Publisher: Academy Chicago Publishers
Publication date: 2/14/2012
Eleven years ago, award-winning author and avid junk-collector Ron Tanner and the woman of his dreams, Jill Eicher, fell for a house in a once-grand Baltimore neighborhood. They were encouraged by a for sale sign in the front bay window. Despite holes in the roof, a toppling chimney and “gopher-sized” holes in the backyard, the abandoned Queen Anne would become the find of a lifetime for the pair.
“The Queen Anne was such a wreck, we weren’t sure what we’d find hidden in its many folds and cracks. In stairway crevices we found Indian-head pennies and buffalo nickels. When we took off an original wall shelf in the kitchen, an array of Victoriana rained down: hat pins, a miniature tin mirror, rusted keys, a chewing tobacco wrapper and a cigarette trading card of a pink ibis. When I broke into walls to run electrical cables or peeked into ceilings to make repairs, I kept coming across old patent medicine bottles.”—From Chapter 15, “Our First Summer”
The author of From Animal House to Our House talks with Book Kvetch about love, do-it-yourself renovation and the former fraternity house at 2746 Saint Paul Street.
In Animal House to Our House, you wrote about how the previous fraternity owners “had painted over or removed everything that might have suggested the refinement of an earlier age.” What did you see in Delta Upsilon’s vandalism?
The frat boys’ vandalism—how they painted over the tiles and the woodwork and graffitied the walls—made clear that they didn’t really want an old house. They wanted the space and I suppose they found the antique surroundings a novelty but it seemed obvious that they would have been happier in a warehouse. For several years I was angry at them for what they had done but then I got over it: they were just kids and kids, as we know, do stupid things.
The book is written as memoir. How did being a writer help/hinder the renovation project?
More than a few writer friends have observed that working on the house probably cost me a couple of books due to all of the time I invested in the restoration. And that’s probably true but, despite my desire to write (and it was painful to ignore this), I knew the house would be worth the sacrifice.
Writers have to be comfortable with the unknown because that’s what they do, forge ahead into the unknown of the next page and then the next. So having had this experience as a writer, I was probably in a better frame of mind (than a non-writer) as I forged ahead from one wrecked room to the next, never sure what might come of my efforts.
You write that Jill is fearless, resourceful and “always bargaining or bartering.” What superpowers did you bring to the challenge of renovating a historic home?
Stamina, I guess. I have a tremendous capacity for work. When I’m into it (and, in this case, desperate), I can work for 14-16 hours straight. I’m stubborn too. I just don’t give up. And I like to problem solve, which is really what old-house restoration is all about.
What did you read before taking on the renovation project? What books do you recommend other rehabbers read first?
I’m a big fan of David Owen’s The Walls Around Us: A Thinking Person’s Guide to How a House Works, in which he describes his restoration of an old farmhouse. He has some other cool house-centered books, too. A great resource is The Original Old-House Journal Compendium, which has lots of interesting and arcane knowledge about house restoration.
What resources, people did you turn to after deciding to become historic house rehabbers?
There are now lots of great websites that feature interesting (and awesome) restoration projects. But when we started in 2000, there really wasn’t much online -- the internet was just gaining traction. So we referred mostly to books and magazines, like Old House Journal. And then we took field trips to old house museums and open houses and architectural warehouses. We also conferred with preservationists in Baltimore. Unfortunately, we did a lot of things by trial and error.
That’s one reason why Jill and I run our website, HouseLove.org, in order to share what we’ve learned and, we hope, to help others in similar situations avoid some of the errors.
What kind of advice, welcomed or otherwise, did you receive from family, friends, neighbors?
Early on, nobody—and I mean NOBODY—wanted us to take on this house. The most consistent advice I got from my mentor down the street (he and his partner had been through the same kind of experience) was that it took them twenty years: he was trying to remind me that restoring an old house can’t be done quickly or easily. He was like a geologist trying to explain deep time—you’ve got to take the long view.
For more on Ron Tanner and his books: Kiss Me, Stranger, Bed of Nails and From Animal House to Our House, please visit Ron-Tanner.com and AnimalHouseLoveStory.com.
Category: Nonfiction, Memoir