the flats in L.A., in a high rise,” she said. “I was feeling pretty good until this happened.”


Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

When Russell Smelley, a Westmont College kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach, saw the Tea Fire racing down the mountain toward his neighborhood of faculty housing Thursday, he and his wife, Allison, went straight for their daughter Alyssa’s room.

Alyssa had died of a brain tumor 2½ years before, at age 15, and her belongings in the bedroom were precious.

(Related story: Severely burned couple fights for life)

“This was the house where she lived and died, so we have memories of her in that room that are significant,” Smelley said Monday.

Still, Smelley didn’t think the fire would reach the house, since he’d long since removed all the flammable brush nearby.

But a few hours later, while driving through the smoke-filled neighborhood in a golf cart as a member of Westmont’s Disaster Emergency Response Team, he saw with his own eyes that he was wrong. His home was in flames.

“I looked at it and said, ‘That’s a tad disappointing,’” he recalled. “It’s one of those things, you know it can happen, so it’s disappointing. ‘Oh, shucks.’ It wasn’t until later that it didn’t feel so good.”

The Smelleys were among 14 faculty families who lost their workforce homes on the leafy campus of the private Christian college, and among 210 families who were burned into homelessness in the Montecito and Santa Barbara foothills.

On Monday, as firefighters beat the once-ferocious Tea Fire into submission, many of these residents — Smelley included — returned to their charred living quarters, where they sifted through the ashes of what had once been their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and garages.

The Tea Fire was a weirdly discriminating inferno, sometimes reducing an entire house to powder, while leaving its next-door neighbors virtually unscathed. Some have attributed the hopscotch pattern in part to how the wind-whipped fire at times spread not so much as a moving wall, but rather through the air, in the form of flaming palm-tree fronds, which resembled enormous floating embers the size of basketballs.

In any case, the capricious selection occurred in the neighborhood of Smelley’s home, which was surrounded by standing houses with minimal or no damage.

Smelley said he and his wife spent about 15 minutes collecting valuables.

“We were reasonably calm, but hurried,” he said.

In addition to grabbing items in their daughter’s room — pictures from the wall, some blankets — they took a few other keepsakes, such as a few DVDs, a computer and some letters written by an ancestor of Smelley’s who served as a cobbler in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Of course, countless possessions were destroyed. Over the weekend, Smelley procured some tools for sifting through the rubble. A popular presence on campus, he respectfully declined offers to help look through the ashes. The idea wasn’t so much for he and his wife to recover possessions as to contemplate the memories of what was lost.

“We want to be able to sift it and remember it, and cry over it, if need be,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, Smelley was the recipient of some striking generosity. At one point, a neighbor, who asked that his name not be published, came by to tell him that he had a surprise for his 13-year-old son, Travis: a new drum set, to replace the one that perished in the fire. Then, the neighbor handed Smelley a shoebox containing some of the ceramics that Smelley’s children had created in elementary school. The neighbor had gone into the house and taken them off the wall — while the roof was burning.

Clearly touched, Smelley shook the man’s hand, then gave him a hug.

Smelley was especially grateful on behalf of his son, who at age 13 has lost his sister and now his home, and almost lost his mother to breast cancer last year. (Smelley said the cancer is in remission and his wife has been given a clean bill of health.)

After the neighbor left, a flock of cross-country athletes stopped by to console Smelley. It wasn’t the first time they’d done so: He thanked them for visiting him the night before, and recalled how nice it was to just sit with all of them.

“There was nothing to say, just sit,” he explained.

Smelley assured the students that he was going to be OK, marveling at the generosity of the community, and adding that after all his family has been through, the loss of the house “doesn’t feel devastating. Just sad.”

On the Riviera a few miles away, Doug Crawford was also coming to grips with the loss of his home, in the 1100 block of Las Alturas Road.

“Our house is 12 inches high,” said Crawford, spokesman for the Navy League of Santa Barbara, which his wife, Karen, serves as president. “There was no structure left whatsoever — nothing.”

