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House: A Memoir Paperback – March 7, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
"The architect... looked up at the stained, buckling kitchen ceiling, inhaled and exhaled deeply before saying, 'I hope you didn't pay a lot for this house.' " These were not encouraging words to Ruhlman (The Soul of a Chef) and his family, whose new fixer-upper in Cleveland Heights had "big-rodent nests" filling the walls and "sheets of [code] violations—big as a telephone book." Blending reportage and memoir, Ruhlman details his home's complete history, putting it in context with an account of the first American suburb in 1869 and a description of his family's first Christmas in the house in 2001. His well-researched history of the suburbs will interest anyone who's ever lived in one, but his in-depth chronicle of his town will enthrall only those familiar with it. The book is strongest when it focuses on personal details. The stories of the lazy real estate broker, the often-unreliable contractors, and the spiraling budgets will be familiar to any homeowner. The house puts a strain on Ruhlman's family, and Ruhlman doesn't shy from depicting the weaknesses of his marriage, even as it exposes him as overly complacent and his wife as a shrill martyr.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
For anyone who has ever bought an old house or for anyone who may be contemplating such a purchase, Ruhlman's new book is a must read. With grace, honesty, good humor, and a sense of resignation, he recounts his own near-irrational infatuation with a rambling, neglected old house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, that pushed him to the brink of psychological and financial ruin. Ruhlman's recounting of arriving at a sale price shows how house lust befogs the mind of the normally cool and financially savvy. Even the carefully guarded comments of the house inspector on the questionable states of plumbing and roofing don't trigger the expected defensive alarms. The house takes on a persona of its own, combining the irresistible tug of sentimental security and the seductiveness of a home-wrecking floozy. Adding substance to his narrative, Ruhlman ruminates on the rise of American suburbia and its mixed legacy. And he throws in a bit of interesting Cleveland history. This book will especially appeal to fans of Ruhlman's previous portraits of restaurants and chefs. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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When did families move from living in a single room to having separate rooms for various activities and privacy? He implies that is a post-Middle Ages phenomenon but there were homes with several rooms two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. He credits the Dutch for developing the modern form of a house as a way to help children develop into adults.
When their children were preschool, they decided to buy a house to give the children the anchor they believed were necessary for a child's emotional stability. They found a magnificent house (four stories, lots of rooms for their life style and needs) in a neighborhood of beautiful old houses. The house had been on the market for several months and they realized it needed a lot of major work to pass inspection and be livable.
Michael Ruhlman, the author, grew up in Shaker Heights, the community immediately to the south of Cleveland Heights. His wife, Donna, was raised in Flushing, New York. They moved to Cleveland Heights because Michael realized he could do his work anywhere and wanted to return to his roots. Also, the cost of living in Cleveland was much, much lower than it was in most other cities. Donna really missed living close to the East Coast. The disruption of working on the house and having different perspectives on where to live plays havoc with their marriage.
The main part of the book describes the process of inspecting the house, buying it, and renovating it, partly by their own work and partly by hiring professionals. The whole family lived crowded into a few rooms on the third floor for several months until the main parts of the house became usable. As almost every home owner will discover, things did not always go smoothly.
HOUSE talks about how the cities of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights developed and the role that public and private transportation, from horse and carriages to streetcars to private cars affected the growth of neighborhoods.
He checked government records to find out when the house was built, by whom, and who had lived there before his family. He was able to speak to some of the previous residents who related what life was like when they lived there. Along the way he discovers what he believes to be the wrongful imprisonment of a former resident.
HOUSE provides an interesting and useful guide for people considering purchasing and remodeling a home as well as a guide on tracking down information about the history of a house.
I think the book could have been improved by the inclusion of pictures of the house, before, during, and after the renovations. Donna is a photographer so it should have been doable.
