Love blossoms amid a 4,500-square-foot restoration


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By 1999, Ron Tanner had suffered through two failed marriages.

So, he cashed in a retirement fund and paid $125,000 for a Queen Anne-style brownstone in Baltimore's historic Charles Village. Talk about doubling down on a single real estate transaction.

For a raucous decade, the previous residents, members of a fraternity, had annoyed their neighbors, attracted police raids and trashed the three-story house, which then sat empty for a year. Fraternity members had used bats to knock out nearly half of the staircase's custom-made balusters, painted eyeball graffiti on walls and used the doors as dart boards. The property was condemned; rats colonized the backyard. Could Mr. Tanner become the savior of the brick structure with a round tower at 2746 St. Paul St.?

A Realtor warned the Loyola University writing instructor not to buy the 4,500-square-foot house.

His Southern mother sighed with exasperation when he outlined his plans for the property, which reminded him of a neighbor's antique-filled home he visited regularly while growing up in Winston-Salem, S.C.

Possessed by a bone-deep streak of tenacity and a willingness to learn on the job, Mr. Tanner ignored the naysayers and forged ahead.

He was accompanied by Jill Eicher, a resourceful woman who had her own tools and liked to go Dumpster diving.

The couple's experiences unfold in "From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story," published this year. Mr. Tanner, 58, speaks Wednesday at the Carnegie Library branch in Oakland. His talk is free, and a book signing follows.

The author conceded in a recent phone interview that he is "almost pathologically optimistic. It's a strain of naivete that makes me go out on a limb."

Built in 1897, the Queen Anne seduced him with its round tower and bay windows, 12-foot- ceilings, oak paneling, hardwood floors, mahogany banister and butler's pantry.

"It was the kind of house I had always dreamed of. To know that I could get it if I could just push through ... All of that kicked in to make me obsessive and incredibly focused," Mr. Tanner said.

The first five years exacted a heavy toll. Ms. Eicher felt ignored while Mr. Tanner worked 20-hour days and got by on four hours of sleep.

"I was totally obsessed with our house at the expense of our relationship," the writer said.

His father died at age 49, but Mr. Tanner's desire to please him was still alive. His father had taught him how to cut and sand wood, so taking on the monumental task was a way of communing with his spirit.

"If I did something really well, I knew that he would have really liked that. He would have been tickled by the house. I really felt obliged to pay attention and get better at it," Mr. Tanner said.

After eight months of work, he insisted on inviting his entire family to spend Christmas in Baltimore despite his girlfriend's objections.

"I invited my entire family to spend Christmas in a condemned property. No wonder they were appalled. It was the Christmas from hell," he said, complete with a deranged, wailing cat and a forlorn tree. His mother survived by drinking bourbon in the drafty house.

Besides that fiasco of forced family fun, the couple knew they had only just begun to undo the damage.

"For three years after that, the house looked like a wreck. We didn't start painting until year four. People didn't quite understand quite how far we'd come," Mr. Tanner said.

They filled three Dumpsters and umpteen garbage bags. They rebuilt the master bedroom, repaired three ceilings, replaced all the plumbing, rebuilt a three-story wooden porch, reglazed 64 windows, rewired the house, replastered every wall, installed four vintage mantels and refinished 33 sets of interior shutters.

In 2003, the couple were married in their home on a morning in May; Ms. Eicher wore a vintage wedding gown. Last month, they celebrated their ninth anniversary.

As the years passed, Mr. Tanner heard from some of the fraternity members, one of whom recalled building the 20-foot-long bar in the basement.

"I said, 'Wow, you did a good job building that bar. It took me a full day to take it apart.' " Mr. Tanner recalled.

These days, he takes fewer physical risks. If he decides to climb around on the three-story porch, he wears a mountain climbing harness.

He and his wife love Charles Village.

"It's a great place to live because everybody is on their toes and aware of what's going on and supportive of each other."

This year, the author is visiting 66 cities in 30 states to promote his book and film interviews with preservationists. He's traveling in a van that he converted into a camper.

"I like to travel and meet people," he said, adding that his wife decided to stay home because the odyssey didn't sound like a vacation.

"Pittsburgh is the start of the really big leg that goes to California," the author said.

On a recent swing through the South, he observed a shift in the way Americans live.

"Demographically, there's a huge change in the country, where young professionals and empty nesters are moving back to the cities. People want walkable neighborhoods. They want to be surrounded by interesting architecture."

books - homes

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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