Archive for the 'Animal House–the book' Category

Nov 01 2013

The Amazing Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island

I had heard about the mansions of Newport, R.I., for years — decades, actually — and I had always wanted to visit them because I’m crazy for old houses and these houses are spectacular. But Rhode Island is just a bit off the beaten path. Boston is the center of gravity up in these parts. So I never had occasion to visit Rhode Island, the only state in the lower 48 I had never seen. As it turned out, during my “From to Our House” of New England, I had a couple of free days, so I contacted the Preservation Society of Newport County and they welcomed me for a visit and a private tour of their way-cool houses.

Rhode Island is isn’t called the “ocean state” for nothing. If you like bridges and coves and lovely marinas, this state is for you. In fact, Newport itself is an island. And it’s not what you think: rich. Yes, the rich come in the summer, my guide told me, and “you could walk across the harbor on the yacths.” But the town mostly belongs to the working class, like so many coastal towns in New England.

Every town has its rich neighborhood. It just so happens that Newport’s is extra special because it became a summer haven for the rich during the Guilded Age — 1880-1900 — when the robber barons ruled the nation and owned most of the wealth (no income tax until 1913). There was a lot of corruption in those days, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and massive industrialization as the U.S. became the world’s industry leader. So, when the rich did something big in those days, they did it really big. “The Breakers,” the summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is the epitome of excess. It’s like a French palace and, in its day, was run by 40 servants for a single family. It’s the American Downton Abbey.

The Breakers and 10 other estates now belong to the Newport County Preservation Society, which manages, preserves, and restores these buildings for public viewing. The Breakers alone receives half a million visitors a year — a mind-boggling number. A a successful house museum elsewhere might receive 25,000 visitors a year and top out at 100,000. Although not as big as Biltmore, “America’s largest castle” (in Asheville, N.C.), The Breakers may be more opulent. I got to see it before the crowds arrived, as the early morning sun was pouring through the windows that look to the Atlantic. My favorite part, though, was a visit to the basement where I got to see the old electrical panel — about ten feet high and fitted with brass fixtures — and also the dank tunnel that leads to the house’s power plant, buried deep in the front yard to protect the house against possible explosions (furnaces were touchy back in those days).

The Elms is a smaller nearby and was nearly lost to demolition in the early 1960s. The furniture had been sold off, as had all rare, old wondrous oil paintings that were built into the massive dining room. The Society has spent decades tracking down this stuff and bringing it back (at great expense). The dining room is complete finally, as the last paintings were obtained in 2004. My guide told me she preferred the Elms to the Breakers because in the Elms you knew where you were most the time: that is, you didn’t get lost in the house. Like the Breakers, the Embers is very French. The American millionaires wanted very badly to live like European royalty.

I’m a fan of Victorian stuff, so was my favorite house was the Chateau sur Mer. Needless to say, it was no less elaborate than the others. The hand-carved woodwork everywhere inside was remarkable. The hand-painted ceilings were stunning too. Visiting places like these makes me eager to return home and work on our old house. After I visited Biltmore a few years ago, I came back and rearranged all of our furniture. This made laugh. No, our house (though big) is not a mansion. But little touches — especially authentic additions like an antique lamp or painting — can hint at the grand style the rich folk once enjoyed and so these little things transport me a bit out of the here-and-now, filling my head with a gratifying sense of history.

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Oct 23 2013

7 Things I Learned About New England

1) The light in New England is very different than the light we get 400 miles south. New England light is low in the sky. It feels like afternoon all day long. And it makes things look gorgeous because it seems to deepen the color.

2) Everything is close together in New England. From Hartford to Boston to Providence to Portsmouth to Portland, you can drive through all of these destinations — five states — in a single day. That means you’re close to lots of cool stuff just about anywhere you go.

3) Most everything here is made of wood. Way back then, wood was abundant and easy to work with. To make their wooden houses look fancier, and more costly, builders 200 years ago fashioned the outside of the finer homes to look as though they were made of stone. This is called “rustication,” and it can be quite deceiving.