Crawford said he was amazed at the cooperation of neighbors, who knocked on one another’s doors to make sure everyone would get out safely.

He attributed the smooth evacuation to a neighborhood drill performed in May.

Crawford said he couldn’t believe how fast the fire traveled.

Around 6 p.m. — shortly after the fire started — a friend called to ask him how he was doing.

“We went outside, there was no fire,” he said. “By 7 o’clock it was like we were inside a furnace.”

Crawford said the time he and his wife spent grabbing valuables was harried and surreal.

“You end up taking some crazy stuff,” he said. “I wondered if I was going to have to defend my property — I got my rifle and some ammunition.”

He added, wryly, “The good news is there was no need to defend my property.”

During the evacuation, Crawford said the fire began to feel dangerously close, with large embers falling from the bright-orange sky and the sound of trees popping in the flames.

“My lungs burned for 24 hours afterward,” he said. “That’s how bad the smoke was.”

Crawford said he has been moved by the generosity of the community.

He and his wife were among the victims invited to attend a local briefing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The mayor and City Council members were there; they all hugged us and embraced us,” he said. “They promised the rebuilding transition process would be accelerated for us, and the bureaucracy would be minimized.”

What’s more, on Monday morning, one of the members of his church, El Montecito Presbyterian, handed him and his wife the keys to a three-bedroom condo.

“We just live in an awesome community,” he said. “It feels like jumping off a cliff, with the shock and awe of the fire, and then seeing the aftermath. What you realize when you go off that cliff is there is like a hang glider of love and support from the community.”


Severely Burned Couple Fights for Life

Severely Burned Couple Fights for Life

For most families who have endured loss as a result of the Tea Fire, the tragedy has been limited to material damages.

Lance and Carla Hoffman suffered major burns in the Tea Fire. (Jim Mills photo)
Lance and Carla Hoffman suffered major burns in the Tea Fire. (Jim Mills photo)

That’s not the case for the family of James Mills, a retired pharmacist in Solvang, whose grandson and granddaughter-in-law suffered major burns in the fire, and are clinging to life at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center.

(Related: Couple Severely Burned in Tea Fire Continue Slow Recovery)

Lance Hoffman, a 29-year-old security guard at Paseo Nuevo, and his wife, Carla, a manager at Metro Entertainment on West Anapamu Street, had been renting a small cottage up in the hills on East Mountain Drive.

Mills said the family isn’t sure exactly what happened to the couple, because they have been unconscious under sedation since their rescue.

The incident occurred Thursday evening, shortly after the fast-moving fire broke out on East Mountain and Coyote Road above Montecito’s Cold Spring neighborhood.

The couple was apparently running to their car from their cottage when they were overtaken by a flash fire, said Mills, speaking to Noozhawk by phone from his home.

Both Hoffmans were lightly dressed, Mills said, and as a result suffered severe burns on their arms and legs. Lance also has second- and third-degree burns on his head.

Although badly burned, the couple was able to drive themselves to a fire station. From there, they were transported by ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and later were flown by helicopter to Irvine.

“A lot of times, when people are initially hurt — even gravely hurt — they can still do things that their bodies aren’t up to maintain,” said Mills, a former firefighter.

Mills said doctors at the burn center plan to keep the couple unconscious until the swelling goes down. He said they are connected to a life-support system to keep them hydrated, oxygenated and nourished.

Lance’s facial and head burns appear worse than Carla’s, he added. What’s more, doctors are worried that his lungs have been singed by flames.

“I couldn’t keep from crying when I saw him,” Mills said.

The couple has been married for about a year, and met, Mills said, while attending Whittier College.

A graduate of Santa Ynez High School, Lance, who was the captain of his water-polo team in high school, is a man of some heft — 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Mills said he is a “pleasant guy” who, as a kid loved to accompany his woodsman grandfather on backpacking hikes through the back-country.

