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). ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Interview: Talking Shop with Actor/Home Renovator Bronson Pinchot

Posted on: March 23rd, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 1 Comment


Long before he started turning up as memorable Hollywood characters like Serge in Beverly Hills Cop, or Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, actor Bronson Pinchot was honing a very different kind of craft: historic restoration. As a child, Pinchot fixed up an old shed behind his 1920s house in South Pasadena, California.

Bronson Pinchot working to restore a bust inside one of his Hartford, Penn. projects. (Photo: DIY Network)

“I remember being eight and looking at worn surfaces and things that weren’t plumb and level and thinking how wonderful a secret they were and how it was a secret between them and me that they had survived and I was going to leave them the way they were,” Pinchot says.

This year Pinchot was cast in the role he says he was born to play in DIY Network’s The Bronson Pinchot Project, which follows the actor and his loyal team of craftsmen as they refurbish historic properties in rural Harford, Pennsylvania. The show’s first season wraps up March 31st.

We caught up with Pinchot while he was making one of his frequent trips to the salvage yard. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Interview: Sam & Chris of Raleigh's Videri Chocolate Factory

Posted on: February 17th, 2012 by David Garber 2 Comments


Owners Sam Ratto and Chris Heavener inside the factory. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

Preservation is often defined as an action with an end date: the act of saving - through advocacy; policy; or blood, sweat, and tears restoration - places for future use, memory, and appreciation. But regardless of how it's typically regarded, a more holistic "preservation" doesn't end when the paint dries. It's just as much about moving into and using those old places as it is about saving or restoring them.

Enter Sam Ratto and Chris Heavener: two friends who decided to follow a dream and open Videri Chocolate Factory in a c. 1912 railroad depot in Raleigh's warehouse district. They're preservationists because they connected with the warmth of an old building in a changing neighborhood and decided to move in. Here's their story.

The exterior of Videri's space in the historic Depot building. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

How did you two meet and what inspired you to start an organic chocolate factory?

Chris: I’ve been publishing a literary and arts magazine for about five years now, but before that I worked at a wakeboarding magazine, which is where I met Sam. He worked for a shoe company that catered to the same industry. Whenever he would come to town for trade shows and events we’d always hang out. We shared a dissatisfaction for the limitations and ethos of the industry so we both got out of it around the same time.

Sam: When I moved to Raleigh in 2009 with my then-fiancée (now wife) Starr, we got jobs through a friend at a bean-to-bar chocolate factory here in town. Something lit up in my brain when I sat in front of a pile of beans that needed to be sorted. I began to do tons of research and applied that to making their chocolate taste better. I brought a lot of ideas to them about moving towards organic and fair trade chocolate, but they didn't want to focus energy on that, so I left, looking to do something else. Chris came to me in February of 2011 and said, "You’re good at making chocolate and I think we can make a great, sustainable business."

Sam sorting beans at the Videri factory. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

What is your favorite part of the chocolate making process?

Sam: My favorite part of chocolate making is the artistry you have to weave into the pure science of chocolate making - putting together a wonderful puzzle of flavor and consistency.

Chris: Eating it is obviously number one. But other than that I just like the opportunity to work at Sam’s side and help him out in the factory. It’s given me an appreciation of the artistry required to make great tasting chocolate.

Freshly-made chocolate. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

What businesses did you look to for inspiration when you were starting Videri?

Chris: There’s a great – and very successful - chocolate company out of Seattle called Theo that makes fantastic chocolate in an ethically responsible way. Sam and I both read Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman – his is a good example of a company that makes quality products customers want while attempting to look out for the environment and their employees.

The logo, the building, and the beans. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

When you were choosing where to locate the chocolate factory, what type of space were you looking for?

Sam: When we were looking at spaces to start and grow our chocolate factory, we wanted a warehouse space that could accommodate the daily production of chocolate, but also have a warm, welcoming feel. When we saw the Depot building, it seemed to be a perfect combination.

Chris: We wanted a place customers and employees alike would want to spend time in. We looked at a few properties but nothing came close to the natural character and warmth of the Depot building.

Chris taking care of the scraps. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

Why was it important to be in that kind of space?

