A Manhattan Beach couple and their three children rebuild their dream home after a targeted, devastating fire. With the help of a local designer and community support, they prove they are here to stay.
Photographed by Lauren Pressey
Earlier this year on February 4, Ronald Clinton, a pharmacist in West Los Angeles, awoke at 2:30 a.m. to a loud, disturbing noise at the front door of his three-story Manhattan Beach home. Soon after, he shockingly discovered the front door was ablaze and smoke was rapidly entering the house that he shared with his wife, Malissia, senior vice president and general counsel at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo (she was away on a business trip in Washington, D.C.), their three children, Malissia’s mother and their dog, Snow.
The house was vacated, and the fire department extinguished the fire, which was confined to the front door. It had been randomly set near the front porch with what appeared to be gasoline and a tire. After making sure everyone was safe, the police were cautious to identify a motive. For the Clintons, one of the few African-American families in the neighborhood, the answer was pretty clear: a hate crime.
In the months to follow, the investigation by police, fire department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and even FBI continued, as well as lingering questions: “Why?” and “Who would do this?” The Clintons, who have lived in Manhattan Beach for more than a decade (and in this house in the Hill Section for more than a year) didn’t have any known enemies.
“There was no other reason for us to be targeted, so we strongly believe race was the motive,” says Malissia. “We had some weird events occur since we moved to our street in January 2014, such as someone dumping one to two dozen ‘whip-its’ in front of our walkway, and another time when we came home and found trash strewn in our walkway. We didn’t put two and two together until the fire.”
Their three children, Machai, 15, Rachel, 13, and Roi, 10, had a lot of friends. It was this fact, along with community support including a vigil held for the family and generous donations, that convinced the Clintons not to move out of town.
“The community gave us so much love, and we literally received hundreds of texts. A lot of people said, ‘You’ve got to stay,’ and ‘We want to help you rebuild.’ After that outpouring of support and in the face of all of that, we said, ‘Nope, we’re staying,’” says Malissia. “My grandfather was the founder of the NAACP in Arizona, and I grew up learning to fight. We refused to be run out of town.”
From that moment on, the family began the long and arduous task of rebuilding the house that had endured tremendous smoke damage and water damage as a result of the efforts to extinguish the fire. “We moved into a hotel for a few weeks, and then into a rental home so that the kids could continue to go to school,” adds Malissia. “We knew that we wanted to stay in Manhattan Beach and looked exclusively here.”
After a long search for a short-term lease, they ended up renting a home on The Strand owned by a Los Angeles Kings player. At the same time, the Clintons were busy working on their own revamp and restoration with the help of local designer Rebecca Foster, owner of Manhattan Beach–based firm Rebecca Foster Design.
“I was feeling overwhelmed, and I knew I needed help from a designer and wanted a ‘beach-Afro-chic’ look,” says Malissia, who had three designers, including Rebecca, bid on the project. “She gave me the most affordable bid. I had no idea she was a decorator, and I found out by coincidence.” The two briefly knew each other, and their daughters Rachel and Mia had been friends in school.
“When I first walked in the house, it made you just want to cry,” says Rebecca, recalling the initial moment she saw the post-fire damage in May. “There was broken glass and smoke damage all the way into the back, and the entire house had black soot front to back. It was really sad. Here you saw this house that they had to abandon in the middle of the night, and when you put it in context and really look back at how it started and when she and I first met and started the planning process, it was a leap of faith. So the fact that they are now home for the holidays, it’s a pretty remarkable feat and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Rebecca, who abided by a strict budget to assist with everything from the tile to the paint, hardwood and flooring, window treatments and light fixtures, admits the three-month project became a six-month project, but the design decisions were all relatively easy. “She had a clear vision, and she knew what she wanted,” adds Rebecca, of the existing oak floors they had stained a light grey color, updated bathrooms and fixtures, and paint colors ranging from crisp white to light grey.
“When they bought the house last year, they knew they wanted to eventually remodel it, but they weren’t expecting to do it so soon,” she says of the original 6,000-square-foot Mediterranean home outfitted with dark wood floors. All of the furniture and accessories throughout the house (not part of the design budget) were chosen by Malissia and purchased at Horchow, Living Spaces and even Costco.
“The bones are the same, but it’s a completely dif-ferent house,” adds Malissia, who has an extensive art collection ranging from pieces procured from a semester abroad in South Africa to four Leroy Campbell lithographs that line the downstairs hallway, to large-scale colorful watercolors by her uncle, artist Jerome Cooksey.
“I don’t like monochromatic,” she states. “I wanted to walk in and have it be different so that the color from the art reflects against the grey and whites of the house. For me, a room should have a mood and tell a story.”
Indeed, each room in the house now does. In the foyer, a five-tiered recycled glass chandelier from Currey and Company flanks the entrance fashioned with wood-like ceramic tile and two tall potted plants that lost all of their leaves after the fire.
“My favorite part of the house is the new entryway,” says Ronald. “We raised the ceilings and had a custom, 10-foot door made with dark oak and large glass panes. Now we are very pleased with the amount light coming in. I also love our gate. It is very decorative and adds an extra level of security.”
Upstairs the formal dining room shows off Malissia’s personal touches, with a capiz shell chandelier, a dark mahogany dining table, a mirrored sideboard and an ikat-patterned rug she found at Costco. “We all have Sunday dinner here,” she says. “Everyone is so busy during the week, and I insist upon it.”
To the left of the dining room is the living room, appointed with a creme-colored sofa, an area rug from Costco, turquoise urns and a pair of modern, navy wingback chairs backed with a circular pattern from Living Spaces. A new bar area painted white and topped with Carrara marble brightens up the space, while a dual fireplace façade is lined with glass tile in a chevron pattern from Imperial Tile & Stone in Anaheim.
“I like glass, and that became a joke with Rebecca and me,” laughs Malissa. “We changed the house top to bottom, and this was a big deal. To say anything else would be an understatement.”
For the kitchen, Rebecca resurrected existing dark wood cabinets with a fresh grey glaze to create an olive-grey hue and a woodgrain effect. She kept the existing dark marble countertops and chose a new, modern backsplash.
“I love the kitchen,” says Malissia. “I like that we were able to weave in that marble countertop.” A small, glass-topped dining table from a modern furniture store on Hawthorne Boulevard and chairs from Pier 1 Imports serve as an informal dining space on busy school nights.
Now that they have moved back into the house, it’s clear that everyone is happy with the final results. “The thing that’s interesting about the house—as a designer—is that I get hired to make people’s dreams come true. And I think what was really fun about the project is that they took this tragedy and turned into something that they all love,” says Rebecca, who also admits she is inspired by Malissia and the entire family.
“She doesn’t want to talk about the past and doesn’t want to dwell on it, Rebecca continues. “And that’s a testament to the community and for people to see that the community rallied around them, and that they triumphed from it. To me, that’s the special part of the piece and the fact that they could do it. For many people, I think it would be too hard to go back.”
“Having a new home has given us a sense of spiritual renewal,” says Ronald.
“It’s been a long journey, but I feel so liberated, and now that everything is done, I feel so relieved,” adds Malissia. But she also reveals they haven’t exactly stopped seeking answers. “I haven’t given up on who did this. We practice just going on with our lives, and that’s what keeps us going.”
The Palos Verdes Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and Palos Verdes Sunset Rotary Club presented the Salute to Business Awards during a gala in Rancho Palos Verdes. Four outstanding businesses and one non-profit organization were honored for their achievements in 2009. During the event, the 2010 PVP Chamber of Commerce Officers and Board of Directors were also installed. Photos by Hal Lazar.