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Two Missouri men inhabit some unusual digs

Tuesday, November 13, 2007 | 8:52 p.m. CST; updated 2:13 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
John Tinker plays with his 3-year-old son, Fisher, on Thursday in the gymnasium turned playroom of their home in Fayette, which is the former Laurence J. Daly School, built in 1928. Tinker bought the school, which students last attended in 1978, and has been working to convert it to a living space. He and his wife, Patricia Fischer, moved there with their son in June.

COLUMBIA — John Tinker has a well-stocked library in his home. So does Patrick O’Hanlon.

Tinker’s library is full of the kind of books a gentleman should have — from treatises on international affairs and military history to the paperback adventures of James Bond and Perry Mason — and maybe a couple of things he shouldn’t. Sitting on a shelf looking perfectly at ease among the volumes of military history are two shiny tins of Kroger brand survival crackers circa 1962.

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A grand piano is the centerpiece of O’Hanlon’s library. The shiny black patina of the piano contrasts with the green and white checkerboard linoleum floor. Rows of hardback books line the wall opposite the piano.

Tinker and O’Hanlon’s libraries aren’t necessarily the most fascinating aspect of their homes. Not nearly.

Tinker has a second floor gymnasium in his home complete with wood floor, stadium seating and full-size basketball court. O’Hanlon has two elevators in his house (though only one works) and the door to his laundry room is lead-lined. Scores of people have died in the space he calls his bedroom.

Neither Tinker nor O’Hanlon are financially wealthy men, but their homes are rich and fascinating in a way most homes aren’t.

Tinker lives in Fayette with his wife and young son in a four-story decommissioned school building built in 1928. O’Hanlon lives with his wife in Marshall in the three-story in front, five-story in back building, built in 1923, that used to be the local hospital.

Both men, who have never met, have in common their sense of the uncommon, and that shows in the place each calls his home.

“I never wanted to be part of the empire,” Tinker said, when asked of his home and atypical life. O’Hanlon is practical when he considers his living space; he says home is what you make it.

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John Tinker does not come off as an eccentric. He is shy and introspective and prides himself on being a family man. He is also very likeable and has a keen intellect.

It’s ironic that he should end up living in a school building, considering that in 1965 Tinker was kicked out of his Des Moines, Iowa, high school for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War. His case, Tinker v. Des Moines, would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as one of the seminal freedom of expression cases of its time; Tinker’s anti-war statement would later be upheld by the court.

Tinker, 57, has a history of living in unusual circumstances. Among others, he’s lived in a 1941 Ford delivery truck, a vault in an inventor’s supply store, and a 120-by-80 foot stone barn. In 1995 he purchased the Daly elementary school building in Fayette with the thought of making it his home. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Tinker lived in various parts of the country. This will be the first winter he’s lived in the school with his wife, Patricia Fisher, and their 3-year-old son, John Fisher Tinker.

Living in the large school house has given Tinker, a Web site developer who works from home, the space to indulge his pastimes.

“I have a lot of interests,” Tinker said. “I wanted an art room, a music room, a big library, a workshop and living space.”

In the school house he has all of those things.

Tinker’s art room came pre-splattered with paint on the floor because it used to be an art classroom, and it holds, among other things, an 800 pound printing press. His music room has a multitude of instruments, including a trumpet and Mexican guitar, and resembles the musical classroom it served as years ago. His aforementioned library sits next to the gym and is probably one of the few home libraries around that reposits 40-year-old survival crackers (“They taste like the varnish inside the can,” Tinker says). His workshop, filled with wires, old computers and antique radios looks like something H.G. Wells would be proud of.

Utility costs in so large a space can be expensive, and Tinker has been creative with his energy-saving solutions. The home’s living spaces are heated with wood stoves, there is greenhouse plastic on outside walls to trap heat and the stairway leading up to the gym has been painted with silver paint to reflect light and warm the area.

“I’m always thinking about the heat, like a building operator,” Tinker said.

Living in such unique circumstances will undoubtedly have an impact on Tinker’s young son.

“His sense will be different than a child growing up in a typical, standard house,” Patricia Fisher said. “He’ll have a large personality.”

Neither Tinker nor Fisher are self-conscious about living in a former institution as opposed to a “standard house,” yet both are keen on some practical differences.

“The dusting and sweeping are constant,” said Fisher. Tinker noted, “There’s a small but steady stream of people who want to do metal detecting in the lawn.”

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Patrick O’Hanlon sold his first work of art when he was in third grade. It was a frog done in mixed media — string, cardboard and construction paper — that his teacher purchased from him for $5. From the proceeds of the sale, young Patrick O’Hanlon bought a toy robot from Sears.

O’Hanlon now makes his living selling art. He, like Tinker, also works from home.

Like many older homes, the kitchen in O’Hanlon’s home has been remodeled, or perhaps rezoned is the better word. His kitchen didn’t start out life as a kitchen at all; it was a hospital’s hydrotherapy room.

O’Hanlon, 53, bought the old Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall in 2004, relocating with his wife Dee Yoh from Virginia. He has since converted the hospital into an art gallery and residence.

The Pahlo Art Gallery occupies the first floor of the hospital and features the work of O’Hanlon and 19 other artists. The artwork, which includes media such as oil paintings and bronze sculptures, is displayed in the old patient rooms.

O’Hanlon lives with his wife in the basement of the old hospital in what used to be the emergency room. The ER’s automatic sliding glass doors still work, though most of the time they are turned off. (“You don’t want your front doors opening every time a car drives past,” said O’Hanlon.) They’re still used as the front entrance to the ER-turned-home.

The artist, who once held a “real job” as a mainframe computer operator, admits his choice of home is a little unconventional.

“Most people don’t have the mind-set to think of an ER as a house,” he said. And most people aren’t comfortable sleeping where so many have died.

“In 1923 people didn’t come here to get well,” he said. “They came here to die.”

O’Hanlon sleeps in the old emergency room surgery; the ceiling fan above his bed hangs from where surgery tools used to hang. His computer desk has plenty of counter space though it still tends to be a bit cluttered — it used to be the admit-desk to the ER. His laundry room, with its lead-lined door and a super-abundance of closet space, used to be an X-ray room.

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What is remarkable about both Tinker and O’Hanlon is how unremarkable each considers his living circumstance.

“My son, my daughter and my wife are my central values,” Tinker said. “The building is really peripheral, believe it or not.”

O’Hanlon has a different notion of what it is to be rich.

“What do you see as wealth?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted a place with pillars. I’ve got two or three acres of grass. This place embodies a lot of things that I like. It’s conducive to art and showing art and building art.”

“For me, it’s a richer culture when people find a special way of doing things,” Tinker said.

Like doing your laundry in an old X-ray room, or in his case, an old boy’s restroom.


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