A good thing happened recently in Port Deposit.
I know that sounds far-fetched (I mean, previously, the best thing that ever happened to Port Deposit was getting mentioned on four separate instances by Ripley’s “Believe it Or Not”), but when ABC’s popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition television show rolls into town it’s hard to get things wrong.
But they nearly did this time.
In mid-October the cast and crew of the show, which takes disadvantaged, underprivileged and otherwise down-on-their-luck families and heaps upon them a new mansion filled with untold riches, rolled into Cecil County to visit Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program.
For a quarter-century the Luther family has operated its non-profit program, which offers horseback rides as a type of therapy for people with physical and developmental problems. Things took a turn for the worse about a half-year ago when family patriarch, Carl Luther, died leaving the rest of the family – mother Renee, son Alex and daughter Ellie – to keep the program alive and keep the bills paid. That’s where Extreme Makeover swooped in and saved the day. Sort of.
Anyone who has watched the show before knows the format – families from across the nation send in letters and videos describing their hard-luck situations and detailing their horrid living conditions, all while pleading their case for the design team to choose them and show up to build them a castle. A fairy tale come to life.
Anyone who watched the show Sunday night, however, might have noticed the format was altered slightly, but in a way that took a little luster off the glitz and glamor and took a little magic out of the story.
It was mentioned no fewer than three times during the two-hour show and one-hour pre-show, just how exactly the Luther family was “discovered” by the Extreme Makeover crew.
Apparently, Extreme Makeover is doing a whirlwind tour of America and is building a house for a deserving family in each of the 50 states. When Maryland’s turn came up, the show, recognizing Maryland was “horse country,” put the word out to find a horse farm in the Old Line State that offered therapeutic riding lessons. A secretary at Freedom Hills caught wind of the idea, got in touch with the show and the rest is history. Renee Luther herself took great pride in pointing out a few times how the show came to the family and not the other way around.
To me it all seems a little contrived, but I guess that’s Hollywood.
There is no doubt Freedom Hills is a wonderful place that offers a wonderful opportunity for those who are truly in need. The problem I had with the show is I didn’t see where the Luther family itself was truly in need.
Compared to some of the other houses razed and rebuilt on the show, some of the ones in the Hurricane Katrina episodes come most immediately to mind, the Luther home was already a mansion. I should say, it IS a mansion, because the team didn’t raze the existing house as they usually do.
From all appearances on TV Sunday night, the Luther house is at worst untidy and unfinished. Just listen to the harsh words Renee Luther used to describe the deplorable conditions in which the family was forced to live.
“That railing is really, really wobbly,” she warned host Ty Pennington as they walked up to a sprawling front porch.
The Luther home looked like any other multi-story house I’ve ever seen – each of the children had their own bedroom, there was an unfinished family room area, etc
According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, the 59.4-acre parcel owned by Renee Luther with a two-story, stone-facade dwelling built in 2007, which must be the Extreme Makeover house (the 5,043-square-foot size also helped give it away), is assessed at a value just less than $1 million.
It’s difficult to track, especially so in this case, but it appears to me the property was worth $471,736 prior to the Extreme Makeover crew ever showing up. What’s more, the crew decided to move the entire location of the Luther house closer to the barn, stables and indoor riding course, which were also renovated. So the old Luther home was still standing at the end of the show.
Again, it’s hard to pinpoint (apparently all these parcels were all divided up in early October 2007), but the Luther’s old house might be this place – which is the only other address on Rolling Hills Ranch Lane and is owned by the Sherrard family (Renee Luther’s maiden name). If so, that’s a $380,000 house and 77.5 acres of property.
I’m not trying to build a case against the Luthers. The family has done more for the good of humanity than I ever will. I just wanted to point out some inconsistencies that jumped out at me, which are the fault of the show and not the family. I guess it feels dirty because lives and emotions are involved. In reality, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is no different than any other game show. The Luthers may have won the lottery, but it was Extreme Makeover who set the odds.
Oh and to put it into perspective, next up on its tour of the 50 states, Extreme Makeover heads to New Hampshire where a flood left a family with an empty lot where their home once sat.
As for the show itself, here are some things I noticed.
WMAR Channel 2 ran an hour-long special on the Luther family prior to the Extreme Makeover episode, but it might have been more appropriately titled The Clark Turner Hour.
“We don’t set out to win awards, we set out to build great homes and communities…”
Those were the first words I heard, played ad nauseum during a Clark Turner Signature Homes commercial that aired during each and every commercial break, and they were the recurring theme of the evening.