Sam: It is important to be in a warehouse-type building because it evokes craft and proper building techniques. This building was completed in 1912 and is still standing strong on its original foundation.

Chris: People who come into the space are much more than customers, they’re members of our community. We want to respect and honor that by providing a place to bring the family, a place to bring a date, a place to throw a party, a place where basically everyone is welcome. There’s something stale and subtly hostile about most modern utilitarian business buildings. The industrial era style of the Depot cultivated this feeling of possibility and imagination that’s hard to replicate.

Another view of the integrated signage. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

What does your space say about you, the company, and the chocolate?

Sam: This space says that we care about hard work and dedication to our beliefs of being a sustainable company. This space is welcoming and comforting, two very important things when it comes to chocolate.

Chris: It reflects our attention to detail, our respect for the processes that shaped the industry and our commitment to look to a future of conducting business in a manner healthy for the community and for the environment. The space suggests we’re making every effort to produce the best tasting chocolate in a responsible fashion.

The finished products. (Photo: Chase Heavener)

How do you hope to shape and be shaped by the area around you?

Chris: I hope the community embraces us as much as we’re attempting to embrace them. I’d love the company to be shaped by the needs and desires of the community. I’d love to be part of a discussion that makes us as beneficial to the Raleigh area as possible.

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is eagerly awaiting his first shipment of Videri chocolate. Solely for research purposes, of course.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Preservation Superhero: Becky Anderson of Burlington, Iowa

Posted on: January 27th, 2012 by David Garber 2 Comments


If there's such a thing as a preservation superhero, I think we just found one.

Becky Anderson bought and restored her first old house in Burlington, Iowa, in 1994. Then, in 1998, she bought and restored the house next door. In 2000, she tried to buy another house, but lost it in a bidding war. In 2001, she saw a for-sale sign at a ramshackle hilltop Italianate, crawled through a broken bay window to check it out, and proceeded to buy, completely renovate and restore it, and move in.

City Councilmember and developer Becky Anderson in her element (left); and looking over the city of Burlington from her restored Italianate home (right). (Photos: Steve Frevert and Becky Anderson)

Recognize her story? I know I do. Preservation can be an addicting hobby. Fix up one place and pretty soon you want to fix up another. For Becky Anderson, the hobby didn’t stop with houses. In 2008, her daughter, a local real estate agent, told her about the Hedge Building, a Victorian Gothic main street commercial building built in the 1880s that was on the market. Anderson remembers, "The amount of original woodwork and detail in the building was amazing. I was thinking, ‘could I take this on?'"

With the help of Federal and State Historic Preservation Tax Credits, and a tenant (her own financial services company) ready and willing to take office space on the first floor, pieces started to fall in place. "We moved into our new offices in February 2009, with the front of the building still not completed. The building had been a men’s clothing store and the storefront had been drastically altered in the 1940s. It took another eight months to recreate a limestone storefront similar to the original."

Installing the recreated limestone storefront at the Hedge Building. (Photos: Steve Frevert)

Remember: preservation superhero. Always moving, always saving. Since 2005, Becky Anderson has also been president of the Capitol Theater Foundation, a group formed to save and rehab the 1937 Art Deco jewel in downtown Burlington. In 2010 the group was awarded at $1 million grant from I-JOBS, an Iowa state initiative to fund local infrastructure projects. But Anderson is quick to take a back seat: "I have just been one of many who have worked on this project." The Capitol Theater is expected to open in May.

Meanwhile, she was elected to the Burlington City Council last fall and is currently working on another historic building restoration downtown. After hearing about the projects she’s worked on, I knew I needed to raise the bat signal and talk to her in person.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Interview: Design*Sponge Founder Grace Bonney

Posted on: January 5th, 2012 by David Garber 3 Comments


Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge. (Photo: Jamie Beck)

Do you need to define yourself as a preservationist to be a preservationist?

Even here at the National Trust, we have wide-ranging and disparate definitions of what the word means. Some are in it for the aesthetics. Others for the history. And others still for the environmental benefits. To one person, exposing brick is a breath of fresh air. To another, it's a preservation travesty. And the movement, on the whole, benefits from the checks and balances of a diverse set of passions and definitions.