As a former firefighter, Mills said he had always been nervous about the couple’s decision to live up in the hills.

“People always think the fire happens to other people; as a fireman I saw this all the time,” Mills said. “Fire is an element of climate in California. The chaparral is like fuel. Up there, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to burn, but when.”


A Hippie and His Van: They’re a Piece of Work, Man

A Hippie and His Van: They’re a Piece of Work, Man

With a flair for flamboyance, One Feather is turning heads – and making a living off donations from tourists eager to take pictures with his masterpiece.

By Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer | Published on 06.30.2008

Sure, a lot of hippies live in a van, but rare is the hippie who uses that same van as his meal ticket.

Meet the man who goes by the name One Feather.

Part stand-up comedian, part freak-show carnival announcer, part “peace and love” preacher, the 46-year-old Jesus lookalike – who refuses to divulge his birth name – has created a piece of work that is difficult not to stare at.

The vehicle is so bristling with décor that not a spot of original van can be seen.

The eclectic assemblage of about 5,000 pieces affixed to the so-named “Temple of One Love” includes a full-size trombone, hundreds of plastic action figures, two 10-speed bicycles, an Irish harp, several small piano keyboards, dozens of guitar picks embossed with an alien face, an 8-foot missile a la Planet of the Apes, vintage toy Tie Fighters from Star Wars, an acoustic guitar and a Jesus action figure riding a Harley – to name just a few.

Hippie One Feather has turned his van, ‘Temple of One Love,’ into a one-of-a-kind piece of art with thousands of figurines, instruments and other items. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Hippie One Feather has turned his van, ‘Temple of One Love,’ into a one-of-a-kind piece of art with thousands of figurines, instruments and other items. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

But the real piece of work here is not the van. It’s the man.

With his bushy beard and long, wavy brown hair, One Feather presents himself every day as the quintessential hippie. For him, going to work means pulling the van into the parking lot at East Beach, taking a seat in a lawn chair and talking to tourists, who seem to be gravitationally attracted to his van.

His only request: a small cash donation in return for a photo.

“Take a trip! It’s all visual – no drugs are needed,” he calls out from his folding chair, his belly hanging out from beneath his too-short T-shirt, as bemused beachgoers walk past. “I’ve already done them – for your viewing pleasure.”

At first blush, One Feather seems stereotypically hippie, to the point of being cartoonish. His inflection carries that stonerlike quality of sounding perpetually surprised. And he’s definitely stoned, which he’s proud to admit. But he’s also a quick improviser and, some might say, a savvy entrepreneur.

One Feather likes to say that he hasn’t worked a day since the start of the millennium – that is, the year 2000. For that he can thank passers-by – most of them tourists – who for seven years have provided him with enough in tips to get by. He declined to say how much he earns.

However, it’s a stretch to say he isn’t working. In fact, during weekday hours his friends avoid popping by, knowing he’ll be working the crowd.

That is when he can be seen posing for pictures, rib-jabbing kids, cracking bumper-sticker-worthy remarks to passers-by and chatting up senior citizens, all while looking for a new audience.

One Feather makes a living off donations from tourists who want their picture taken with his van. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
One Feather makes a living off donations from tourists who want their picture taken with his van. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

“Just say no to Bush!” One Feather shouts to high-schoolers walking by. “If you’re going to say no to drugs, spell (no) with a ‘k’!”

Despite the coy references to drugs and sex, parents of small children seem not only unfazed but drawn to the loquacious hippie. The irony of his mainstream acceptance isn’t lost on One Feather.

“What was once called a hippie or a freak show is now called a tourist attraction,” he said during a pause in the foot traffic. “Please make sure to write that down.”

One afternoon, a family of four from Thousand Oaks approached the van on their four-seat bicycle. They were puzzled but not offended.

“It might be weird for some people, but he’s doing whatever he needs to do to keep out of trouble,” said the father, Silas Nesheiwat. “He’s passionate about – something.”

