OAKLAND -- It's a long way from Spain's Basque Country to Oakland, but that's just one leg of the journey traveled by former Dimond District resident Martin Zabaleta.
Zabaleta's stops along the way included the summits of Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga, the world's three highest mountains.
In 1980, he became the first Spanish citizen to summit the world's highest peak, a description that would undoubtedly rankle Zabaleta since his national allegiance and pride are 100 percent Basque. His placement of the Basque separatist flag at Everest's summit a mere five years after the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is proof enough of this.
Soon after his Everest success, Zabaleta relocated to the United States with his recently wed American wife and they moved into her 110-year-old, brown shingle home on Dimond Street. My unlikely friendship with him grew out of need when he was looking for work. My partner and I hired him on the spot after asking ourselves, "How could a man who had just scaled Mount Everest be anything but solid?"
With scant knowledge of the English language but with a heart and lungs as big as a house, our instincts proved correct when after only 18 months, he was keeping up with and surpassing veteran carpenters on our team.
When Zabaleta turned his attention to making improvements to his new home, he adapted the difficult and demanding Japanese-inspired timber framing and joinery techniques that he had been exposed to on our projects.
The result was a sleek old growth redwood post and beam sleeping alcove that blended seamlessly with the Craftsman character of the home. Each piece was polished with a traditional Japanese hand plane, which causes the wood to glisten in ways no fine sandpaper can match. It takes most carpenters who attempt to use this tool many years to master its arcane personality, but Zabaleta wielded it like a master right out of the gate. Years later, I came to realize that his affinity for timber framing was part of his DNA.
In 1989, my wife and I, along with eight other Bay Area friends, made our first foray into the Basque Country of northern Spain guided by what turned out to be a national hero.
Mountaineering in the Basque Country is akin to baseball, football and basketball combined. Imagine a stroll in your local village square accompanied by a Barry Bonds, Joe Montana or Magic Johnson and you get the idea. Word gets out and the locals descend. The cascade of invitations to dine and drink were impossible to honor, although we made a reasonable effort on more than one occasion. It was made easier by the legendary Basque cuisine, matched only by the elegance of nearby Rioja's flagship tempranillo red wine.
Long days spent trekking in the footsteps of an accomplished mountaineer in his own backyard, the Pyrenees mountain chain can be taxing, to say the least. But every day was met with breathtaking beauty and rest in the small villages tucked into a soft landscape that exude warmth and comfort cultivated over hundreds, if not, thousands of years. Sheep roam even the high passes, seemingly left to their own devices, and brawny sheds and shepherd huts made of stone and timber dot the landscape. Dirt floors prevail and one doesn't distinguish between the resting place of either man or beast.
Many years have passed since that adventure and Zabaleta has since remarried. He currently resides in Bozeman, Montana, where he climbs rock walls and frozen waterfalls as often as he possibly can. He and his wife and daughter live in a three-story, Eastlake-style Victorian built impossibly from brick, top to bottom.
Inside, Martin gutted several rooms and introduced a two-story vaulted stairwell of his own design. Its framed out of dimensioned pine timbers that reach to the roof where light is let in through attic dormers and a Tudor-style turret in one corner. He oversaw a group of untested local craftsmen who had to learn the painful art of "do-over" more than once along the way. It's a solid assemblage and the finished result is impressive.
In September 2013, a small group of old friends from our early building days, ventured back to the Basque Country to meet Zabaleta in a small village named Betelu in the heart of the Basque Country, known as Euskadi. It's here that Zabaleta spends time each year reacquainting himself with his country and people. It was a wonder to witness our friend among his own and speaking in his native tongue. The Basque language bears no resemblance to any of the neighboring Latin languages, or any other language for that matter. It was outlawed during the Franco years but is now taught in school and is being reclaimed by a new generation of Basques.
True to his quiet devotion to place and once again plugging into his latent builder's intuition, several years ago, Zabaleta found a dilapidated, 300-year-old farmhouse which was hardly more than a pile of stone and rotten wood, and proceeded to rebuild it from the ground up. That at least, is the short story. The long one entails a Byzantine building code in the Basque Country and officials of every stripe who provided enough obstacles to give a San Francisco-based architect and builder a sense of relief. However, Martin was undaunted and employed the kind of resolve that got him to the top of the world's highest summits. He would build his house and he would build it his way.
We finally came to see and realize that this is what he's been trying to express all along. His forays into Japanese-influenced Arts and Crafts architecture and American Rocky Mountain timber construction were just preludes to his finely wrought traditional Basque vision. His lower-story stone walls are not mere veneers. They extend into the home's interior and receive a coating of hand troweled lime plaster painted in warm pastels.
The hefty timbers that frame the upper floors and second story are improbably Douglas fir, which was introduced to France in the mid-19th century. The half-timbered infill is locally fired red clay brick, a common feature in many European architectural vernaculars. But here there is a truthfulness of materials that sets the home apart from many of its western imitators. The doors and window openings are crowned with massive old growth oak lintels, salvaged from nearby barns and farmhouses. Each is scooped from one end to the other on the interior forming an eye-pleasing curvilinear surface. They're oiled and polished to a dark rich patina. Once again, Zabaleta challenged the local craftsman in ways I'm sure they won't soon forget.
A shared passion for fine home building grew and formed the core of a friendship that now spans three decades and several continents. And so it was that in two weeks time, our small band of Western bred tradespeople, bore witness to the act of a man coming home to the place that he belongs.
In Euskadi, the Basque house is the axis upon which all life revolves. The people belong to it, not the other way around. In the cradle of the Basque Country and in the stout, hand-built home of Martin Zabaleta -- mountaineer, builder and family man -- a sense of history and safe passage to the future prevails.
Blake Gilmore, of Montclair, has been involved in residential construction for more than 40 years and a general contractor for 30 years. His specialty is recycling (renovating and remodeling) the existing housing stock of single-family homes in the greater Bay Area. He has twice been awarded Preservation Awards for his work by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.