What do you get when you buy an abandoned frat house? For Ron Tanner, it was three dumpsters full of trash, a closet full of term papers, 60 empty beer kegs, and one five-gallon bucket of frat boy feces.
Tanner bought the 4,500-square-foot Victorian in a historic Baltimore neighborhood in 2000 against his better judgment; it was really his girlfriend of three months, Jill, who convinced him to take the plunge. “I was madly in love with her, and because she wanted the house, I said OK,” Tanner says. “She said she’d help me work on it. She didn’t say she’d move in, but I assumed that if we worked on it together, she’d move in, we’d get married, and live happily ever after. That was my plan.”
Luckily for him, the plan worked, and 12 years later Tanner and his now-wife live in a beautifully restored house that’s attracted the attention of preservationists across the country. He wrote a book about the experience called From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, and now he’s traveling up and down the East Coast sharing his story with fellow old house fans.
“Most people haven’t had an experience like this, and who would?” Tanner says. “Who would take on a ruined frat house? It’s one thing to take on an old house, it’s another to take on a ruined old house that was a frat house. It makes for an interesting, entertaining story when you combine that with a love story.”
Tanner bought the house as-is, and since the delinquent frat boys had abandoned it in the middle of the night and the house had sat vacant for a year, that meant it was literally full of trash — and pretty darn smelly. There were full refrigerators in several of the rooms that they didn’t dare open, all of the toilets were full, and rat nests littered the backyard. Ceilings were caved in, walls were damaged and covered in graffiti, and doors had been used for target practice. Tanner gave away roomfuls of furniture, filled 74 industrial-sized garbage bags, and then filled the aforementioned dumpsters with trash. Although the house was condemned, he moved in just a few weeks after closing so that he could devote all of his spare time to working on the house.
Tanner secured a rehabilitation loan and was given six months to bring the house up to code, but it took more like 14 months just to stabilize it. Between replacing the roof, plumbing, floors, and windows, the original loan was gone in a month. They didn’t even start painting until year four. It was slow going and a serious learning process for the couple, neither of whom knew anything about construction. “We were so ignorant, we just didn’t know what we were doing. We did what other people didn’t dare do because we didn’t know any better.” He adds, “Because I’m a teacher I know how to read books, and I figured I can figure this out, it’s not rocket science. We were both really motivated.”
Tanner is an inspiration for DIYers of today, many of whom were introduced to the Tanners by a 2008 This Old House article. Now they run a website called House Love (houselove.org), where they share their experiences and offer advice for fellow renovators. “That’s the fun of working on an old house: It’s immediately gratifying work,” Tanner says. “You see right then and there what you’ve done. Sometimes when I’m working on the house I’ll just step back and stare at it for 10 minutes and say, ‘That’s cool. That’s neat. I just did that.”
Tanner plans to meet with preservationists in every city on his tour as research for a documentary he’s working on called Preserving America. He’s especially excited about his Charleston stop. “In these hard times it’s increasingly difficult to hang on to our old buildings, and of course a town like Charleston is a marquee example of what you can do, but I’m going to many towns where they have fewer resources and fewer people inclined to do that kind of work. I’ll be curious to see what’s happening out there.”