The mother, Reem, added, “My first thought, when I saw the Jesus picture, was, does he really believe in Jesus?”

One Feather loves this question.

“The world doesn’t need more Christians,” he said. “The world needs more Christ.”

A self-described “Jesus freak” once known for roaming local streets in robes, One Feather says Christians need to unlearn some of the individualistic principles of the religion.

“We’re all one. We’re all one in the spirit of love, bro,” he said. “Brother, I’m living on miracles. I’m living on love.”

A native of Pennsylvania, One Feather says he moved to California after high school. He joined the military, where he trained to become a nurse. Alas, he and the military turned out to be a bad fit.

“The greatest gift that (Uncle) Sam gave me was throwing me out for smokin’ the chronic,” he said.

One Feather went to jail for a few weeks and lost his stripes, but upon his release drew on his military nursing experience to land jobs at hospitals, he said. He was 33 when he found the van. The way he tells it, the story is serendipitous. One Feather had broken up with his girlfriend of three years in Olympia, Wash. He didn’t own a vehicle and decided it was time to get one. He wanted to leave town.

One afternoon, he was bicycling home from work after receiving his first $400 paycheck when he came across a man putting up a for-sale sign on a 1976 Dodge Sportsman. The man turned out to be the husband of a woman who was nine months pregnant. They were homeless. Child welfare officials had warned the couple to sell the van and find an apartment or lose the baby to the state. One Feather and the man made a deal. One Feather ended up with the van, and the couple got to keep their baby.

One Feather’s first project for the van was to paint, above the windshield, a picture of Earth cradled by “the hands of God — one male, one female, one black, one white.”

Another satisfied customer drops a dollar in the globe.
Another satisfied customer drops a dollar in the globe.

Shortly afterward, in 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jerry Gay took pictures of One Feather and his van. The photo was published in a book by Gay titled Everyone Has a Life to Live.

In the black-and-white photo, the van, despite being used as a canvas for hippie paintings, looks plain compared to the flamboyance of its current incarnation.

One Feather is in the photo. Then, as now, he’s the true work of art, standing before the van in a white robe.

One Feather definitely isn’t shy, or passive. He approaches groups of tourists as they approach the van in a kind of pre-emptive strike.

“It’s not my fault, man,” he says to a group of young men. “It’s my older brother’s fault. He was a hippie, man. He’s the one that put that little piece of paper on my tongue.” He laughs like Popeye – a disarming “Ge ge ge ge ge ge!”

The people laugh and one of them sticks a $5 bill into the collection plate – which in this case is a globe with a slit cut into the North Pole. Not long after, a little boy who says he’s going into first grade shyly approaches the hippie from a four-seat bicycle occupied by his mother.

“I like your van,” the boy says.

One Feather puts his hands on his knees, like an umpire. “What’s your favorite part?” he asks.

“The whole thing,” the boy answers.

“What do you think the most important thing in life is?” One Feather asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Be happy?”


“Yeah. High five! You’re a smart kid.”

The boy returns to the bike and rides away, waving.

Not long after, One Feather stops to chat with a couple from the Bay Area. They say they’ve seen many vehicles like this, but One Feather’s work is the finest. He asks if they think his handiwork could have a shot at being in a museum exhibit. They say yes.

They also praise the chalkboard on the side of the van, on which One Feather likes to scrawl quotes. On this day, the quote is, “If you see yourself in others, than whom can you harm?”

The man from the Bay Area tells him about a good quote he saw recently. “America must be a melting pot: As the citizens burn on the bottom, the scum floats to the top.”

One Feather’s eyes light up.

“The scum floats to the top,” he repeats. “I like that! Sounds like I have a quote for tomorrow.”


It’s ‘Once a Don, Always a Don’ for 84-Year-Old Alumnus

It’s ‘Once a Don, Always a Don’ for 84-Year-Old Alumnus

World War II Japanese American internee fulfills his 66-year wish to graduate from Santa Barbara High.


