This book interested me as a native Clevelander and a former resident of Cleveland Heights. It also happened that I had recently sold an old house (in Atlanta) and had happily cast off the annoyances of homeownership.
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.