From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story

From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story

by Ron Tanner


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Eleven years ago, Ron and Jill, then his girlfriend of six months, discovered the house of their dreams: a landmark Victorian row house that had belonged to a notorious fraternity in Baltimore. Unfortunately, it was now a condemned, abandoned property. But Jill wanted the house and Ron wanted Jill. Beyond the wall-to-wall graffiti, collapsed fireplaces and banisters, and three dumpsters worth of trash, the couple envisioned this as their future dream home. So Ron bought the 4,500-square-foot ruin, despite the fact that neither Ron nor Jill knew anything about home renovation, and that the project might ruin them both financially and emotionally. A book for lovers, dreamers, and do-it-yourselfers, From Animal House to Our House recounts Ron and Jill’s decade-long adventure in house restoration, offering inspiration, insight, and hilarity as they hammer away at the American dream of home ownership and true love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780897337205
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Pages: 287
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Ron Tanner is currently the director of engineering for Novell's Management Products Group. He has been the lead engineering manager for the ZENworks Project since its inception.

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From Animal House to Our House

A Love Story

By Ron Tanner

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Ron Tanner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-720-5



My girlfriend Jill and I first saw the big brick Victorian brownstone in December 1999. It was in an old Baltimore neighborhood and had sat abandoned for nearly a year. It was such a wreck that most prospective buyers walked in, took one look, then promptly walked out. The place had been owned by a notorious fraternity for one riotous decade. We didn't know this at the time. You couldn't tell from the outside how bad the inside was. Three stories tall, made of pumpkin-colored brick, with three bays on every floor and a witch's cap tower at its foremost corner, the house was the jewel of the block — or had been. It seemed the kind of place that might have grand rooms, secret passageways, and ghosts.

Jill and I love old houses and had started looking for one just a month after we began dating. This is not to say that Jill had agreed to live with me. She wasn't nearly as impulsive as I. She had agreed to nothing more than helping me look for a place and, if need be, fix it up. But it sounded like, it felt to me like, she had agreed to move in with me. This kind of wishful thinking has made me a disaster in matters of the heart. A few years before I met Jill, my second marriage had crashed and burned after a bumpy flight of only four years. I then promised myself I'd never again rush headlong into love.

But, before the divorce papers were signed, I had already moved in with a woman who was, apparently, as crazy as I. We lasted two volatile years and then she kicked me out. I congratulated myself on not having asked her to marry me. By the time I met Jill, I thought I had grown fairly cautious. But the facts don't lie: I knew I'd buy a house — any house — if Jill would agree to move in with me.

I was certain I loved her. In fact, I had already taken her to meet my mother — a critically important step for Southern families. Jill was gracious and charming and my mother was relieved that this time, maybe, I had gotten it right. Although Jill had never been married, she did not judge me for my two previous failures. At thirty-five, she was old enough to understand how things go wrong. She herself had recently ended a thirteen-year relationship with a man who had commitment issues. I joked with Jill that she would have no commitment problems with me. Jill likes a good joke. She is a smart-aleck, a wise-cracker.

Another trait that attracted me to Jill was her sense of adventure. She seemed game for just about anything. One afternoon, as we drove past a Dumpster brimming with junk, she said, "Turn around! Did you see the cool stuff in that Dumpster?" We spent nearly an hour digging around in the trash and came away with some huge old windows. Never mind that we had no house to put them in. Both of us were avid junk collectors, stockpiling lights and corbels and hinges and all kinds of things we hoped to install in a grand old manse someday. Already we were sharing a dream. I was crazy about her.

It was late afternoon when I took her to see the house I had found. Unlike other historic neighborhoods we had visited, this one seemed fairly safe. Anyone from Baltimore will tell you, ours is a city of neighborhoods — meaning a two-block walk can take you into a very different place. I had driven through this neighborhood plenty of times. Saint Paul Street was the nicest it had to offer, a canyon of once-grand and still impressive three-story row houses. I feared it'd be too pricey for me.

I made a modest income as a college writing instructor, I had no savings; in fact, my last divorce had nearly bankrupted me, and I was leasing a car. If I could get a loan for a house, it wouldn't be much of a loan. This house — the mystery house, we called it — looked bigger than anything I could ever afford. This only made me want it more. This could be a peculiarly American inclination, to go for the thing that will certainly ruin you. I'd done it in romance, why not do it in real estate too?

It was early December and very cold, the sidewalks deserted. The snow hadn't arrived yet but was due any day now, the sky muddied with clouds. "Holy cow!" Jill said when we pulled up to the house. "Why is this thing still on the market?"

Who could say? It was winter; it was an old house in an old neighborhood. Maybe nobody had noticed the small for sale sign in the window of the front bay. "A tower — the house has a tower!" Jill gaped in wonder. I was thrilled that she was thrilled. It was as if I had hunted down a mastodon and brought it back to the cave for my mate. The old Queen Anne might as well have been a mastodon, it was so unusual, so antique, and so frigging big.

