When most men fall in love, they buy flowers. Ron Tanner bought a wrecked Victorian row house.
In 1999, Tanner, 58, met and fell under the spell of Jill Eicher, 48. Though Tanner wasn’t looking to buy a home, much less one that would require a Herculean effort to make livable, he was smitten with a woman who shared his passion for old things. Six months into their courtship, he made the grand (some might say “mad”) gesture of purchasing a property in Charles Village that had been destroyed by its fraternity tenants. As he says at the start of his new memoir, From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story (released last month by Academy Chicago Publishing) that catalogs the renovation: “I didn’t want the house. But I wanted Jill. And clearly Jill wanted the Queen Anne.”
Anyone who has a love of old homes and restoration will appreciate Tanner’s tome. However, the book is more than just a DIY diary. In it, Tanner, a professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland, reveals much about his own life. He’s candid about his relationship with his deceased father, his notions of love, and how they led him to two divorces prior to Jill, as well as the ups and downs of trying to woo a woman while in the throes of an epic, bank-busting restoration project.
“The book had to get personal to make the sense it needed to make,” Tanner says. “I wished it could be much easier to write—the Mr.-Blandings-Builds-His-Dream-House story—but my story is more complicated than that.”
To understand why the house was such a crazy and cathartic exercise for Tanner and Eicher, who married in 2003, it helps to go back to the beginning of their story. When the couple first stumbled upon the house, Eicher saw potential and the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of renovating an old house. “I could see that it was beautifully made,” she recalls. “It had high ceilings, parquet floors, a nice floor plan, nice light because it was a corner house, lots of fireplaces. And the original bones hadn’t been changed. It seemed perfect to me.”
An end-of-row house built in 1897 with a dramatic turret, it also boasts a three-story back porch, a walled garden, and a garage. One family had inhabited the home for years, so the original integrity of the Queen Anne design was largely intact. That is, until a fraternity purchased the house from an unscrupulous speculator after the previous owners died.
In Animal House, Tanner describes the appalling condition in which the fraternity—named as Delta Upsilon—left the house. There was no electric or plumbing hooked up. The backyard was a thriving rat habitat. The floors had water damage and the roof needed repair. All 35 windows needed replacing. There was, of course, the expected frat horrors, like graffiti on the walls, a massive bar in the basement, and rooms piled high with garbage and old furniture. There were unexpected horrors, though, like a five-gallon bucket full of human excrement. The kitchen had no ceiling, and the fireplace mantels had been stolen. Wood doors had been used for target practice.
But of the litany of grievances Tanner and Eicher could list against the frat, Tanner says the most egregious was the systemic destruction, via baseball bat, Tanner guesses, of the 72 hand-turned balusters on the staircase.
“It was an act of unreasonable, idiotic violence,” says Tanner. “They were willful in their destruction. They didn’t wear [the house] down, they went after it.”
Neighbors who had undertaken lesser renovations told the couple it would take them a lifetime to refurbish the house, but Tanner thought he could do it in five years and win Eicher’s heart in the process. He sunk all his savings into the house when he purchased it in 2000, meaning most of the work would have to be done on a shoe-string budget by he and Eicher. Neither were experienced DIYers, and their relationship was only months old.
“One of my weaknesses is I’m impulsive,” states Tanner. “Given the opportunity, I’ll do something grand and stupid. It’s the dreamer’s mentality that one grand gesture will make everything go how you want it to go.”
Of course, nothing went according to plan. Tanner’s pathological devotion to the house put his relationship with Eicher on the skids; he worked himself to near exhaustion, and careless work habits gave both of them lead poisoning (from which they’ve recovered). The delusion of a grand Christmas with Tanner’s family, retold in ill-fated detail in the book, led to a holiday fête to rival National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
“I never thought this house was a poor choice. What scared me was learning my husband-to-be was manic,” says Eicher with a chuckle. “He was so driven, he would be up working until 3 A.M.”
Although the couple, who married in 2003, was able to move in early in the renovation, it has taken almost a decade to make it the house they dreamed of when they first stood in the dark, cold, dirty gloom of their purchase.
In the book, Tanner reveals his novice mistakes with everything from electrical wiring to paint-stripping tools—for example, left untended, heated paint strippers will set things on fire—and the knowledge the couple has accrued from doing it themselves.
In the wake of the renovation, Tanner has become a certified home inspector and, together, the couple runs a website, houselove.org, dedicated to sharing their experience and helping others renovate.
On the site, they offer tips for “staying together when your house is torn apart.” One such tip is to know your role: In their home, Tanner emerged as the big-picture guy, the man with the roller who paints the whole room, while Eicher is the detail person, the one who can clean antique door hardware for hours with a Q-tip. And, when Tanner gets swept up in fantasies of instant gratification, Eicher is the voice of reason reminding him to slow down and take his time on a project.
More importantly, the house taught them about themselves as individuals, not just as a couple. For Tanner, the experience connected him with his father, who died when he was young. “He was the quintessential do-it-yourselfer,” says Tanner. “Not a day goes by working on the house that I don’t think of my father. To work with my hands is to work with my father.” Although he’s still impulsive, he’s learned restraint and patience, too.
“I gained a sense of perspective that good things might take longer than you want and that’s okay,” he states. “I have a greater fund of humility because a project like this tests you in ways that few things do. It makes you more humble, reasonable, and patient, which carries over into other things.”
Eicher discovered a wealth of competence she never knew she possessed. “I didn’t have a sense of myself as a person who could take on a project, learn how to do it, just figure it out, and get it done,” she says. “I didn’t realize that boldness to trust my instincts and go with it was in me.” The process made her more confident asserting herself in her relationship with Tanner, who, in turn, learned to be a better listener.
With their house now a cozy abode that they share with their numerous pets, Eicher and Tanner enjoy touring the city and looking wistfully at other old manses in Baltimore, many now located in some of the city’s besieged neighborhoods and in danger of falling into permanent decay. Together, they haunt flea markets, auctions, and antique shops, always on the lookout for the perfect new piece for the house. It took five years, for instance, to acquire all the bits and pieces needed to furbish their recently completed Victorian library, an exquisite bibliophile’s retreat.
When asked to explain the take-away message of the book, surprisingly, Tanner doesn’t even mention renovation tips. Instead, he says the book is about learning to be less judgmental and uses himself as an example.
“If you meet someone who’s been married three times, the answer to why that happened may not be as simple as you think. No one wants to have been married three times,” he says. “It applies to the house, too. People didn’t understand what we were going after. They thought we were crazy.”
“If there’s one thing I understand,” he writes in his book, “from my own setbacks and challenges—including work on our old house—it’s that nobody on the outside can fully understand what you’re going through on the inside.”