Less than a mile from his morning haunt, his home of nearly 40 years sits empty, and what’s left of the second story is singed and blistered in the springtime sun. The structure looks like it’s been sliced in half, the upstairs area completely gone except for a handful of charred load-bearing columns arranged in a formation that looks like a sinister Stonehenge. A few rusted yard chairs sit inside this open-air box.
After his morning coffee, Brossard can be found here, sawing, hammering and cleaning, his face glistened with sweat and his ripped jeans and sweatshirt covered with a thin film of soot.
On Sept. 12, 2007, Brossard returned from grocery shopping to find his home on F Street near Fifth Avenue engulfed in flames. Despite his efforts with a garden hose and the speedy arrival of Salt Lake City firefighters, the second story was a complete loss. Three teenagers were implicated in starting the blaze, after lighting a bush on fire nearby. The fire spread to Brossard’s and another home. Today, one of those homes is humming with construction workers and nearly renovated; Brossard’s sits empty.
A wiry man who speaks about himself in choppy, nondescript fragments, Brossard grew up in the Avenues and has lived in Utah nearly all his life, which he summarizes in a characteristically ambiguous manner. He describes earning his living from odd jobs, including construction, remodeling, fence building and house painting. His most notable line of work would be as a freelance tree-trimmer, earning him the well-known nickname “Tree Bob.”
But, while he may have achieved nickname status in his community, Brossard is clearly a lone wolf, referring to himself as an old stick-in-the-mud bachelor. “I’m not exactly a recluse,” he says, “but I spend probably 90 percent of my time on my own, if not more.” He’s unmarried and never had children because, he says, he just wasn’t equipped for them. At 63, he says, “My life has never been normal. Normal isn’t something I strive for. Every day is something new.”
In a life defined by variety, Brossard has found a calming, unchanging constant in his life at his Avenues home, where home-improvement projects have become a primary hobby since he moved in four decades ago. Situated in the middle of a neighborhood block, behind other houses, surrounded by trees and ground cover, the hidden home was a longtime work in progress until the fire.
Brossard had inadequate insurance and, despite neighborhood fund-raisers, he has been unable to cover renovation costs. In the meantime, he’s been living in the home of an acquaintance while waiting to hear from the juvenile court regarding reimbursement from the offending youths’ parents. Despite everything that’s happened, he insists he harbors no ill will toward the boys, who were sent to a Draper-based work program for teens after admitting their role in the arson. Brossard says he is content to wait for the court to do its work.
While he seems indifferent toward the boys, Brossard says he is “profoundly grateful” to the Salt Lake City Fire Department and to his generous neighbors, many of whom would hate to see him out of his home. “It would be a tragedy for Bob not to be living in that house in the Avenues,” a former neighbor said. “He was an integral part of the social fabric of the Avenues, and I was proud to be a neighbor of Bob Brossard.”
Avenues resident Tucker Gurney adds: “Bob is an original character who represents a group of free spirits who have made the Avenues their home. It’s sad to see the charred timbers above Bob’s home and learn that he’s struggling to fix it on his own.”
And Brossard, indeed, aims to fix the home on his own. Having lived there since astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, he is tackling the project in his typically independent and nonchalant style. He has little money to pay someone else for the work, and says he prefers to do things alone.
Brossard says he’s never been a great organizer of other people. “The first few days, the volunteers were really helpful because I had to clear out the house. But now that that’s done, it’s pretty much just me trying to put things back together. I’d rather just do it by myself.”
Given the limited funds and the magnitude of the damage, it might be some time before the Avenues fixture is able to move back. He jokes that if all else fails, he’ll just pack up and move to Hawaii. More than a few residents of the Avenues would be surprised if Brossard made such a move. As one of the few free spirits who remain in the neighborhood, it would seem his roots run too deep for him to bloom on some far-off isle.