Up to this point, nothing much in my life had gone according to plan. I had made so many wrong turns, I couldn't say where I'd end up next. I'm the youngest of my mother's three sons, the one who never quite fit in. "You always pick the hard way," she would tell me. For the past ten years she'd been saying, "Why don't you just do something in business?" I heard this always as an insult, so much so that I never asked what kind of business. My mother's advice was another way of saying, "Just stop doing what you're doing because it's not working." Privately I said to myself, "I'm a late bloomer, what's wrong with that?" But I couldn't deny that now was the time to make something stick. Buying a house would anchor me. And it would keep Jill in town. A few years earlier, she had followed her boyfriend to Baltimore from Detroit. When she ended their long-troubled relationship, she seriously considered returning to the Midwest. Then she met me.

"This place is huge!" she exclaimed. She yanked at the padlocked bicycle chain wrapped around the big brass pulls of the double doors. "I guess nobody's home?"

"Probably belonged to an old lady who died," I said.

Jill peered through the beveled glass of the double front doors. Just inside the locked doors was the vestibule, then another door: a big generic slab that blocked our view of the interior.

Unlike the brownstones farther downtown, this one had a small front yard of weeds and a perimeter of ivy strangling the rusty remnants of the original knee-high iron fence. The massive front steps were red sandstone. The windows of the tower bay were as tall and wide as doors. Standing on tip-toes and cupping our faces to one huge window, we peeked through a gap of the papered-over windows; we could see cheap furniture and high ceilings and one room that opened into another and then another. We saw on the most distant wall — surprisingly far away — a bold blue and gold fraternity insignia painted above the hole of a ruined fireplace. A stop sign tacked to a nearer wall caught the waning light from the bay's transom windows and glowed like a warning: STOP. Strewn across the dirty wood floor were shards and lengths of wood, disgorged plastic bags of fast food, tangles of dirty clothing, gutted sofa cushions, a few shutter panels from the windows, overturned office chairs, orange traffic cones ... What had happened here?

As we walked around to the rear, in the cold shadow of the building's brick expanse, the house seemed to go back a long way. The place was so big, I could hardly imagine handling it, much less owning it. It'd be like owning a whale as pet. "Can you believe this?" Jill said, running ahead. "Maybe we can get in through the basement."

The backyard was brick-walled on the street side. The wall extended sixty feet or more and had two decaying wood gates. We entered through the first and were surprised by the mess. The junk-cluttered yard was on its way to becoming a dump. There was so much lumber and broken furniture crammed under the porch, it'd take half a day to pull it out. We inspected the waterless hot tub and its load of garbage: a beer keg, a rusted seatless bar stool, a narrow cabinet with a louvered door, pulpy cardboard boxes, and other dark things we weren't going to touch. Curiously, the weedy yard was riddled with heel-sized holes: moles, we decided. Or gophers. Yard work? We could do that. Neither of us imagined that these were rat holes.

Behind us stood a defeated-looking dogwood tree on one side of the yard and a tangle of old rose bushes hunkered on the other. The wood fence between us and the neighbor's yard was slumped under the weight of a long mound of ivy. Rats, I would learn, love to nest under ivy. At the far end of the yard was the brick carriage house. It was so large that it had a small chimney. Its windows had long been broken out and boarded over. Had we gone inside the garage we would have found sixteen empty beer kegs piled next to a four-foot-tall dirty-white heap of Victorian tile — the ruin of the house's master bathroom.

But it didn't occur to us to enter the garage. We were distracted by the house's three-story wooden porch. It had once been glorious, with its multi-mullioned windows mounted in sliding wooden frames as big as garage doors. But now, its green paint was faded nearly to a pale blue and its striped canvas awning hung in shreds like the flag of a long-ago defeated people. Many of its old, wavy-glass windows were broken.

The basement door was locked. So we hiked up the rickety porch stairs and gaped at the furniture and garbage on the other side of the glass. The porch door was padlocked — not that anyone could have opened it, so much junk inside was pushed up against it. Among the porch clutter we saw a big Deco-chromed 1940s refrigerator — maybe this was the original. Was the house filled with similar treasures?

This much was clear to me now: the house would go cheap. And no, it hadn't belonged to an old lady, at least not recently.

When I was a child, one of my biggest, private thrills was to come upon a gumball machine that had gone haywire and would, for a penny, keep on giving. I'd turn the key again and again, gumballs dropping into my palms until my pockets and cheeks were bulging. Why hadn't anyone emptied the machine before me? I'd wonder. Such magical moments helped me believe that luck is possible, that amazing things can happen — even to me. Finding this old house was a similar thrill. Maybe we had hit the jackpot.

A more cynical person would have had other thoughts. It didn't occur to me to worry about the condition of the house or all the work that this wrecked behemoth would demand. I had never done carpentry. I knew nothing about wiring or plumbing or plastering. In eighth grade woodshop, I had earned a "C" for making a pathetic, lopsided box as my final project. I had no patience for plans. I had no tolerance for the painstaking care our shop teacher demanded of us.

