Catching Up with Ron Tanner of Renovation "Love Story"

Posted on: April 10th, 2012 by Christine Driscoll

After reviewing From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, I thought it would be fun to go to author Ron Tanner’s reading at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, as he began his book tour. But Google maps had given me the run around, and I was lost in a neighborhood instead. As I walked past bungalows in search of a book store, I saw a turquoise work van slow down to ask another pedestrian for directions. As it turned around on another street and slowed to look at house numbers, I guessed this was probably Ron himself and flagged him down.

“Are you Ron Tanner?” I asked, and before I even explained who I was he was opening the door to the van to let me in. Meeting Ron like this, it’s easy to see how he’s the kind of person who would jump feet first into an enormous restoration project, the subject of Animal House. The van was in the process of becoming more like an RV, and the interior -- where a sink is currently mid-installation -- gave me a good idea of how immersed in some kind of DIY project Ron is at all times.

Ron will be on tour in a variety of cities (with the aforementioned van), and while I can’t guarantee you can get a ride with him, I suggest you check out the event when he comes to you.

After the program, I chatted with Ron about the decision to go into full-on restoration, what makes a house a home, and general relationship advice (naturally). 

When did you decide to completely go for full restoration? Considering the shape of the house when you bought it, were you ever tempted to make two rooms into one, or add something that didn’t quite fit with its period?

In keeping with our Maryland historic tax credit stipulations, we were obliged to preserve the house’s original floor plan. Regardless, we weren’t inclined to tamper with the house’s architectural integrity -- it was a point of pride that we would work within the house’s constraints. Many houses in our neighborhood had turned their butler’s pantries to bathrooms, for example. We thought: Why would you want to get rid of a butler’s pantry? They’re so cool!

Nevertheless, I was so overwhelmed with the project at first that I wanted to take short cuts elsewhere. For instance, I was contemplating replacing the missing main-stair balusters with whatever would fit. It would have been a funky array of mismatched balusters. Briefly, I thought we’d do the whole house that way, cobbling together whatever we could find to make it work.

As for other elements, the yard especially, we didn’t feel any need to observe the original vision. Tastes change and virtually everything we did (different from the Victorian original) is reversible.

Jill has always been more flexible than I. When we were renovating the kitchen, she said, "Why not move the radiator?" My response was, "We’re allowed to do that?"

How do you feel about the distinction between “house” and “home” in relation to the Queen Anne? What are your thoughts on that as a writer and a DIY restorer?

The aim of any house renovation, I assume, is to make that house into a home. The fun part of renovation is adding cozy touches like built-ins, and those dream-house details that make the space distinctively yours. In our house, you can find these in our Victorian library, or in our kitchen, with little touches like our antique chalk board and key holder, and in larger decisions we made, like custom corner sink with its mix of new and antique parts. Taken together, these things create our own distinctive signature, which makes this house our home.

While reading your blog and at certain points in the book, I came across a few examples of how historic preservation creates jobs. It’s something we talk about a lot here in support of historic tax credits, among the many ways preservation is beneficial, and your book offered interesting anecdotal evidence of that. 

You’re right: house renovations and restorations do create jobs. Nobody can do it all -- which means that at some point, especially in a big project like ours, you have to hire help. Whenever I had the funds, I did not hesitate to hire those I could, especially for help with the heavy manual labor. The guy I hired six years ago to help me dig out the back yard is still working for me. About once a week, he comes by to do chores I don’t have time to do myself. The list goes on -- it’s a pleasure to put others to work when you’re giving new life to an old house.

After restoring the Queen Anne, do you see any similarities in the importance of communication for a successful relationship with someone you love and your contractor? I feel like you could give good relationship advice based on both experiences!

That’s a good comparison. A contractor, especially on a big job, becomes intimate with the homeowners and, as a result, there are lots of ways this relationship can go awry. For instance, homeowners may assume that because they are engaging so much of the contractor’s time and attention, the contractor will naturally know what they want or understand their unspoken wishes.

Also, homeowners might keep their distance because they do not want to "get in the way" or bother a contractor. But the contractor is there is to help the homeowners achieve their vision. That means there should be lots of talking and clarification and follow-up. Every day, the homeowner should review what’s been done, ask about any difficulties, and clarify anything that seems even a little vague. Never be reticent or afraid to ask a question. In a working partnership, there should be no surprises.

For more information about the Animal House tour, check out Ron’s website and be on the lookout for a tricked-out preservation van - you may even get a ride.

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