For more than 40 years, the house at Indianola and Tibet has been Bob Erickson's curious, creative work in progress. Now he might lose it.
Admirers and detractors have their own names for the house at the corner of Indianola and Tibet: the Swiss Family Robinson house, the Ewok house (in a nod to Star Wars), Peter Pan's Place, the Eighth Wonder of Clintonville, the Human Hamster House (perhaps because of the long, covered walkway stretching from the main house to the detached garage at the back of the property).
But nearly everyone who's lived in Clintonville for any length of time is aware of the castle-like structure at the southwest corner of Indianola Avenue and Tibet Road, which has been in various stages of reimagining for the past 45 years. Few, however, know why owner Bob Erickson added three turrets to what was once a plain-Jane brick square, or why he built the snaking, raised walkway on its north side, or why he created an enclosed cupola toward the rear of the home with a ladder as its only access. “As long as I've lived here, I would pass it and wonder about it,” says Libby Wetherholt, chairwoman of the Clintonville Area Commission.
Some have compared it to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, where the fabulously rich widow Sarah Winchester, of the Winchester gun fortune, transformed a small home into a seven-story Victorian mansion with more than 160 rooms, thousands of doors and trapdoors and staircases to nowhere. But while the widow's constant building and rebuilding of her home for several decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s seemed to have little purpose beyond her own whims, Erickson's additions to his 100-year-old house have been rife with purpose.
Sadly, purpose too often outpaced progress, and as the years went by, many of Erickson's projects went unfinished, leaving much of the haphazardly growing house in various states of incompletion or disrepair. If the home wasn't already a much-talked-about curiosity in the neighborhood, the ominous orange “Danger” signs slapped on the mystery home's doors last year by the city kicked the whispering and gossip into overdrive on social media and across fences. Now Erickson—who had been living there alone after a divorce—is faced with an uphill struggle to bring his much-beloved house into compliance after the city of Columbus deemed it uninhabitable
A noble endeavor
Erickson and his then wife, Dot, bought the two-story, three-bedroom house in 1972 after they moved to Columbus with their 3-year-old daughter and a teenage friend they were caring for. Erickson, a minister in Falls Church, Virginia, had been hired a year earlier as the founding director for the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center, which the North Broadway United Methodist Church was starting. The Ericksons, whom their daughter, Ali Malley, calls “hippie social justice people,” quickly drew attention to their new home by painting the trim aqua and orange. “It picked up the color of the brick, I thought,” muses Bob, 76, as he talks about his home's history. At least one passerby complained, but they weren't deterred.
The Ericksons were much too busy to worry about one person's critique. They'd adopted a baby girl, Robin, whom they'd fostered since she was an infant, adding to their family, which included young Ali and a son, Charis. They were heavily involved in community service. Bob was studying for his doctorate in ministry from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, located in Delaware, and Dot was working at the Women's Resource and Policy Development Center.
By 1975, they realized they needed more space for their own family, the foster children they were caring for and their volunteer work. They couldn't afford to move, so Bob's imagination went to work. “We wanted to provide shelter for more than our own brood,” Bob explains. “We were especially attracted to providing respite for dependent, neglected kids, who often were otherwise on the streets and, later, to international students and others with various needs.”
And so the renovations and additions began—and continued, and continued. They wanted a larger gathering area, so they dug out the basement and created a 500-square-foot space they called “home base” that included a family room, a kitchen (replacing the tiny one on the first floor), a half-bath and a laundry room. The kids needed a play space, so Bob enclosed a back porch and made it into a carpeted, sunken room they filled with pillows and dubbed “the pit.” “It was about 4 feet down, and we used to jump into it,” Malley says.
Kids became tired of sharing sleeping quarters, so gradually Bob found a way to add five more bedrooms, mostly in an addition on the north side of the home. Malley got pregnant at the age of 18 and needed space to raise her daughter, so her dad raised the attic roof and built a third-floor apartment with a kitchen, bath, two bedrooms, a living room and a dining area. They needed a place, in Bob's words, “to put junk,” so he added a second floor to the ancient, detached garage at the rear of the property. Then, either for comfort's sake or because of a city requirement (family memories vary), he built a 45-foot-long, aerial walkway, attaching it to the house.
Bob wanted a workshop, so he created one in the garage, then added a paved carport next to it for vehicles and play. Everyone wanted more common spaces for gatherings, so they added three open-air turrets to the home in the front and a deck on the back.
Jennifer Wray, who lives on Tibet a few blocks from Erickson's house and grew up in Clintonville, says she's always found his house architecturally fascinating. “It's always made me smile to see it, and obviously someone lives there who has a passion for what he's doing,” she says. “It sounds like it's a house with a wonderful history and some heart to it. I'd love to see the inside sometime.”
