House love, in Charles Village and on the road

Writer and teacher Ron Tanner found his dream house in a great Baltimore neighborhood. The only problem was that it was in terrible shape, full of garbage, and condemned by the city.

Ron Tanner and Jill 

In 1999, writer and teacher Ron Tanner found the kind of house that he’d dreamed of owning, a 4,500-square-foot brownstone in a great Baltimore neighborhood. But the condemned house was in terrible shape — its many beautiful features painted over, broken, or stolen. It was also full of garbage left behind by its most recent occupants, a notoriously rowdy fraternity. Affording the renovation was going to be dicey, and Ron would only have six months to bring the house up to code. But his new girlfriend, Jill, loved the house, and Ron loved Jill. So he bought the place, intending to do much of the repair work himself, with Jill’s help — even though he had no experience.

Amazingly, they did what they had set out to do, and in 2003, Ron and Jill got married in the house. The brownstone was featured in This Old House in 2008. Ron tells the story of the renovation and the romance in From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story. It’s a delightful book — fun to read but honest about the emotional, physical, and financial trials the couple endured as they brought the house back to life.

As anyone who reads the book quickly learns, Ron can’t resist a challenge. This past spring he embarked on a 66-city book tour, traveling in a van that he DIY’ed into a camper. We went to hear Ron read from the book at our local Barnes & Noble back in March. He was testing out the van then, still tinkering and adding things to it. It looked cool, but I was glad I wasn’t going to be sleeping in it all summer.

I recently checked in with Ron via e-mail to talk about his neighborhood and to see how the book tour is going.

Tanner house From Animal House to Our House

NEIGHBORISTA!: Tell me about the neighborhood in which your house is situated. Were you intentionally looking for something in that particular neighborhood or was it the house alone that captivated you?

Ron Tanner: I never thought I’d be able to afford a house in Charles Village. We were amazed that anything was available on the main thoroughfare.

Charles Village is diverse and active. This is the neighborhood that turned a decommissioned library branch into a community learning center. We’re so active, in fact, that our city council and state representatives really listen to us. A few years ago, the American Planning Association named Charles Village one of America’s great neighborhoods.

So, yes, we were very excited to get the house here.

N!: When you were buying the house, you imagined that the neighbors would be so grateful that they would all pitch in to help. I love that you thought of yourself as a kind of neighborhood hero and that things didn’t pan out as you’d envisioned. Were there neighbors who offered to help, or did they just basically shake their heads at you like you were nuts?

RT: Our neighbors were thoroughly supportive and enthusiastic, but none of them had the expertise to help us. Apparently, everyone in our end of the neighborhood had hired contractors to do the work in their houses. The exception was my mentor, Rick, but even he was reticent about giving advice — probably because our house was so far gone.

N!: Have there been more neighborhood renovations like this following your lead, or was yours the only house that needed such extensive work?

RT: Our house was by far the exception in the neighborhood — nothing even came close to being in such bad shape. However, restoration of our house did affect the block. The landlord of the building next to ours got a lot more conscientious about keeping up his property. And our example seemed to encourage other homeowners to make improvements that they had long contemplated–front yard upgrades, facade repairs, etc.

N!: How’s the book tour going? What has it been like to go from living in a 4,500 square foot house to a van? How much is Jill staying in the van with you? You really enjoy testing the limits of sanity, don’t you?

RT: Yes. I told Jill she should take a leave of absence from her job and go with me but she said, “There’s no way I’m going to spend four months in a little van as you do a barnstorming book tour!” Not exactly her idea of a vacation. She will join me for two one-week excursions.

The book tour is going well. I’m not tracking how many books I’m selling — that almost seems beside the point. Some nights I’m reading to 3-5 people, and other nights I’m reading to a full house. I’m especially busy every day filming interviews of preservationists for a documentary I’m making, called “Preserving America.” So, in addition to traveling to a new city every day (or two), I’m working on the documentary, meeting cool people, and getting into some very interesting old buildings.

The Tanner van with Cleo, somewhere in America

N!:  So, you said at the end of your book that you’d been eyeing a nearby mansion? Any plans to start this crazy rehab process all over again?

RT: As a hobby, Jill and I drive around the city and look for cool, usually neglected, if not derelict, old houses. We’re especially drawn to mansions — we love fantasizing about what we’d do with such a place. As you can imagine, we’re brimming with ideas. But, always, we talk ourselves out of the fantasy by the time we get home. Still, one day, we may move up or downsize — we leave the possibility open.


Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, and many others. He has won fellowships from the Copernicus Society, Sewanee Writers Conference, and the National Park Service, to name a few, and his stories and essays have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including The Iowa Review, West Branch, and the Massachusetts Review. He is the author of A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project (www.mistories.org).

Learn more about the house at www.houselove.org. You can also find out if Ron’s coming to your town or order the book.

(all images courtesy Ron Tanner)

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