Tanis Robinson's house at 624 Fort St. is on the local, state and national historic register. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, June 09, 2014 12:39 PMBefore she was old enough to drive, Tanis Robinson’s father, Jim, would drop her off to work at the family rental property during the summer. Usually the task of sanding and staining fell to her.
“My dad had a saying: If you’re going to live here at home, you’re going to work, go to school or do volunteer work,” Tanis said.
One year she opted for the volunteer work. “I was, by far, the youngest pink lady at the hospital,” she recalled.
The summer she remembers most keenly is when she got the scar. She runs a finger across her brow to point it out. “I was about 14, and working with my brothers at my uncle C.A.’s property at 1020 Kirby Street when I fell out of a tree. My head hit the pane of a window on the ground. When I went inside, dripping blood, holding my head, my brother yelled at me, get off the porch. You’re making a mess!” She laughs about it now. “He wasn’t being mean. He was just trying to get my mind off my head.”
Today Tanis hires people to sand, stain and anything else she needs to have done. “I have 16 houses, which are mostly around 624 Ford Street in Lake Charles. People joke with me all the time, calling it Tanisville,” she said.
“Some people save people. I save houses,” she said. This may be an inherited trait. Her uncle, C.A. King II, did the same. “He bought them when the price was low, when no one wanted to live north of Broad,” Tanis said. “You couldn’t even order pizza delivered north of Broad. There may be only one place that delivers now.”
About C.A. King II, Adley Cormier, Historical Preservation Commissioner writes: “C. A. King was a real gentleman, descended from the pioneer King family which had ties with the Nolands, the Webers, the Powells, all prominent families with business interests in Southwest Louisiana. I think that he was proud of this city and the arts. He was very active, early on, in the preservation community. For a time, C.A. was president of Little Theatre and held board meetings on Ford and Division, when Little Theatre was homeless and performing in all sorts of venues from LaGrange Middle School (now demolished) to the Arcade, to Central and elsewhere.”
According to Cormier, King knew practically everybody and was as kind and friendly to the man on the street as he would be to a U.S. senator. “He loved to entertain and loved to show his big house on Ford and Division” Cormier said.
When King died in 1991 he left Tanis and her brothers the house at 618 Ford St. (Her brothers gave Tanis their part.)
Tanis was living in a trailer. She sold it for $10,000 and used the money to transform the house into a bed and breakfast. Tanis was business owner, maid, homebaked bread maker and chief bottle washer. “The attic stairway was so narrow, I had to turn the serving tray sideways to take it up,” she said.
Tanis named her bed and breakfast Walter’s Attic, after the original owner/builder, Walter Goos. Goos built the cottage in 1893. According to Tanis, his wife designed it. The house had only one closet. “That’s because houses were taxed according to the number of rooms they had and a closet was considered a room,” Tanis explained
Five years after her uncle died, Tanis purchased the three-story colonial revival at 624 Ford St. (next door to 618 Ford St).
The house at 624 Ford St. was also among those owned and refurbished by her late uncle.
The Walter Goos House at 624 Ford St. was built in 1900. It is on the national, state and local register. It has an impressive portico and towering Lake Charles columns, which are square and taper slightly. The ceiling is coffered and painted blue to discourage insect nesting.
Tanis operated this house as a bed and breakfast for a while and named it for her uncle: C.A.’s House Bed and Breakfast. She converted the carriage house into a guest cottage when she realized that not everyone could navigate the stairs at C.A.’s House. She built another small guest quarters on the property to accommodate families. (Most of the bed and breakfasts guests were honeymooners.)
Tanis no longer operates the two Walter Goos Ford Street houses as bed and breakfasts where she had some guests of note. Among them were TV journalists, a New York Times writer, a football Hall of Famer and writers and casts from the movie, Little Chenier.
Tanis still leases the two smaller houses as corporate housing and owns the house across the street.
Walter’s Attic was a springboard for Tanis. She borrowed against it to buy her first rental property at 610 Mill St.
Her mother, Betsy Bee King Robinson, helped her paint it. “She told me, I don’t know how you do this kind of work,” Tanis recalled.
Once a duplex, the house is now a single family dwelling.
