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Fire damages famed 'Wild Bird' residence

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: January 6, 2012

ONE OF the California Coast’s most distinctive homes, Big Sur’s “Wild Bird” caught fire Jan. 4, but firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it destroyed the residence.

Located on Grimes Point just south of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn and perched 640 feet above the ocean, the A-frame home was built in 1958-59 by Nathaniel and Margaret Owings and extensively renovated in recent years.

Martha Karstens, chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, told The Pine Cone that she received a call about the fire Wednesday at 10:22 a.m. When she arrived on scene, U.S. Forest Service firefighters were already there. “They just happened to be driving by when they saw smoke,” she reported. “At first, they thought it was a controlled burn.”

Thankfully, the house’s proximity to Highway 1 — about 500 feet — made access by firefighters relatively easy. Although the fire was extinguished, damaged the home’s upper floor and the kitchen below it.

Karstens said it’s too early to tell what sparked the blaze or how extensive the damage is. “Investigators don’t know the cause yet,” she said.

It was unknown whether anyone was home at the time.

Accompanied by two fire trucks and a water tender, 11 Big Sur volunteer firefighters responded to the incident.

Also on scene were firefighters from the Mid-Coast Volunteer Fire Brigade, Carmel Highlands and the Monterey Peninsula.

The California Highway Patrol, meanwhile, monitored traffic on Highway 1. “They were a great help, because the home is located on a blind curve,” Karstens added.

On the Big Sur Coast — where few homes are built within the viewshed of Highway 1 — “Wild Bird” is a landmark. Shortly after the house was completed in 1959, Time Magazine suggested it was “the most beautiful house on the most beautiful site” in the United States.

Nathaniel Owings, a noted architect and founding partner of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, proposed to his wife on the site. Ironically, shortly after building their dream home, the Owings famously launched a successful drive to restrict development in Big Sur — assuring that nobody else would ever be able to development such a critical viewshed property.

Nathaniel Owings passed away in 1984, while Margaret Owings died in 1999 after establishing herself as an environmental champion, particularly for her work with sea otters and mountain lions.

In 2000, the house was sold to Wild Bird LLC for $5,650,000. Wild Bird LLC lists Guy Hands and a San Francisco attorney, Steven Herman, as its officers. Hands is a British financier who made headlines in 2007 when his firm, Terra Firma Capital Partners, bought music industry giant EMI — whose assets include the Beatles’ catalog of songs — for more than $6 billion, an amount Hands later conceded was more than the company was worth. The deal’s lender, Citigroup, took over the struggling company in 2011.

In 2004, the Monterey County Planning Department unanimously approved a plan to renovate the home, adding 1,315 square feet to its existing 3,404 square feet.