From Heartbreak to Healing — Rebuilding the Ranch House

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The outdoor dining patio of Peter and Nancy Lang's newly rebuilt house in Sonoma.

California has often burned. Now it’s burning more. The last four years have seen six of California’s 10 largest wildfires. Five of them occurred this year, torching four million acres.

On October 8, 2017, thousands of people were scrambling to get out of the path of the Tubbs Fire, one of the deadliest in California history.

In Sonoma, everything was on fire; even the oak trees. The night sky was lit up. Nancy Lang woke her husband Peter. “Give me 10 minutes,” he said. Nancy could see the flames surrounding her home. “You don’t have 10 minutes.”

There was no time to grab anything. Nancy and Peter left everything they owned behind. Nancy herded their three dogs into her Suburban. Peter ran to his truck.

Peter fighting the flames at Safari West on October 8, 2017.

Fire on both sides of the road melted Nancy’s windshield wipers as she drove through the flames. When Nancy and Peter arrived at Safari West, just a mile from their ranch, the sheriff and highway patrol were delivering an unequivocal order: everyone was to leave. Nancy, with their dogs, followed the sheriff’s orders. Peter quietly moved into the shadows of his beloved Safari West.

Safari West is a 400-acre private wildlife preserve with over 1,000 animals and birds, offering overnight lodging in African tents and Safari tours. The selection of wildlife emphasizes species native to Africa, including giraffes, rhinoceroses, cape buffaloes, antelopes, cheetahs, zebras, hyenas, and other African animals and birds.

The Safari West team fighting small bush fires during the Tubbs Fire of 2017.

Starting with garden hoses and then tractors, backhoes and forklifts, 76-year-old Peter Lang singlehandedly fought the flames for 10 hours. While he was saving 1,000 souls at Safari West, Peter often looked in the direction of his own ranch, knowing his four homes and two barns were burning to the ground.

Peter and Nancy’s 200-acre family compound had an original main house, a two-story guest home, a gate house, and a hill house with two barns. The houses had two lifetimes of treasures. Memorabilia of Peter’s father, famed movie director and Ski Hall of Fame recipient Otto Lang. Peter and Nancy were collectors of minerals, African art, and Peter’s own creations: hand sculpted wooden antlers and beautiful carved bowls from fallen trees at Safari West. Generations of family photographs. All their identification. Like so many that night, they lost everything.

Morning light brought forth a giraffe who watched intently as Peter put out the flames.

Their Watusi and Brahman cattle survived the Tubbs Fire by huddling together on the shore of their lake.

All that remained of the house was the skeleton of a washer and dryer. Only the olive trees surrounding the house and a car parked near the barn didn’t burn. Everything else was incinerated.

The fire at the ranch burned so hot it cracked a large ancient rock formation and splattered it with molten from outdoor aluminum furniture that had literally exploded.

At the gate into Nancy and Peter’s home ranch stood a metal lion sculpture. The heat from the fire melted it down to the ground.
This was all that remained of the house after the Tubbs Fire.

The day after the Tubbs Fire, Peter began planning for the rebuild of the family compound. After three years and months of sheltering because of COVID, Nancy and Peter Lang are living in their new home, with a guest house and two barns on their ranch.

“I made the entry into the house much deeper than it was originally,” Peter says. “The back mimics the front of the house. I tied it together with 32 Moravian stars that hang from the front entry through the living room and out to the pool. There’s a lovely continuity of light and reflection. Moravian stars are interesting in that they were a geometry problem for students in a German college. When they could do the math to make these stars, they would graduate.”

Top of the ranch.

The Langs turned three bedrooms into two adjoining bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and flipped the blueprint to the sunny side of the house. That called for calming colors: quiet beige for Peter, a soft blue for Nancy, with a blue Chihuly-inspired chandelier, a surprise gift from Peter.

As it did before the fire, the new kitchen table (designed and milled by Peter) seats 16, resembling ranch kitchens at the turn of the 19th century when ranch kitchens fed workers and family alike. Nancy wanted something bright and cheerful; she chose yellow for the ceiling and peachy orange for the walls. The kitchen counter is hewn from an age-old walnut tree that had collapsed at Safari West. The pavers on the kitchen floor run throughout the main house and the guest house.

The entrance to the newly rebuilt main house.
32 Moravian stars, hanging from the front entry through the living room and out to the pool, tie everything together.
The back of the house, which mimics the front of the house.

The wrought iron gates connecting the kitchen to the media room were salvaged from an old house in Santa Barbara. They are not only decorative; they isolate the dogs from the rest of the house when they are wet and muddy.