I grew up in a generation that equated New England with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving and whitewashed churches on green town squares. That New England is here. It has a buttoned-down Ivy League flavor in part because everything (or almost everything) looks so settled. I mean old and solid and a little intimidating. In Dedham, Mass, I visited the
Fairbanks House, the oldest timber frame house in the nation: built in 1636. In Newburyport, Mass, a maritime city on the northern coast, I saw many houses almost as old. And these weren’t museums; people were living in them. In one of these houses, I dined in front of their circa 1700 hearth, which was big enough to hold a compact car. The oldest chair in that house dated to the 1500s.

By the way, no churches in this country were painted white until the 1800s, and most not until about 1850, because paint was expensive and far from perfected. The pilgrims and all those other colonial folk lived happily in unpainted houses and buildings.

4) New England is the best place to celebrate Halloween because it has the coolest — spookiest — cemeteries. Their graveyards are small and numerous and crowded with centuries-old thin-slabbed headstones.

5) People on the coast talk funny. People inland don’t. The closer you get to the water, the more the people talk a Brit version of English. The people in Vermont don’t talk funny at all.

6) “The Great North Woods” is to New England what the Upper Peninsula is to Michigan: vast and wild and not to be taken lightly. It encompasses the northernmost wilderness of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine and runs up into Quebec.

7) With the exception of a few cities, like Hartford, CT., there aren’t many people of color in New England. I don’t know that this is anybody’s fault, but for someone like me, who’s coming from a city that’s 60% African American, it’s an odd sight, seeing so many white folk.

8) Vermont is the hippie haven of New England. It boasts the only state capital that does not have a McDonald’s.

I’m now in Vermont and here are a few other things I’ve learned:

1) Vermont is the least populous state, after Wyoming. Only about 600,000 people total. Baltimore has more people than that.

2) Burlington, VT, is so diverse, there are 20 languages spoken in the city’s high school. But the state itself is about 98% white.

3) The Vermonters call outsiders “flatlanders.” The Flatlanders are buying up property for vacation homes and thus inflating real estate. This is a very expensive state to live in. Young people can’t afford it, which is why Vermont is losing population.

4) Vermont got its start as a tiny autonomous nation in 1777.

Tomorrow, and I drive to Newport, Rhode Island, where we will visit its famous fabulous mansions. I’ll be interviewing the people who oversee them, and I’m promised a private tour of the Elms and the Breakers. I am very excited about that.

We’ll end our tour with an event this weekend in Providence, at the historic Lippitt House. And that’s probably just as well because it’s getting cold here. I’ve got the van running now to heat us up before going to bed. Cleo’s wearing her new sweater, which she seems to like.

The pumpkins are out on every porch. The leaves are piled high in the yards. And my van smells of apples. I picked some from a wild tree on Peake’s Island, just off the coast of Portland, Maine. My friend, Tim, took me there. Then I bought some (organic) at the farmer’s market. I’m going to make an apple pie in the van’s kitchen tomorrow or Friday to celebrate the season. I’ll get home just in time for Halloween. tells me the trees in Maryland are just now turning. So it looks like Cleo and I will get to enjoy fall all over again.

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Jul 08 2013

How Drunk Do You Have to Be?

This week, and I woke one morning to discover that we had been hit by a drunk driver. That is, our house had been hit — specifically, the iron fence in front of our house. The mishap is notable because the driver left the scene of the accident.

More notable still is the fact that the driver did not, or could not, stop until he hit our fence. That wasn’t easy to do, since he had to 1) run through a broad intersection, 2) veer right and jump the curb, missing a light pole to one side and parked cars at the curb on the other side, and then 3) skid across 15 feet of sidewalk before making impact with our fence.

He must have been speeding. And he must have been drunk. He took out two sections of fencing and left one headlight behind. This evidence tells us that he drove a Ford, but that’s all. Nobody in the neighborhood saw the accident. We speculate that he might have veered to miss another vehicle: our busy intersection sees a lot of accidents. Police records show no accidents at our intersection during the time of our hit-and-run.