Turner, who famously built the community around Bulle Rock Golf Course, razed and is rebuilding on the site of Tranquility Townhomes in Havre de Grace and is turning the Bainbridge former Naval Training Facility into a community with thousands of residents, a library, a college, a retirement home and plenty of commercial office space, was also chosen to be the lead builder for the Luther home.
It was a great thing Turner did to donate his time, energy, money and resources to help the Luthers, but remember – Clark is first and foremost a savvy businessman and he wouldn’t have even sniffed this project if it didn’t exude the pungent aroma of future success. In short, if there wasn’t something in it for him you can be certain he wouldn’t have put his name, money and reputation on the line.
Some, Turner included, would call that a win-win situation. The Luthers get a new house they might have wanted, ABC and Extreme Makeover get a good show to go up against the NFC Championship Game and Clark Turner gets the national attention and advertising he’s been looking for. Wow, a win-win-win situation. That’s something special.
From the way WMAR anchors Brian Wood and Mary Beth Marsden and meteorologist Norm Lewis treated Turner you’d have thought the guy just cured cancer, single-handedly caught Osama bin Laden or, in an Oprah-esqe move, gave everyone in the audience a new 5,000-square-foot mansion.
There was Jaime Costello walking down Washington Street in Havre de Grace talking with Turner about his childhood. There was Harford County Executive David Craig presenting Turner with a special proclamation (“It’s more than from county executive to a builder, it’s from a friend to a friend”), which was strange enough because even though the Luthers live in Cecil County, the WMAR special was live in Baltimore County and a lot of the focus was on Harford County.
There was state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Cecil County Commissioner Wayne Tome and Del. Dave Rudolph who also posed with proclamations and elbowed for air time.
There were the two guys from Gardiner’s Furniture in Campus Hills, where the design team apparently spent two days picking out 146 pieces of furniture, lamps and accessories that were delivered to Port Deposit in two-and-a-half trucks.
Over the course of the WMAR special we also learned it took 106 hours, 123,000 nails, 5,100 feet of interior trim molding, 2,500 feet of exterior trim molding, 460 sheets of dry wall, 540 tons of stone, 174 gallons of paint, 9,120 feet of hardwood flooring, 95 five-gallon buckets of spackle, 11,000 feet of wire, 7,470 lineal feet of shingles and 1,500 studs used to build the Luther house.
In between walking through downtown Havre de Grace, a 10-minutes-too-long segment on how Clark Turner Signature Homes “made the project happen,” and Turner’s three or four sessions answering questions lobbed his way by Norm Lewis, Turner and business partner Richard Alter presented an oversized $50,000 check to the Luther family to cover property taxes and insurance. I’m assuming this was the same $50,000 Turner would give the family about two hours later on the Extreme Makeover show, but I can’t be certain.
In the anti-climatic fashion typical of local news specials, the Baltimore Area Hyundai Dealers awkwardly gave the Luther family a 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe as a surprise finale. The poor Luthers had to feign surprise even though they must have had an idea what was going on when they were ushered to stand outside with 5 guys in front of the new silver Hyundai.
The WMAR special was also peppered with commercials for Paul Risk Associates, Inc., which donated time and money to rebuild the Luther family’s barn and stable. Paul Risk Associates is also working on renovating the historic Tome School at Bainbridge into a thousand-resident continuing care retirement community. It occurred to me that someone should ask if the participation of Turner, Alter and Risk in the Extreme Makeovershow accelerate or hinder work at Bainbridge.
With the WMAR show mercifully over, the Extreme Makeover episode opened with exuberant host Ty Pennington running around the Inner Harbor with quick cuts to Oriole Park at Camden Yard, the National Aquarium and the U.S.S. Constellation firing a canon.
I have to admit it was a bit unsettling to actually hear someone say the words “Port Deposit” on national TV. But I got over that quick – neither the riverside town nor its host county were mentioned in the remaining hour and 50 minutes.
It seemed the cast and crew of the show had the same opinion of Clark Turner as do our local TV personalities.
“This guy is an awesome dude,” host Pennington said.
Turner had a visible but professionally subdued role on the show, which made Steve Risk, president of Paul Risk Associates, his perfect foil.
“He’s an animal,” Ty screamed at one point in the show as Risk, bellowing like a Norse god, sent a sledge hammer through a barn door.
In another memorable highlight, Steve and Ty both simultaneously mule-kicked backward to test the strength of a wooden wall. Ty was right, this guy is an animal.