Tanis also owns the houses at 618, 602 and 530 Mill St. and is in the process of renovating the “cook’s house” next door to that property.
When Tanis bought 704 Ford St., it was seven apartments. “One of the owners just kept adding on and adding on to make more room for boarders, but she didn’t do it right,” Tanis explained.”
Tanis had to tear down the additions that were riddled with termites.
Now it’s back to its original footprint. It’s an eye-catching, a single family cottage painted a beautiful lavender color and fenced with white pickets.
On occasion, Tanis has located a bargain in the vicinity where she’s concentrated her efforts. One of these was priced at $15,000.
Her 422 Peake St. rent house has some interesting features. The first owner and builder of that house was one of the stone masons who helped build the Lake Charles Courthouse. Inside is a fireplace that he built for his wife that includes a large heart design. “The front porch of that house has one of the largest cypress beams I’ve ever seen,” Tanis said.
She notices wood.
“I like how wood smells when you’re building with it,” she said. She appreciates natural materials. Whereas some homeowners see wood as the skeleton onto which to build, Tanis focuses on ways to highlight the beauty of wood.
In her most recently finished house Tanis used Vermont trusses, 42-feet posts, pine, oak, fir and bamboo.
Tanis covers walls with wood. She decorates with it. She leaves it natural in some places. In other areas, she stains and paints in to draw attention to it.
Her hero is her carpenter, Karl Martin. She also depends on Scott Williams of Williams Wood in Carlyss. “He can cut the wood you need, any wood, any way you want it,” she said
Another Tanis Robinson trademark is her love of a great deal, which often means using salvaged materials. She’s rescued bricks, windows and doors from tear-downs and used them to build new structures, like the first house she ever designed and built at 1737 Granger St.
The windows are one-of-a-kind. “Someone gave me those windows. I saved the bricks when I tore down an old garage. I hired a kid to help me clean them. I only had to buy one pallet to finish the walkway,” she said.
She shares the amount she paid for the windows in her own home. It’s $600, very low for three large plate glass windows. “No, I paid $600 for all the windows.” She’s delighted to be able to “rub in” her steal, as bargain finders are apt to do, beaming a big smile each time.
She accumulated the windows and doors for her own home first – and built around them. “Doors set the stage for what’s inside,” she said.
The main entry way is an exotic carved gate door from India. She has pocket doors from The Bank in New Orleans that have been fashioned into swing doors. The panels have been replaced with glass. Some of the reclaimed doors have termite holes, she explains as she moves from room to room pointing out highlights.
A piece of petrified wood takes center stage in one of the baths. It’s used as a sink basin.
The floor in her roomy bath came from a local building surplus store (another one of her bargains). The shower stall is anchored on only one wall. This and the use of glass makes the shower seem even larger than it is, but it is big enough to allow her to get in it and use a handheld shower head to bathe her large dogs.
The house was also designed with a special feeding area for her dogs. It’s easy to clean and has its own water supply.
The new South Carolina-style house that she’s building at 626 Division St. meets the Charpentier Historic District specifications for appropriate infill and is similar to the home that was torn down. It will have a dual master suite (bedroom, bath and closet combination).
According to Cormier, appropriate infill is new construction that is close in size, scale, and use to the neighborhood.
Tanis respects the Charpentier historic district guidelines, but based on experience, she knows that following those guidelines can mean added expense. Rather than relaxing the guidelines, she wishes there were monies available to help home renovators and builders.
“Tanis the House Saver” seems older than her age at times, like she’s lived long enough for the world to hold no surprises. At other times her voice and manner seem childlike, for instance when she points out the ducks she raised from hatchlings. She’s down to earth and there’s no pretense about her. What you see is what you get.
She’s been to Ringling School of Art in Sarasota. At McNeese, she studied art, art education and advertising. She minored in psychology. On the walls of her home are oil paintings, pen and ink drawings and her own photographs that have been printed on canvas. Most of the photographs are nature scenes.
When asked how her education translates to being a property manager, she replied, “I try to keep my properties in one area. It’s like a painting and I want to see that painting finished.”
Her future plans include updating some of her earlier rental property purchases and she’d like to – one day -- develop properties with monthly rents in the $600 - $800 range.
But she’s not in a hurry. “I take one project at a time,” Tanis said.