You may have noticed that I identify the driver as “he.” Males are twice as likely as females to drive drunk. Nearly 90% of drunk drivers are under the age of 44. This statistic could be a product of natural selection. I drove drunk once when I was 17. I am amazed I got home safely. I never did it again. But I could have killed somebody. And, yes, I could have run into somebody’s house or fence too. The stats for drunk driving in America are sobering.

Our culture celebrates drinking alcohol in ways that make it difficult to discourage over-drinking. Let’s be honest: we drink to get a buzz. As a species, we’re hard-wired to want that buzz. Perhaps many or most of us need that buzz to cope with the stresses of being human. That is why the “war on drugs” (alcohol is our primary drug) is a war we have never come close to winning. And we won’t win. Sorry, but the stats show us that this is so.

Drunks used to be funny. Many comics have made careers portraying drunks — W.C. Fields, Foster Brooks, and Dudley Moore, to name a few. If these are names you haven’t heard before, there’s a reason: being a public drunk stopped being funny in the 1980s, about the time that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) got its start. Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” (1981) was the last of the drunk-is-funny showcases and it skirted controversy because Arthur never drove drunk (his chauffeur drove) and, in the end when it counted, he sobered up.

I never liked “Arthur” because Moore’s raucous drunk, although well played, was just too annoying. The tragedy of heavy drinkers is their conviction that, when drunk, they are immune to fault and downright charming in every sloppy, stupid thing they do. Before it was closed down for serving alcohol to minors, a bar at the end of our block used to disgorge drunken teenagers on the weekends. These beery children would stumble past our house, bellowing and whooping as if they had just won the lottery and sometimes pausing to piss in our yard or a neighbor’s. That’s why we installed the iron fence out front.

It remains an American rite of passage for teenagers to get roaring drunk at least once in their young lives — a rite that most Europeans cannot understand, because Europeans have apparently figured out how to teach their children better. (As for the Russians, who can blame them for drinking to excess?) Most of us give up over-drinking after we’ve been sick one too many times. I remember very well my semi-final bout of alcohol poisoning in college, when I spent most the night puking in the bushes in front of a friend’s house.

My last bout with alcohol was just ten years ago. I was going through a hard time and decided to unwind by drinking a lot of wine at a party. Oh, how I paid for that. I don’t drink much now, though sometimes when offered drinks at a party I may walk to the edge of drunkeness because it seems to be the thing I need. That’s the tricky elelment about humans and alcohol: the need.

I’m obliged to remind you that Jill and I live in a former frat house — an — and we’ve got the photos to prove it. Ours was such a notorious partyh house that after Jill and I moved in (it was then condemned property), we’d get youhng people knocking on our door that first year, asking when the next party was. If you want to know more about all of that, read the book: From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story

Admittedly, the headlight on our sidewalk was funny. And the repair to our fence won’t be expensive (Jill said, “File a claim with homeowner’s.” I said, “The only claim I’ll ever file with homeowner’s is when and if the house burns down.” Premiums, you know.) So it was a hit-and-run of little consequence. I’m hoping the driver in question got a scare — it could not have been a pleasant thrill to skid up and over the sidewalk as he did. But, chances are, if he’s drinking heavily, he’s forgotten all about it. Here’s hoping he won’t drive through your neighborhood.

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Jun 27 2013

Cleo Jailed & Other Midwest Adventures

House Love

Due to a last-minute cancellation (because a librarian — in a city I will not name — forgot she had booked me!), and I have spent most of this week in the Ohio River Valley. We had a fabulous event at the Ohio County Library, in Wheeling, WV, thanks to the librarian Sean Duffy, who filled the house with enthusiastic listeners — they bought all of the books I had! And they gave lots of love. I met some people from the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists who are working hard to raise awareness about the value of old buildings in Wheeling and surrounding areas. Wheeling has great old architecture. Although it isn’t far from Maryland, this is a part of the country I wasn’t familiar with. I told we’ve got to come back for a visit because there’s so much to see.