My favorite places tend to be the kind where history and artifact are valued. Mix a collection of old buildings in with a pop of modern architecture and infrastructure and you have my ideal style: old meets new, rustic meets clean, background meets foreground. But for as much as I think preservation is an important ingredient to the specialness of places, it's a charged topic that can mean a million different things to a million different people. What's worth saving, and why, is different for everyone (and for a million different reasons).

On the recommendation of a coworker, I recently checked out the popular blog Design*Sponge. By chance, it was on a day that the site's founding author, Grace Bonney, had posted about her enterprise's recent move to the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn - a c. 1923 art deco factory building characterized by (surprise, surprise) gigantic terra-cotta reliefs of yellow pencils.

And so, bound equally by my personal obsession with warehouses and a curiosity about what makes a building like that attractive to other people, I requested an interview. I wanted to learn why she chose that particular building and what, as a tastemaker, her thoughts were about the role of history, old-ness, and artifacts in contemporary design. I also wondered: does Grace Bonney consider herself a preservationist? Read on to find out.

You recently moved offices into the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn. What drew you to the building?

I lived right around the corner when I first moved to New York City in 2003. I walked by it every day, and when I moved back to the neighborhood in 2011 it just seemed like the right place to be. It's chock-full of amazing artists (many of whom we've covered and love) and the building itself has a ton of character - but is still raw enough that the landlords pretty much let you do anything to the interiors. Which is great for me because I really wanted to make some changes inside. I feel really lucky to have a new space to play with that's still so close to home.

Describe your personal design style.

It's really been in transition for a while now - the past few years I've really been moving on from the "cuteness" I think I'm associated with (at least in terms of Design*Sponge and that aesthetic) and have been moving towards a slightly darker, more masculine look. But with a preppy, traditional spin.

I'll always have that Southern part of me that longs for something that reminds me of the old-school preppy kids I grew up with. I both loathed and loved them. I never fit in with that group because I wasn't one of them, but their style - that sort of Ralph Lauren traditional look with a Southern spin - is something my internal barometer has always deemed cool. So I'd say I'm leaning towards that sort of traditional tailored style (lots of navy blue) with a Brooklyn spin.

What is your favorite neighborhood (anywhere) and why? Feel free to mention a few.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn: my first and current New York City homebase. It's really come into its own in the past 10 years and I love that it's got the sort of restaurants, bars and shops that I love without being overly sceney and hipster-crowded like similar parts of Brooklyn.

Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Photo: Flickr user MatthewChamberlain)

The NE quadrant, Portland, Oregon: I spent my summer in Portland last year and this area was my homebase. If I could wake up and walk to Ristretto coffee every morning I would be a very happy girl.

The Sunset District, San Francisco: I didn't really discover this area until this summer when we interviewed local artists for our newspaper. It instantly reminded me of home (I grew up in a beach town) and felt like a cooler, more progressive version of my hometown.

What role do old buildings and objects play in the contemporary design world?

I think they've played an overly heavy role lately - people have become somewhat obsessed with them. I have always preferred to surround myself with older "things" as much as possible, but not to the level where I'm faking age. It's kind of maddening to see so many stores carrying objects that are clearly mass-produced but have had a low-quality "aged" finish applied. That said, I'm glad people really have learned to re-appreciate (everything moves in cycles) antiques again - I just hope they'll dive a little deeper past the industrial or mid-century craze and really learn more about the history behind the objects and why people loved certain styles at certain times. I find that part, the sort of cultural reasoning for design trends, fascinating.

No judgment zone: Do you consider yourself a preservationist? Why or why not?

No, I don't. My desire to preserve anything tends to be pretty subjective, if I'm being honest. I feel incredibly passionate about preserving "old" New York and parts of the deep South, yet I find myself also appreciating the ways in which some cities, like Venice, Italy, are embracing the natural disintegration of some of their oldest structures. So it really depends on the thing/place being discussed. But in general I tend to see both sides of any argument for and against preservation. New York City is a great example of that debate - there's an insane amount of history here, but there's also so much new life and innovation, it can be tempting to see both sides at odds with each other and not know which to embrace.

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.