Michito Frank Fukuzawa, 84, isn’t one to dwell on sins of the past.

Fukuzawa, who goes by his middle name, Frank, doesn’t hold it against the United States that he and his family were carted off to an internment camp two months before his graduation from Santa Barbara High School in 1942.

He’s not bitter about the fact that, even after his stint at the camp in Gila River, Ariz., he was drafted to fight in World War II, where he witnessed heavy combat in France and Italy.

Fukazawa’s only request has been modest: to someday take part in the American rite of passage that for most people kicks off adulthood — the high school graduation ceremony.

For him, someday turned out to be Thursday. At 3 p.m., 66 years after attending Santa Barbara High, the cap-and-gown clad octogenarian blended with about 550 other graduating seniors on the grass field of Peabody Stadium, becoming a breathing emblem of the school’s motto: “Once a Don, Always a Don.”


Back in 1942, Fukuzawa’s family learned of their orders to leave town through signs posted on various streetlights in Santa Barbara calling on people of Japanese descent to head to West Beach. There, they boarded a Greyhound bus and headed to Temecula, where they stayed for a few months while construction crews finished the larger camp in Arizona.

Before that ignominious day, however, Fukuzawa said he had always been treated well in Santa Barbara.

On Thursday, he received a warm homecoming, marching down the hill between his own son and Superintendent Brian Sarvis while the band played the school anthem. At one point, the rest of the graduating students initiated a rhythmic “clap clap!” in his honor that the rest of the crowd picked up on.

Fukuzawa’s father worked as a gardener at a large local estate and his mother was a homemaker. Before Fukuzawa was born, his father had lived in Orange County, but the farm work he was doing there dried up. On a whim, he decided to board a train for either San Diego or Santa Barbara.

“It was 5 cents cheaper to come to Santa Barbara, so he came here,” Fukuzawa said Thursday. Sitting in the hallway of his alma mater about an hour before the graduation ceremony, the Gardena resident and retired high school teacher from Los Angeles city schools looked somewhat bemused by the small pack of reporters, photographers and TV cameras surrounding him.

As now, the number of Japanese-Americans living in Santa Barbara during the 1930s and ‘40s was small: Fukuzawa one of six in his graduating class. Nonetheless, he led a fairly normal life before war hysteria turned his life upside down.

As a kid, Fukazawa joined the Boy Scouts, and as a high-schooler he served in student government and played football, basketball and baseball.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was only after the historic attack on U.S. soil that Fukuzawa said he started feeling the sting of racism — the strange looks, the whispers. But even now he says he understands.

“If I were an American (of another race) I would have felt the same thing,” he said. “What the heck were they pulling?”

Still, his closest high school pals in Santa Barbara didn’t abandon him.

The day after the attack, a buddy named Mel pulled up to his house in a car.


“He said, ‘I’m picking you up to see that nothing happens to you,” Fukuzawa recalled.

Even while Fukuzawa was at camp, close Santa Barbara friends continued to keep in touch.

Once, a young man he knew from Boy Scouts, Harold Bowman, was feeling celebratory after being accepted at Dartmouth. He sent Fukuzawa some money, but Fukazawa wrote back that he had no use for it.

“We don’t have a place where you can buy things, so I have no use for the money,” he said he wrote.

As for camp, Fukuzawa said it was what it was.

“Camp was camp,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a Boy Scout camp, or an Army camp — you have certain regimentations, certain rules to follow, certain inconveniences. I didn’t think of it as a heavenly place, or that it was hell. It was just camp.”

The worst part about it was being separated from his father, who was shuttled off to another camp for first-generation Japanese immigrants. They reunited after the war.

While in camp, Fukuzawa was drafted to serve with the Army’s 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit. The “Go For Broke” regiment is recognized as being the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Fukuzawa himself received three Bronze Battle Stars for action and a Bronze Star Medal for bravery, among other decorations.

After the war, he returned to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB, where he earned his teaching credential. From 1953 until his retirement in 1985, he taught special education for the physically challenged and graphic arts in Los Angeles public schools.