For Ruhlman, the old house that he & his wife buy becomes imbued with many meanings of home. Ruhlman grew-up in the nearby suburb of Shaker Heights and the house becomes a meditation on growing up in suburban Cleveland and being able to recapture some of that life as an adult and for his children. Cleveland Heights once rivaled Shaker Heights for prestige, but was never as carefully as planned a city and always had a socially and economically more diverse population. Shaker Heights is a beautiful suburb, but Cleveland Heights is somehow more comfortable and real. Much of Cleveland Heights predated zoning laws (which became established in law because of a court case in the nearby suburb of Euclid, Ohio), yet the basic layout of things has endured and has proven to be just as livable today as it was decades ago. Partly for privacy reasons, Ruhlman doesn't give too much detail about his immediate neighborhood, but in doing so, he fails to give Clevelanders and non-Clevelanders a real sense of place and context. Cleveland Heights is filled with leafy streets and an ecelctric mix of "traditional" architectural styles, with the odd modern, sometimes architecturally significant, interloper. The broad boulevards include tudors, french provincials and federal style homes. The side streets include various kinds of "colonials" including "dutch colonials", bungalows, "California" contemporaries and small scale tudors. Near the commercial strips, one finds the frame 2 and a half family wood framed "Buckeye front" houses that are unique to Cleveland. I have coveted many a Cleveland Heights street and home.
The book moves back and forth between a number of narratives. It begins with the straightforward acquisition of the house. At points, it digresses into Ruhlman's past and that of his wife, whose reluctant transplantation to Cleveland is a recurring theme, and their marriage. There's a long digression into scholarly work about suburbs that's overwritten, needlessly academic, and just doesn't work. Ruhlman tries to defend suburbia, but isn't very convincing. Shaker Heights & Cleveland Heights were streetcar suburbs and Shaker still has the streetcars. They have the density and layouts to permit neighborhood business districts and neighborhood life to exists in ways that are more "urban" than suburban and certainly different from much of post WWII suburbia. Cleveland Heights is the kind of place where "suburbia haters" wind up buying a house.
Some of the best parts of the book deal with buying the house and restoring it. I found myself jealous of his home inspector, a man who found the kinds of very expensive plumbing and drainage problems that my inspector missed. Instead, I would up redoing an already remodled bathroom and spending thousands on french drains. The book become somewhat jarring because we don't get more of the evolution of the house from "wreck with good bones" to home. OTOH, one of the most interesting seques is the reconstruction of the house's history. This leads Ruhlman to contact former occupants, who put him in touch with other people who spent time as visitors or residents of the house. One former resident even returns for a visit.
Ruhlman ultimately ties up most of the loose ends, although we aren't privy to how things came together, in his marriage, or in the restoration of the house. In stories like this, one expects to read of ill-timed cost overruns, periods of primitive existence, and follies in home imporvement. Instead, we get a little mortaring, some painting, and a steady stream of rich people's castoffs from Ruhlman's mother in Florida.
Still, the book reminded me how a house becomes caught up in many other things in one's life, and most of the time, that's a good thing or at least a useful thing. For some people I know in Atlanta, the house is their excuse for staying there--almost like a bad marriage. For Ruhlman, the house was a way to keep the marriage together, although his wife didn't always see it that way. The book would have been better if we hadn't been lectured about urban planning and if we could have seen how the house's history, it's restoration, and Ruhlman's marraige get pulled together.
But this book was 'a miss' for me. First, there were too many times the author wandered off for pages and pages of monologues about the meaning of home, the literary aspects of home and while I am a college graduate, these bored me to no end.
The history of Cleveland itself was interesting enough, if overlong. But the two biggest disappointments to me were the fact that almost none of the renovations were done by the homeowners, save painting and minor demolition. And the details of the renovations were not given.
Secondly, from the very first page, almost, the author describes the house as 'creepy' and 'dark' and 'having a bad feeling'. They argue when inside, their daughter hates the place, and yet they STILL buy it. This made me loose respect for the author right off the bat.
This book is bound for Goodwill, as I will never read it again.