Through the charming gates a turquoise hand-blown Turkish multi-globe chandelier is the center point of a round table that can easily seat six. The zebra-patterned sofa with two side chairs invites relaxation while watching the 72-inch television.

The Turkish chandelier in the family entertainment area.
Peter left no walls between the living room and the family entertainment area.
Peter admiring the red leather couch, which was made in Fiji. “We have yet to sit on it!” exclaims Peter.
Detail of the couch frame.
Peter in his bedroom. Their dogs, Sally and Bigger, always sleep on the bed.
Case in point.
Peter surprised Nancy with a blue Chihuly-inspired chandelier for her bedroom, which leads to the Portico.

Peter admired his former 4,000-square-foot Cliff May inspired home but wanted a 100% change in style and architecture. “I used his footprint and going from a board-and-bat ranch house with a concrete tile roof, I went very Mediterranean. It’s certainly not a hacienda. It’s very low slung, very long. I went to Tecate and selected the tiles. I bought my front doors from a woodworker in Tijuana. So, yes, you’d say there’s a big Mexican influence. Except all that influence is from old European houses.”

The exterior of the house is a sunset gold with teal blue windows and copper gutters. These colors “struck like lightening” when Nancy and Peter were watching a movie filmed in Turkey featuring a house of the same color.

The guest house.
Looking south towards San Francisco. Forever wild land. And breathtaking.
Poolside view of the rolling Sonoma hills.

Peter bought Cantera stone for the columns from a little town north of Guadalajara. The columns, roof tiles and pavers filled eight semi-trucks.

“I left no walls between the living room and the family entertainment area,” Peter says, with wry amusement as he gives a house tour. “You walk through the living room to get to the family area, to get to the kitchen, to get to the outside living room, which we sit in all the time. And we have an outside dining room which we use all the time. The red leather couch in the living room was made in Fiji. We have yet to sit on it.”

The Ranch kitchen. Nancy wanted something bright and cheerful so she chose yellow for the ceiling and peachy orange for the walls.
The kitchen counter was hewn from an age-old walnut tree that had collapsed at Safari West.
The kitchen table, with a dog bowl always near.
Nancy Lang, Connie Wiley, Sharon Levy, Peter Lang, Wendy Miller and Dr. Jay Levy at the table for lunch.
The outdoor dining patio.

“As I was growing up, I always loved gardens,” he recalls, “and my mark of success was going to be when I could afford a full-time gardener. Well, I’ve achieved that. I’ve got several full-time gardeners at Safari West, and here.”

Nancy had envisioned a very long vanishing edge lap pool. When the bid came in at half a million, they rethought the plan and happily put in a rectangular manufactured pool. “The more I looked into it, the more sense it made. I bought the shell through a local dealer. We did the digging, we did all the sanding and the dealer came by to make sure we didn’t do anything wrong,” says Peter.

Peter by the pool, with two of his four rescue dogs.
Nancy swims every evening while the Watusi and Brahman cattle graze in the distance.
The cattle on the drive up to the Lang’s ranch house.

“Everybody needs to truly understand what they are and are not insured for. And the limits of their insurance for a ranch with livestock, in my case Watusi and Brahman cattle, that are totally fenced in. The fence burned down. Would you think that the fences on a ranch were insured? I certainly did. And no, they were not. We had to pull together our staff and fence the property ourselves, as there were no fence contractors immediately available because so many of our neighbors were also rebuilding their homes.”

It is a huge irony that the only object to survive on the ranch was Peter’s 2009 Bentley. “It was sitting near the barn like a sore thumb. There were two wooden-wheeled lumber carts sitting ten feet from it. They were burned to cinders. The Bentley was absolutely fine. I mean, it didn’t even smell of smoke. The windows were up. I still have it. I still drive it.”

Peter in front of his 3000-square-foot barn with his Bentley, the only object on his property to survive the Tubbs Fire of 2007.

In fire-plagued California, Peter naturally thinks about another disaster like the Tubbs Fire. Just this last week the ranch was in the path of the Glass Fire until the wind changed. The air was filled with ash; the air quality index was the worst in the world. Coastal winds have cleared the air, but the threat of fire continues.

Surprisingly, Peter is not worried: “Even a solid concrete structure in the middle of Manhattan is not fireproof. We built under the new fire codes, which are very stringent and make sense. There are no open vents into the attic space — it’s all closed in. Tile roofs, plaster walls and built-in sprinklers, as now required. Same fire, same circumstances, might burn. Might not.”

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