Out of the ashes

It took Joe Trela and his former wife, Karen Arthur, nearly 10 years to design and build their home on a small plot of land on Park Point. It took only a few hours for a fire to destroy it last summer.

It took Joe Trela and his former wife, Karen Arthur, nearly 10 years to design and build their home on a small plot of land on Park Point. It took only a few hours for a fire to destroy it last summer.

Without homeowners insurance, restoring the home seemed like an overwhelming burden.

But an outpouring of community support has revitalized the effort, giving the former couple -- still good friends and co-owners of the house -- an unexpected reason to be thankful today.

In 1986, Trela and Arthur moved into a small cabin on Park Point's bayside to be closer to the water. After a couple of years in their small quarters, they learned a neighbor was able to secure a permit to build a house on a similar-sized lot, and they started planning to do the same.

In 1990 they started building their dream house, a geodesic dome.


"The world is round, you know, so we figured we wanted our house to be," Trela said. The layout allows for maximum efficiency and more flexibility for floor plans because internal walls don't need support, he said.

Relying on Trela's handyman skills, construction books and free time outside of Trela's full-time job working at Ski Hut, the couple completed the first dome in 1996 and got a permit to build a second in 1998. By 2000, the same year Arthur and Trela divorced, the framing of the second dome and an arch connecting the two were complete.

As construction dragged on, Trela's homeowner insurance was bumped into a high-risk category, and he let his policy lapse. He was still working to finish the second dome when a fire started July 12 in a sauna on the property.

The fire destroyed the second dome, and the first sustained severe smoke damage. An 11-year-old Labrador mix dog, Jackie, belonging to Trela's and Arthur's daughter died several days later from damage to her nervous system caused by toxins from the smoke.

"It was devastating," Trela said.

Neighbors from the Park Point community Arthur called "a small village" started pitching in immediately. A couple across the street offered a pair of sneakers and a coat to Trela, who ran out of the sauna in swim trunks after the fire started. Another neighbor, who happened to be a veterinarian, helped care for Jackie. One couple let Trela crash at their house while he got things sorted out.

Trela's boss at Ski Hut raffled a bike and donated the proceeds to Trela. He also set up an account at North Shore Bank for people to send donations.

"I'm the type to do stuff like that for other people, like fixing a flat tire for someone on the side of the road or pushing their car out of the snow," Trela said. "It's kind of odd to be on the other shoe. People were giving me $10 out of their own pocket."


Trela thought about selling the property, which probably would have proved a better financial move than trying to restore what the fire left behind, but he said it was hard to walk away.

"It's not like I bought the house," Trela said, pausing to wipe away tears. "I built it."

Trying to balance jobs with the cleanup and restoration of the site has been exhausting. There are days Trela and Arthur feel like throwing in the towel, but the steady stream of support that started moments after the fire continues to trickle in and keep them going.

"It's like a big cheerleading squad saying, 'You can do it,' " Arthur said.

One neighbor, an unfamiliar face to Trela and Arthur before the fire, has devoted five Saturdays to helping at the site. Another donated a Dumpster for the debris from the damaged dome. One couple researched the most effective way to remove soot from the smoke-damaged dome's wood paneling. Another let them tap into her electricity until the wiring in the first dome could be repaired.

"People have come out of the woodwork to respond to this; people wedidn't even know," Arthur said. "For so many people to make room for this chaos in their busy lives and say, 'I can't fix it, but I can do a little piece,' is just amazing to me."

Momentum really started picking up when John Hunn, a mail carrier for Park Point, was on his route.

"To see a neighbor's house go up in flames was pretty traumatic for people," Hunn said. "I was getting a lot of feedback from people saying they were shocked and concerned butdidn't really know what they could do."


Hunn found a solution. He helped organize a spaghetti feed with Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church and St Andrews by the Lake Episcopal Church on Park Point on Saturday. Local businesses donated food and materials and more than 250 people bought tickets to show their support. Nearly $3,000 was raised.

"There are so many people who bought a bike drawing ticket or came to dinner Saturday that we missed as we visited around the room that will remain anonymous," Arthur said. "That's the hard part. You can't even write a thank-you card. There has been no guest book recording the names of all the people who have helped us."

Trela is working to restore the first dome and hopes to have it ready to move back into this summer. He plans to build an addition where the second dome used to stand.

"I'm very grateful," he said.

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at .

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