On Thursday, like many graduates, Fukuzawa came to the ceremony with plenty of family. Among them was his son, Leigh, 52, who said his father had never told him about being deprived of a graduation ceremony until recently.

The son said he has always been struck by his father’s forgiving attitude.

“If I was in that predicament I’d probably be pretty upset,” he said.

A senior officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Long Beach, Leigh Fukuzawa said his father has also been pretty mum when it comes to war stories. But he did tell him one.

Before Fukuzawa went to war, he was not religious. So he thought nothing of it when his mother said she’d pray for him. But one day, his battalion was psyching itself up to embark on a mission that was sure to be bloody. The soliders were to climb a hill mounted with machine gun-toting Germans.

Just before they started up, a heavy fog rolled in, allowing the battalion to take the hill with relative ease.

“He looks back at that and says, ‘I could tell grandma was praying for me,’” Leigh said.

Colorful Characters

Mr. Mack Has the Ride of His Life

89-Year-Old Mr. Mack Has the Ride of His Life

You’ve probably seen the car, the shiny, stretched-out Cadillac Eldorado, parading down State Street, driven by a man wearing a white fedora cocked to the side.

Believe it or not, Mr. Mack says, in his younger years he once had nine girlfriends. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)
Believe it or not, Mr. Mack says, in his younger years he once had nine girlfriends. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

The ivory-colored land yacht could easily belong to Snoop Doggy Dog, or a Southern man in the mold of Boss Hogg, the bumbling fat-cat villain on The Dukes of Hazzard.

But as anyone who has ever read the license place knows, the luxury vehicle with the sparkling gold rims and ear-splitting horn is owned by a longtime Santa Barbaran who answers to the name Mr. Mack.

At age 89, Mack — or L.C. McHaskell, if you prefer to be formal — still can’t get enough of the attention that his fancy ride brings him. Especially with the ladies.

“I love to just ride around, meet a whole lot of women, play music,” said Mack, who admits he often drives around just to show off his ride. “I feel pretty good about it, you know.”

Does he have a girlfriend? “Are you kidding? I got two.”

If Mack’s stamina at nearly 90 is surprising, his story of how he wound up owning the swanky mobile in the first place is downright uncanny.

The Sambo’s Connection

It was the mid-1980s, and the car — a 1981 model — was owned by Sam Battistone Sr.

Battistone, who died in 1992, co-founded Sambo’s restaurant with Newell Bohnett. Though originally an amalgamation of its owners’ last names, Sambo’s eventually adopted the theme of the book Little Black Sambo. The local breakfast joint mushroomed into a nationwide chain in the 1970s, but shrank back to one location — the still-existing original restaurant on Cabrillo Boulevard — following a race-related uproar over the theme, which the restaurant has since dropped.

For L.C. ‘Mr. Mack’ McHaskell, it was love at first sight with his ivory Cadillac Eldorado. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)
For L.C. ‘Mr. Mack’ McHaskell, it was love at first sight with his ivory Cadillac Eldorado. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

In the mid-1980s, Sam Battistone put his custom-built Cadillac up for sale, Mack said. At the time, Mack noticed that the Eldorado had been parked in a car lot for some time. He decided to stop by and inquire.

“He wanted $45,000 for it — cash,” Mack remembers, adding that Battistone had purchased it for $65,000. “I said, ‘How come this car stayed here so long?’ And he said, ‘People tell me they want to buy it and they never show up.’”

Mack was in love.

“It didn’t have but 8,000 miles on it,” he said. “I told (Battistone): ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you $30,000 in cash for it today.’”

He added: “I didn’t think he was going to go for it.”

In fact, Battistone didn’t go for it. At least not right away. He said sorry, and Mack went home, but not before giving Battistone his phone number. Battistone called him the next morning and declared it a deal.

Battistone’s grandson, Chad Stevens — now the owner of Sambo’s, as well as Chad’s on Chapala Street — verified the account.