All I could think of now, as Jill and I gaped at the backside of this grand old place, was that I'd lucked out and found both the woman and the house of my dreams and, if I played my cards right, I'd win both.



It took a week of phone calls to reach "Imperial Realty," which was selling the abandoned house. They weren't listed in the phone book. And the man I talked to didn't sound eager enough to be a realtor. He gave me the phone number of someone in the neighborhood who would show us the house. That someone was Rick, a short fellow with a silver mustache, a slight underbite, and sympathetic eyes. Jill and I met him on a misty December morning in front of the old house. Hatless, he was wearing a navy peacoat, like an old sailor. His ruddy cheeks suggested that he'd been standing in the cold for a while.

"I'm not a realtor," he announced jovially. "I'm just a concerned neighbor." Then, smiling from me to Jill, he added, "You two will do just fine!"

I was pleased that he thought us acceptable. But I was anxious to know what was going on. If Imperial Realty wasn't a realty company and Rick wasn't a realtor, maybe the house wasn't what it seemed.

"You're not the owner?" I asked.

"I assigned myself caretaker," Rick explained. He unlocked the chain around the door handles, then pocketed the padlock and pushed open the eight-foot-tall double doors. "Vandals were ruining this lovely Queen Anne. Oh, the things they stole!"

I exchanged a worried glance with Jill. It seemed we were about to witness the scene of an accident — a twelve-car pileup, say. Would there be blood? I credit my morbid curiosity to having grown up with two older brothers who enjoyed collecting animal bones and insect carcasses. They were fearless explorers. You couldn't keep them out of a cave or an abandoned house or a sewage tunnel, for that matter. Always, I tagged along.

Before going farther, Rick turned to face us. Breathlessly, he explained that the house had been owned for ten years by a fraternity. The fraternity had bought it — at top dollar — from a speculator who had bought it — for a fraction of its value — from Miss Wilson, who had lived in the house for sixty-eight years.

"When the fraternity bought it," he continued, "the Queen Anne was in original condition. You walked into this house, and you walked right back into 1897!" Rick swallowed, then regarded us with dewy-eyed regret. "What they've done to our Queen Anne is a tragedy." He could have been talking about the abrupt death of a loved one.

We were standing in the vestibule. Its oak paneling was painted bright blue, the fraternity's official color. I supposed I could live with a blue vestibule or repaint it. The terra cotta tiles underfoot were loose but all appeared to be present. There was no light fixture dangling from the exposed wire overhead.

It can't be that bad, I wanted to say. I was jittery for reasons I would not have been able to explain at the time. I was thinking that if the house was truly a horror show, then I would be off the hook and Jill and I would laugh about it later and shake our heads in disbelief: Did you see ...? Can you believe ...? Oh my god! I realize now that some part of me sensed that once I walked in, I would never walk out — that is, I'd be a changed man, maybe a trapped man.

Rick pushed open the red hollow-core door before us and the house opened up like Ali Baba's cave. The twelve-foot ceilings made the place look enormous. My first guess was that they were fifteen feet high. "No," Rick corrected with a knowing smile, "just twelve."

The main staircase, with its massive mahogany banister, was just a few yards beyond the vestibule: in a straight line, its oak stairs rose gradually, pausing at a landing midway.

The floor just inside the doorway looked ruined beyond repair. The wood was black. "Water damage," Rick noted. "Nobody wiped their feet."

The floor was oak parquet throughout the first level — 1,200 feet of it, all the way back to the kitchen. "This was the builder's house," Rick announced, "so it's wider than the rest and has some special features." In this case wider meant twenty feet instead of eighteen or sixteen. The true measure of a row house, though, is in its depth. The rooms of the Queen Anne opened one after the other for a depth of seventy feet.

To our right were two huge pocket doors, which miraculously were still in place and working, though the pulls and latches had been stolen. Through these was the living room, which featured the tower's big, circular bay. The Queen Anne had two other bays on each floor, which added considerable space and light. I favored the tower's bays because they brought to mind a ship's wheelhouse, an impression reinforced by the first floor's elevation over the sidewalk. Because it was narrow and long, the house reminded me of an old steamer run aground. Did I want a shipwreck?

The living room fireplace had no mantel and its remaining tile had been painted black. Apparently, the frat boys had painted over or removed everything that might have suggested the refinement of an earlier age. I recalled how, when I was twelve, I had put some of my mother's antiques in my bedroom — like the butter churn from her mother's farm — but painted peace symbols and stars on them to make them look less antique. I suspect that children fear old things because old things have a certain power that new things don't. Age gives them a history. Painting an old piece of furniture — or vandalizing it in some way — seems to neutralize the power of that history. The Queen Anne was evidence of this at every turn.


Excerpted from From Animal House to Our House by Ron Tanner. Copyright © 2013 Ron Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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