House Love

The broad Ohio River separates Ohio from West Virginia. It was the engine that fueled all kinds of industry on both shores. Much of that industry is gone and so most of those river towns have dwindled. But, actually, the thing that did in the river towns wasn’t so much the desmise of industry as the ill-planned highways, like Highway 7, which guts every river town on the Ohio side by diverting traffic away from those towns’ business districts. Thoughtless planning like that has done more damage to U.S. towns and cities than just about anything else. The famous Route 66 is an example of how highways were integrated with businesses in the best (and often colorful) way. Route 66 is now a mostly-deserted relic (found in pieces from Chicago to L.A.) because the interstate highway system — built in the 1950s and ’60s — rolled over or around that vibrant auto route.
House Love

The big deal now in the Ohio Valley is fracking — farmers are leasing drilling rights (for 25 years) to power companies for big bucks, with the promise of more money (royalties) if the drillers hit a well. The motels are full with oil workers from Texas and Oklahoma; rents have sky-rocketed; and there’s plenty of work to be had if you know a trade, like welding. New refineries are going up along the river. The gas-filled shale deposit lies one mile underground on the West Virginia side and two miles below the Ohio side. The new gas f inds will make coal irrelevant . . . until the gas runs out.

House Love
House Love
I’ve been doing a number of interviews for the Preservation America project. Today I talked with the owner of Wissmach Glass factory,which has been in operation since 1904. They make sheets of stained glass and are known around the world for their high-quality. The factory operates much the way it did a century years ago, and is one of the few remaining in the U.S. At one time there were more than 100 glass companies in West Virginia. I’m not talking about plate glass, the stuff you find in your every-day window. I’m talking about art glass — hand-blown glassware, stained glass, jewelry glass, glass marbles.
House Love

Yesterday, I talked to the people who run the West Virginia State Penitentiary, built in 1866 and in operation — amazingly — until 1994. This frightening place is now a tourist destination that sees 30,000 visitors a year, and it offers some gruesome tales about inmate life. Cleo and I took the tour but Cleo didn’t like it at all: the smells were all wrong. I just happened upon the Penitentiary while driving around aimlessly, as I often do when I have the time. I also came upon The Roosevelt, a funky little restaurant in Bellaire that makes its own pasta. If it’s the real-deal and homemade, I’ll eat it. They did a good job. I got some meatballs too because I can’t remember the last time I ate meatballs.
House Love
House Love
There are other sights to see in these parts, like the Palace of Gold, a holy shrine built by the Hari Krishnas in 1973 (completed in 1977) and now considered culturally significant — called “America’s Taj Mahal” — a tourist destination for many Indians. Why the Krishnas’ leader at the time chose to build their shrine here in West Virginia coal country remains a holy mystery. If you like rose gardens, you should check out theirs: it’s quite impressive.

This is the last week of my near-Midwest for the paperback of From Animal House to Our House. Friday night I’ve got an event at Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction, where I expect to meet lots of enthusiastic, hard-core DIYers and old house rehabbers. Then it’s my return home, where the first thing on my to-do list is to get rid of the marauding rats that have made a home behind our gold fish pond. We’ve been missing some frogs of late and we now know why.

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Jun 20 2013

Cleo & Ron: What We’re Seeing in the Midwest

and I are barnstorming the near-Midwest, from to Pittsburgh, on my for the paperback of From Animal House to Our House. Last night we had a full house at the Akron main library, thanks to Janice Radl, Akron’s science & technology librarian, who was enterprising and energetic — she publicized widely, kept in frequent contact with me, got me a radio interivew, and posted the event on the library’s home page. She and a bunch of Akron folk took me out to dinner afterwards. An author couldn’t ask for better treatment.