Aside from a scenic shot of the bridges of the Susquehanna River, the only appearance of local significance is when part of the design team apparently went to Sears at Harford Mall – at least that’s what it looked like to me. The designer picked out a riding lawnmower, which could hardly be considered practical on a 156-acre farm, and then drove it down the street in between what looked like Shamrock Park and St. Margaret’s Church.
The real story and poignant justification for the entire three-hour advertisement didn’t kick-in until the design team took its “field trip” to visit those who use the therapeutic riding. Their stories were undeniably heart-wrenching and it was utterly refreshing to watch and hear real emotion from real people after being subjected to the platitudes of Turner and company and the TV-induced faux drama of potentially not finishing “the build” within the self-imposed deadline.
These were real people getting true benefit out of the riding program and they should have been the focus from the start – that includes WMAR’s sugary sweet ode to Turner.
Turner, who popped up at least a half-dozen times in the show – once “riding” one of his signature horse statues and another time wearing overalls – called it “the most rewarding week” of his life and said chills went down his spine when he hugged the family.
The star of the show, however, was clearly 14-year-old Alex Luther who looked and acted about a decade older. He could have fit right in hanging out with me and some of my twenty-something friends.
“We have furniture that didn’t come from Goodwill,” Alex shouted, as they raced into their new home in the penultimate scene.
For all my criticism, it was a nice show and showcased a lot of good that a lot of our local folks do everyday – from the Luthers to Turner to WMAR for dedicating an evening to the occasion.
Now that’s a win-win situation.
For another biased review of the show, but from the opposite perspective, I’d recommend checking out Clark Turner’s “Extreme Dream” web site, which is replete with photos of the project from start to finish as well as his own personal daily blog of how it all went down.
Nice pick-up on the Sears and the Bel Air neighborhood. The way people were falling all over themselves here that day you’d have thought Jesus went to Sears and picked out a spanking new Craftsman Cross to drag down the street.
I didn’t get a chance to watch the show. Did they do a cinematic pan down Port’s picturesque Main Street? Another 10 years, they’ll move into the 20th Century.
tammy moore says
that’s how the people of bel air, md are. full of themselves! i’ve only been here 2 years and have had my fill of them!
— “He’s an animal,” Ty screamed at one point in the show as Risk, bellowing like a Norse god, sent a sledge hammer through a barn door.
In another memorable highlight, Steve and Ty both simultaneously mule-kicked backward to test the strength of a wooden wall. Ty was right, this guy is an animal. —
So I was flipping back and forth between the NFC Conference Championship football game and Extreme Makeover on Sunday night. For the most part, it was far more entertaining watching the kicker for the Giants miss field goals than cringing at the overly animated Ty Pennington attempting to feign true emotion. The edge, however, goes to Extreme Makeover for the 5 second shot of Clark Turner riding a miniature horse looking eversomuch like a deranged leprauchaun. Did the tile layers put that blindingly white porcelain veneer on Mr. Turner’s dentures? And David Craig is the County Executive for Harford County and Port Deposit is in Cecil County. Oh, that’s right, it was “friend to friend” between buddies David and Clark. I guess the next time ol’ Clark wants to develop some property outside the building envelope, he’ll remind David of the airtime he got for him on the show. And if you want a final laugh, go onto the Sears website and you’ll see that Mr. Pennington hawks everything from “Ty Pennington style linen raku glazed organic bottles” to “Ty Pennington style acrylic water bottles, in various colors”.
Sellin' out says
The whole show was ridiculous! Ty kept pushing Renee to cry by asking the same questions about how she was dealing with her husbands death. i guess to justify their “need”. Their house was nice and just needed a little basecoat and a few nails in that railing on the front porch.
There are TONS of families in maryland that would have jumped at the opportunity to have a new home and mostly…would have deserved it. Just goes to show how fake the world it and how its one giant commercial for something. i agree, what the Luther family does for others is amazing and wonderful. What ABC does for families is to make money for themselves and others who have much to gain in advertising. SHOW BOATS!
I’m sure they moved a bunch of “Ty Pennington style linen raku glazed organic bottles” that night. I’d have more respect for the whole thing if they spent a year rebuilding “Katrina” houses. I’d tune in to that every week. I guess that only sells so much laundry detergent, before it’s time to refurbish somebody’s mansion.
Well, I can’t say this was entirely unexpected. In fact, I think we all pretty much saw it happening – the Luther family of Port Deposit is now selling its old house, the one the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew didn’t tear down.