Amanda Runyon Lynch lived on Tibet across the street from Erickson's house from 1976 until 1989. “First it was just a normal house, and then the construction started,” says Lynch, who now lives in Beechwold. “For children playing outside, it was a great place. They had rope swings and there was a pool. I spent the majority of my childhood going back and forth between my house and that house.”
She says parents on the street were always wondering what Erickson was adding to the home, but no one complained as far as she knew. “I don't really think people realized how forward-thinking he was. He was really living a St. Francis existence and sacrificing his own earthly needs to make space for his expanding family. It's disappointing that some people can't understand that.”
In a paper he wrote about his house, Erickson described his building process this way: “Suffering from a chronic combination of under-appreciation for conformity, over-active imagination and lack of training in construction, I had more confidence in my own instincts. I favored what made personal sense—however peculiar and vague—than copying others. I'd rather choose less predictable alternative approaches.”
He deepened the front porch and expanded its roof with massive beams so he could build on top of it, a process that foster child Bo Lee, now 46, remembers clearly because a 600-pound beam nearly fell on them before it slid into place, averting disaster. Bob wanted turrets rather than balconies, for example, because he likes angular shapes and panoramic views, not because he wanted to add whimsy to the house. “It became more like painting a picture, composing a poem, creating an environment without a template,” he says.
In the back of his mind, Erickson always had a larger purpose in mind for his home. He and Dot dedicated themselves to fostering children. Though he doesn't often mention it, Bob was a foster child himself, and eventually was adopted. Dot, now Dot Erickson-Anderson, is a licensed social worker and has worked with a variety of child welfare organizations throughout her life.
She recently tallied up all the kids they'd helped over the years and concluded they had fostered six preschoolers, five babies, eight youngsters from the Ohio Youth Commission, 47 teenagers through private foster-care agencies and 33 pregnant young women and their 30 babies. They also provided temporary respite care to 99 young people and opened their home to seven foreign-exchange students, six international adults and a college student working with deaf teenagers.
Numerous organizations also met at the home—some even had offices there—as the Ericksons' work expanded over the years.
Not content with just one house, in 2000 they purchased the house next door at 2927 Indianola Ave., both as an investment and as a “moat,” in Bob's words, to protect the main house. Bob renovated that too, but in a more conventional style so it could be rented out.
A troubling time
By the mid-2000s, work on the main house halted as health problems, job changes and, finally, Bob and Dot's separation made progress challenging. Bob suddenly found himself living in the once-crowded house alone, and projects that had once filled him with joy stagnated as he tried to find his footing in this new reality.
To cope, Bob moved into the third-floor apartment and rented the rest of the home to a friend, Robert Caldwell, who lived there for nearly seven years with his wife and children. “We painted, cleaned it up and did a little rehab work,” says Caldwell, executive director for AnswerPoverty.org. “My kids called it the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. It was great for us because we needed a place to land and we were happy to be there.”
At the same time, Bob had started on a new project, what he now calls a solarium on the northeast corner of the house. He dug out below the foundation, added two stories of windows and planned to put in an outside door and a walkway in the 14-foot-by-10-foot space. But after years of pulling permits from the city's building department for his projects, he made a mistake. He let his oft-renewed permit for the solarium lapse. The city swooped in.
For years, explains Anthony J. Celebrezze III, an assistant director with the Columbus Department of Building and Zoning, the city had its eye on Erickson's home. His work was unconventional, and occasionally someone would call and complain about the tarps he'd put up or the unusual additions he was making. But inspectors had no cause to investigate the home's interior until a year ago, when that building permit expired.
That allowed code inspectors to walk through the entire house, and they weren't happy with what they found. “There was exposed wiring, unfinished construction areas that had trip hazards and railings that couldn't hold a person's weight along walkways,” Celebrezze says, “There are light fixtures that are hanging down from the ceiling by wires, a walkway that's a 2-by-4 laid across rafters and secret rooms in the rafters you access by a ladder.”
Orange warning placards were slapped onto the front and back doors. “Danger: Do Not Enter Unsafe to Occupy” read one; another declared the building “Vacant: Public Nuisance and/or Hazardous Building.”
On April 21, 2017, Erickson was ordered to vacate the structure and get a new permit to make repairs. He moved in with a friend and has lived there since. “He is well known within the city department because we've had complaints about his work, but he's always had active permits, which prevented us from issuing unsafe orders,” Celebrezze says. “All our staff have met him and they know he's a nice guy. Unfortunately, finishing projects does not seem to be high on his list.”