Compare this to what happened at another library: I walked in an hour before the event and informed the two young women at the main desk that I was the author for the night’s event. They looked at each other quizzically, then looked at me and said, “What event?” Then they said I probably wanted the Science and Technology desk. So I walked farther into the library and addressed the woman at the Science and Technology desk. Her response was the same: “There’s an event tonight?” She sent me to the Humanities desk and, sure enough, the humanities people knew who I was. But if nobody else in the library knew of my event, what hope did I have that anybody outside the library knew of the event. Six people showed up to see me. The programming director didn’t seem concerned. Apparently, some librarians feel that all they have to do is schedule the event, then everything else will take care of itself.
House Love

I’m seeing some amazing libraries, by the way, like Toledo’s Deco masterwork, lovingly maintained. Its main hall features high-Deco chandeliers and a mural of human progress painted on glass that runs the perimeter of the room. In the children’s wing, there are fanciful paintings (from the original construction) inspired by chldren’s tales. Toledo expanded the library about ten years ago, adding a stunning addition that includes an auditorium, art gallery, roof-top green space for concerts and events, and an atrium that shows off the ornate granite back side of the original building. “Ohio loves its libraries,” my host informed me.

As I am now a DIY expert, I meet people who come to ask questions about their house problems. One woman said her back yard had been taken over by ground hogs and she asked if I had any suggestions about how to get rid of them. I told her I was familiar only with rats, not ground hogs.

After one event, an old man came up to me and said, “I didn’t buy your book but here’s a litle something.” Then he slipped a dollar bill into my hand. I said, “Thank you!”

I drove through Canada, around the north shore of Lake Erie, to get to Buffalo from Detroit — it’s the fastest route. I stopped for gas about halfway across, only to discover that my American credit card wouldn’t work in Canada (you have to tell your bank to activate your card for international travel). Fortunately, I had just enough cash to pay the bill. Otherwise, I’m not sure what would have happened. Some things to know before you go to Canada: you need your passport, also verification of your dog’s vaccinations, and you’re not allowed to carry a gun. One Canadian border guard asked me wearily, “You don’t have a gun or anything crazy like that, do you?” Sometimes we forget how wild we Americans appear to people in other countries.

Buffalo is an America mecca for those who love old buildings. Like Baltimore, Buffalo avoided many of the ravages of urban renewal (i.e., razing buildings to make parking lots) because it wasn’t wealthy enough to attract those mindless developers in the 1960s. Now, it’s a showcase of architecture, including an amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house. The big worry among Buffalo preservationists is the eminent destruction of the Trica building, a crica-1900 daylight factory (big windows for sunlight) that a hospital wants to raze. The hospital doesn’t care that the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Buffalo, I met Ellen and Joe Lettieri, a couple who bought a 6,000 square foot that they are going to turn into a Bed and Breakfast. They bought it at auction, having seen only the exterior. The house belonged originally to Herbert H. Hewitt, the “rubber king,” who some say invented the first inflatable tire, among many other inventions. It has ten bedrooms, a ballroom on the third floor, and is remamrkably intact. One of the advantages of directing the Preservation America project is that I get to meet cool people in cool old houses like this.

The biggest surprise of the trip so far has been Detroit. You may think Detroit is in the toilet but it’s not. I repeat: it’s not. As I interviewed a number of people for , it became clear to me that Detroit’s story is worth telling in a longer format. So I returned to the Motor City to do more interviews with the aim to do a documentary on what’s happening there. Plenty is happening. For starters, young people — the “creative class” — are flocking to the city because real estate is cheap and the city is welcoming innovations of every kind. As you have no doubt heard, Detroit is now in the hands of an “emergency manager,” who’s in charge of keeping the city out of bankruptcy.

But Detroiters have seen so much corruption and mismanagement,they are mostly ignoring the current spectacle of crisis management and, instead, are focusing on local solutions to long-term problems — because it’s clear that, regardless of what happens, the city government isn’t going to be of much help. As a result, there are many grassroots enterprises. Take food production as an example: the city now has over 20 square miles of open land: that’s as big as the island of Manhattan. So Detroiters are gardening with a view to feed the city: there are at least 1500 community gardens, 70 of which have formed a collaborative to create a “Grown in Detroit” brand, all of which creates jobs and revitalizes neighborhoods. The Detroit is a city experiment the likes of which America has never seen. I will return to Detroit at the end of July to learn more.

Final note: I lost a pineapple in my van. I don’t know what happened but I bought a pineapple, am pretty sure I put it in my van, and now I can’t find it. I’ve looked everywhere. Cleo didn’t eat it, I’m sure of that.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: