Many proverbs refer to the phenomena of successful people who fail to use their professional skills in their daily lives: “Physician, heal thyself.” “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.” “A plumber’s house always has a dripping tap.” “There are only wooden spoons at a blacksmith’s house.”
This is certainly not the case with the home recently remodeled by respected Carmel Valley contractor Rod de Leon. Granted, it took some time to complete, but the reasons behind the delays had nothing to do with de Leon’s concentration on other obligations, or an unwillingness to work on perhaps more profitable projects. The story of this home is one of calamity and loss, ultimately resolved into triumph, rebirth and the fulfillment of a dream. It’s a tragedy with a happy ending.
His is a quintessential American success story: born in Mexico, de Leon came to Carmel Valley at age 1, settling with his family on the Wolters Ranch. This man is no stranger to hard work. “I started picking lettuce at age 5,” he says, “then worked at a grocery store and Rocky Point Restaurant.” He progressed from dishwasher to cook before his lifelong career path presented itself.
“A bunch of my buddies were working in construction,” the garrulous de Leon says. “I saw they got to be outside all day, so I got interested.” He quickly grasped the trades and earned his contractor’s license. His best friend and partner Howard Buck joined him in founding Buck and de Leon Construction in 1975. Between remodels and ground-up construction, the firm has worked on more than 100 Monterey Peninsula homes.
“We’ve been working with Buck and de Leon for many years,” says Gary Courtwright, AKBD, owner and designer of Carmel Kitchens and Baths. “They’ve always done exemplary work.”
At first glance, this home would seem to be just another remodel of a comfortable but dated Carmel Valley property. The builder and his wife Pam, a well-known Realtor, constructed this home in 1985. It was a typically designed home of the era, functional and cozy, a two-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot structure with a commanding view of Carmel Valley Village and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
By the mid-2000s, the de Leons had amassed a respectable art collection, mainly focused on bold, colorful abstract pieces. So when the couple decided to remodel their home, they spoke to their friend, Big Sur artist Greg Hawthorne, who introduced them to his friend, Cambria-based architect Marshall Lewis, AIA.
“My work is very contemporary,” Lewis says. “That appealed to them. Rod and Pam were compatible in what they wanted and needed. It was like working with one person.”
Work began in 2006 and progressed apace until, like so many other building projects, the economic crunch of 2007-08 put the binders on it. Before work could resume, Pam de Leon was diagnosed with cancer.
“This project was Pam’s dream,” her husband says. Tragically, she didn’t live to see it come to fruition, eventually succumbing to the disease in 2014. Work had resumed, continuing during her illness, but with her passing, her devoted husband was at loose ends.
“I was ready to just give up on it and sell the house,” he says. Then, he met Denise Kuest.
“I was relaxing with friends at Los Laureles Lodge when a mutual friend introduced me to Rod,” Kuest says. She was deeply impressed.
“As he walked away, I told my friend, ‘I’m going to marry that guy.’” The two developed a relationship, and Kuest became instrumental in the completion of the remodeling project.
“I thought it was essential that we fulfill Pam’s vision and fulfill her dream,” she says. She also discovered a talent for interior design.
“I was talking to various designers,” de Leon says, “but it dawned on me that Denise has very good taste and a great eye, so she did it.”
Lewis’ design brought the home’s total area to 3,500 square feet and added a bedroom and comfortable living spaces indoors and out. Perhaps the most impressive change was the expansive kitchen, facilitated by Carmel Kitchens and Baths.
“Pam had definite ideas,” Courtwright says. “She wanted a contemporary look but wanted it to be natural.”
Kuest and de Leon now live in the house. There are a few things still left to do, but they’re progressing nicely. To honor Pam, the couple placed a large black-and-white portrait of the woman who brought this project to life in a prominent spot overlooking the kitchen. “Pam is looking over us,” Kuest says. It’s a safe bet she would be pleased.