“Now, the old house is for sale — Sherrard-Luther wants to pay off that mortgage — and ‘I live in a mansion,’ she said.”
The quote was the final paragraph of a story in today’s Baltimore Sun:
Again, I don’t blame the Luthers for taking advantage of what was clear to everyone but the producers of the show – the family wasn’t really in need.
Tanya Blaine says
Couple things that concer me and was never expressed on this program. Number 1) Renee and her husband were seperated for two years prior to his death 2) Her riding center is geared towards selling riding lessons to ABLED riders 3) Rumor has it Freedom Hills is not recognized and not certified as a part of the National Handicapped Riding Association. Unfortunately, an underserving person received quite a gift. How does she look in the mirror every day? I think this epsisode needs to be renamed: EXTREME FAKEOVER!!!
Interesting points Tanya. Thanks for sharing.
After searching for accredited sites in Maryland here:
Freedom Hills is not listed.
Tanya Blaine says
EXTREME Maryland FAKEOVER!! I called the North American Riders Handicapped Association today to confirm what was being posted on Freedom Hill’s website. Very concerning..neither Freedom Hills NOR Renee Luther carry credentials to be a Therapeutic Riding Facitlity–but if you check out http://www.freedomhills.org – she touts herself as being part of NARHA. HOW did ABC miss this critical element of being an accredited facility that’s safe and trained to handle disabled children of any age?!?! I know two parents that sent their “healthy” children to Freedom Hills Aka Rolling Ranch facilty for riding abled body lessons. Teenagers taught the lessons; matter-of-fact, one of the children fell off the horse and got seriously hurt! On top of it all-I’ve recently heard an elderly couple who got rid of their farm donated four or five sound horses to Freedom Hills to live out their lives as lesson horses for “disabled” children–as rumor as it, the same day the horses were donated Ms. Luther had a trailer waiting for the horses in the driveway-she sold them that same day at five hundred bucks a piece-nice. The shows over…it’s a done deal…the sad thing is many good hearted folks gave of their time, talents and goods to help a family who did not deserve the time of day. There is NO reality to REALITY TV–shame on ALL of them for fooling the general public and all the volunteers who thought they were helping a person in need. The only thing Renee Luther needs is a job! Do you know she’s actually sending out e-mails begging for money to pay for her expenses/bills for her new home? When is enough enough???
I am close to the person who unwittingly sold the house to the new owners. Suddenly there was nothing wrong with the house. The Clark turner deal didnt even come into notice until a few days before the closing when the new owners found an internet citing of all the claimed defencies in the home…not mentioned in the discloser to the realtor. This was negiotated and the sale was ultimatly completed. Actually it turns out the house didnt have the defiencies noted in the show.
Tiffany L says
I was curious about the Freedom Hills family and excited for them after watching a rerun of Extreme Makeover Home Edition which brought me to this site.
After reading this article and subsequent comments I am in awe of how petty and jealous many of these opinions sound. It appears to me Brian’s article and most of the responses betray bitter attitudes in people who are unable to celebrate a gift someone else recieves. So what if she wasn’t living in a hurricane disaster zone, and so what if she sold her old house, what is wrong with your hearts?
Do you weigh and measure every gift you get and apply the same measures to others, do you begrudge those who recieve incredible gifts? It certainly seems so. This article and a majority of the responses have saddened my heart today.
has a heart says
you have to look at the big picture, tiffany. this show sells itself as “helping deserving people”. the luthers weren’t deserving or in need. shame on everyone involved.
Freedom Hills Rider says
I am utterly disgusted with this article, and the majority of it’s comments.
You are outside of the actual commotion, and you are making noise without tangible proof.
No, Renee and Freedom Hills were not listed on NARHA, but they damn sure are now, and have been for a while.
Also, in response to those of you that believe that the Luther family was not in need, do some freaking research. Have any you ever owned nearly 30 horses and used the majority of them in a non-profit organization? I sure as hell doubt it.
To clear some things up as well, Renee Luther runs two separate riding programs. One through Rolling Hills Ranch, and one through Freedom Hills. As for the rumors of someone who sent their child to Rolling Hills for lessons and that Renee sold the horses, it’s completely and utterly false. They are just RUMORS. Don’t be so quick to think everything you hear is true, or are you just that naive?
All of you that are judgmental are hearing things from word of mouth instead of directly asking the source, and I’m sickened by the smack down some of you have mentioned about a woman who does indeed do some of the best work on the planet.