In May, the Columbus Division of Fire also inspected the home and determined it was a danger to occupants, says battalion chief Steve Martin. It also could be a danger to firefighters if it was burning and they had to search for possible occupants, Martin says. “We go into buildings all the time that are under construction, and we adapt to that kind of stuff,” he says. “But if we're crawling down a hallway and it takes us to a place where we could be trapped or could fall off from a loose railing, well, a traditional pathway is a lot easier.”
Erickson and his family were shocked and disturbed by the city's order, which detailed repairs that needed to be made before anyone could occupy the home again. He also was told to hire a structural engineer to inspect the house and make recommendations. “This house has gotten as much judgment as any place in the city,” says Erickson, who calls the inspectors' visit a “fishing expedition.”
Finally, in September, Erickson received a new permit so he could begin construction again. Since then he's been working seven days a week to finish the solarium and bring it up to code, in addition to making other required repairs and working to fulfill the structural engineer's recommendations, which included adding additional support in the cupola and making repairs to a back balcony. The city doesn't have a specific deadline for Bob to finish the repairs needed to make the home habitable again. “We want him to be back in the house,” Celebrezze says. “It's his property. But he's got to get the house up to a safe standard.”
If Erickson doesn't comply, the city could take him to Franklin County Municipal Court's Environmental Division, where a judge could order him to sell the property or set a deadline for repairs. But Erickson, along with his relatives and friends, has no intention of letting that happen. His grandchildren and Bo Lee, his former foster child, have been helping him with construction. His daughter Ali, as well as a close friend, have gone with him to find out from building department officials exactly what needs to be done. Everyone is helping him stay on task (he admits he gets easily distracted) and keeping his imagination in check.
In November, Erickson passed an inspection for some footing and foundation work on the solarium. He feels he's making major progress and could meet the city's demands within a few months. “I keep thinking, ‘What is the route to get this scarlet letter off of my door?'” he says. “They had some legitimate concerns and I've got to satisfy them.”
After that, he wants to clean up the outside of the house, which has aged and deteriorated over the years. He needs to replace siding, redo portions of the roof, repaint and repair the turrets and build columns on the front porch. “It's still going to be ‘the weird house,'” Bob says. “But it's got to look clean.”
He hopes that will appease some of his critics, who have publicly discussed his home on the Clintonville Discussion Forum's Facebook page at least three times, starting in 2014. While many forum participants considered the home an eccentric slice of Clintonville, several thought it was unsafe and a blight on the neighborhood. One Clintonville resident who used to live nearby says she passed the house frequently and saw only constant states of disrepair, without any progress. “It's an absolute eyesore,” says the 37-year-old woman who asked that her name not be used. “It's a bunch of undone construction work.” Yet even she expressed sympathy for Erickson. “I can imagine he's trying to do a lot of the work himself and he's overwhelmed.”
Other Clintonville residents have been quick to come to Erickson's defense on Facebook, proposing that those who don't like Erickson's brand of diversity should move to the suburbs, while others have said it is a homeowner's personal business if he wants to add on to his home.
Many wished they could tour the inside of the house after watching it grow and change over the years, and several suggested a community “help day” for the property. Bob, who is a member of the forum, responded in 2014 with “a general apology to each of you regarding this interminably ugly project” and vowed to “increase my pace toward improving overall cosmetics.” In a more recent exchange, he commented that his intent had never been to stir up frustration, criticism, anger or sympathy. “Rather than listing excuses for negligence, I'll simply reiterate my commitment to continue striving to make it better and better; yet, without ambition (or even attempt) to ever match everyone's tastes,” he wrote.
The future of the house remains unclear.
Erickson quit his job as a lobbyist for the Hunger Alliance a few years ago, and he's living on retirement income and borrowing money to make repairs. He doesn't have the money to hire workers, so he's doing the work largely by himself, with the help of family and friends. Once he's finished, he says he'd like to sell the house to a nonprofit organization that could continue to use it to help others.
Celebrezze at the city building department says that could be difficult. “It would be a challenge for whoever purchased this house, because it has a lot of liabilities,” he says.
Bob says his debts may force him to sell anyway. “I'd love to be able to pass it on to the community,” he says. He ticks off some ideas: communal housing for a faith-based group; a rooming house; a home for foster children in transition; an art commune. Or, perhaps, just an interesting rental for a large family.
The house, says Erickson, is in transition, “hopefully to become a haven for a new form of kindness, perhaps a unique version of caregiving, communal living space, specialized service to this community. I am still weighing very diverse thoughts and am open to ideas.”
Malley says it's hard for her to imagine her father selling the home. “It's so much of you,” she tells him. Erickson smiles and sighs. “My grandchildren don't want me to sell it, but it's got to somehow be productive. I can't continue to pay for things and not have something come back.”