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.