“He had it specially made,” Stevens said of his grandfather. “The hood was 12 inches longer or something. But I think it’s been tricked out more since then.”

As for the long-ago controversy over the Sambo’s name, Mack — who is black — said he never paid it much mind.

“I don’t think that means anything,” he said. “I never thought too much about that.”

Hard Work Pays Off

The real question might be: How come Mack possessed such a king’s ransom in cash? Back then, $30,000 was the equivalent of about twice the amount in today’s dollars.

Mack was prepared for this question. After all, he concedes, his attire is sometimes consistent with that of, shall we say, a flamboyant flouter of laws. In addition to the white fedora on his head — and the 10 others he owns — large clumps of gold decorate his hands. (Four rings, a watch and a bracelet.)

At age 89, Mr. Mack still can’t get enough of the attention that his fancy ride brings him. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)
At age 89, Mr. Mack still can’t get enough of the attention that his fancy ride brings him. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

Also, Mack’s easygoing smile displays 10 gold teeth, which, he says, are worth a grand total of $6,500. What’s more, back in the day he tailored his own suits — in several colors — including one that is all white and another that is all blue.

But the resplendent Mack says he’s always played it straight.

“I hear it all the time: ‘He’s a pimp, he’s a crime lord, he’s a drug lord,’ all that,” Mack said. “I don’t even know what drugs look like. … People ask me, ‘How can you have all those cars?’”

His answer: hard work. The truth is, he said, “I have never done smoking or drugs in my whole life. I worked: One job — for 27 years. Look at the money I saved.”

Mack said he spent his entire working career as a construction worker — or, more specifically, a cement paver — at the Port Hueneme Naval Base, beginning in 1948.

He wouldn’t say how much he made, but he did say this: “It’s not the idea of what you can make, it’s the idea of what you can save and put to good use.”

The son of a farming family from Arkansas, Mack came to California in 1943 to serve in the military at a base near San Diego.

In the 1960s, he purchased the piece of Santa Barbara property on which he still resides, on Canada Street, a low-income neighborhood on the Lower Eastside. There, he built a two-story apartment complex with two units. He still lives in one of them, and rents out the other.

Nine Girlfriends!

While Mack says he never had a taste for intoxication, he does fess up to a couple of vices. One was gambling, although he insists it paid off. His specialties were the card games poker and tunk, which he played at people’s houses.

“I won most all the time,” he said.

The other was women. At one point during his younger years, Mack insists, he had nine girlfriends.

But he’s also been a family man. Mack has had two wives, both of whom have passed away. His first wife, Larrie, died of diabetes in 1962, at age 41. His second wife, Dorothy, died of lung cancer in 2002. He has one child, a daughter who now lives in Los Angeles and works in real estate, he said.

“I had some pretty wives — some good-lookin’ wives,” he said while thumbing through some old photos of them. In a photo with Dorothy, the Cadillac sits in the background, but with different license plates. While the current plates read “MrMack1, “the plate in the photo says “Mac Dot.” Mack said he had to change the plates after her death because the sight of her name on them made him sad.

Mack might live alone, but he’s not lonely. In addition to the company of a girlfriend (or two), he is routinely visited by other friends and relatives. When a reporter came to visit not long ago, Mack was with his son-in-law, Hubert Wells.

“He’s a legend — quite a celebrity,” Wells said of Mack. “He can’t drive down State Street without people asking him to blow his horns.”

For Mack — who also put his trademark horns and plates on his other vintage car, a bright-yellow 1966 Lincoln Continental — it’s not about status so much as attention.

“I wouldn’t trade that Lincoln or this Cadillac for nothing,” he said. “I can drive behind a brand-new Mercedes, or a brand-new Cadillac, in any of those two cars, and people won’t look at them. They look at me.”

But Mack is as reflective as he is showy.

“I just live a normal, nice life,” he said. “Up till now, I really have enjoyed myself.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at