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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Altogether unexpected: Spokane man builds Hobbit House in front yard

You’ll need to duck your head.

The door, not quite perfectly round, stretches 5 feet by 4.8 feet. That’s just the right size for even the tallest of Hobbits. They stand, according to the prologue in “The Lord of the Rings,” a mere 2 to 4 feet tall.

But most humans, children not included, will need to mind their noggins if they want to hang out in the recently built Spokane Hobbit House.

Inspired by the Hobbit holes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, the Spokane Hobbit House at Spokane End is Ryan Oelrich’s new home office and reading nook. It’s also a conversation starter and neighborhood novelty that brings people to a dead end at the Spokane city limits to geek out about Middle-earth, complete a 15-part scavenger hunt, maybe even borrow a book.

So far, Oelrich has loaned out two copies of “The Hobbit.”

And, he said, “I have two copies left.”

Visitors don’t need to be a fan of Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy literature, or high fantasy, to come inside. But they must be friends.

“Speak friend and enter,” a sign near the front door – a reference to a riddle in “The Lord of the Rings” – reminds all who enter here.

“It’s a magical setting,” Oelrich said. “I kind of feel like I’m not in Spokane when I’m in here; I’m somewhere entirely different. It’s a nice escape. With the intensity of the work I do, I need a place to de-stress.”

Oelrich, 37, is known in Spokane as a balloon artist and the founder of Spokane Sidewalk Games as well as executive director of the nonprofit Priority Spokane, which focuses on initiatives involving community safety, health, education, economic vitality and the environment. The organization’s main priority right now is stabilizing the lives of homeless and at-risk youths in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Oelrich loves his work. But serving others can take its toll. The Hobbit house – a Hobbit room, really – offers a place to unwind, and dream. Spending time in his Spokane Hobbit House “recharges my batteries,” Oelrich said.

Building it did, too.

“I love working with my hands,” he said.

It took a couple of months for Oelrich to build his Hobbit house. But he’d been dreaming of doing so – and collecting decor as well as interesting pieces of found or reclaimed wood for the project – for about a decade, which is about as long as he’s owned his home.

A trip to Hobbiton, the 12-acre movie set in New Zealand, 100 miles southeast of Auckland, in February, inspired him to finally break ground.

“I loved it,” he said of his Hobbiton visit.

Of course, he expected to.

“I love the films,” he said. “This is my inner nerd coming out in force: I’ve seen each film no less than eight times in the theater.”

Oelrich first met “The Hobbit” in fourth grade. A teacher introduced them. Oelrich was struggling. “I just had a rough go of it,” he said. “I didn’t connect with a lot of other kids. I was a lonely little kid.”

Reading “The Hobbit” and, later, “The Lord of the Rings,” he said, “saved me, growing up.”

The books “really did me a lot of good,” Oelrich said. “They fascinated me. They helped develop my imagination. They helped my creativity. They provided inspiration.”

They still do.

“I love the moral lessons in Tolkien’s books,” he said.

One of them is posted on the fence in front of his Spokane Hobbit House. The sign reads: “Remember it was a Hobbit so very small who did big things and saved them all.”

Tolkien reminds us, Oelrich said, “that life is a wonderful adventure.” He also reminds us that fellowship is more valuable than gold and suggests that, sometimes, simply continuing onward is bravest thing we can do. He tells us we can achieve greatness no matter who we are, no matter our age or riches or stature.

“Sometimes, the most necessary folks aren’t the ones who first come to mind when we ask, ‘Who’s going to be the hero?’ ” Oelrich said.

The Spokane Hobbit House provides a cozy place to contemplate Tolkien’s life lessons. Oelrich estimates it stretches just 75 square feet. The ceiling at the highest point, not including the skylight, is 6 feet, but it slopes downward from there. And, “There aren’t any 90-degree angles,” Oelrich said.

The room is big enough for two, maybe three, to have a sit and share elevenses or afternoon tea. But it isn’t big enough for a bed. (Sorry LOTR fans: The Spokane Hobbit House isn’t an AirBnB.) It does, however, have wifi, its own Facebook page and a hashtag: #SpokaneHobbitHouse.

The space features a mini wood-burning stove tucked in a tiny alcove, a book shelf brimming with Tolkien tomes, and two chairs built from wine barrels. A framed map of Middle-earth hangs on a wall. So do lyrics from a Hobbit walking song, reminding us that “still round the corner there may wait a new road or a secret gate.” Indeed, a back door leads to a “secret garden,” complete with a fire pit for roasting marshmallows.

The sloping roof is covered with 8 inches of soil and dotted with drought-resistant plants. A skylight lets in additional light. A small desk fits into the corner behind the front window. A round, braided carpet ties the room together.

Decorations throughout reference characters and imagery from Tolkien’s works. A dragon-shaped bell represents Smaug, the greedy, wicked and fearsome dragon – and main antagonist – in “The Hobbit.” Elephants, “oliphaunts” in Hobbit folklore, adorn a small nightstand.

A large spider alludes to the “Great Spiders” that appear in both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” The eagle depicted in a small, stained glass window along the back wall symbolizes the oversized and wise “Great Eagles” that Tolkien describes as “proud and strong and noble-hearted.”

Depictions of butterflies and birds abound, just like in the books. So do mushrooms, a favorite Hobbit snack, served fresh as well as cooked with bacon. Oelrich commissioned local artist Tiffany Patterson to create decorative ceramic mushrooms especially for the Spokane Hobbit House.

He’s also since commissioned local artist Megan Perkins to create a 11-by-14 painting of the place. He messaged her on Facebook to ask if she might be interested.

“I was, like, give me your address right now. I’ll be over in 10 minutes,” Perkins said. “I took like 90 million pictures. I was really impressed with how he thought out the whole design. I love how he turned it into an interactive community thing even though it’s his private office. It’s a magical little nook. Who doesn’t love a big, bright red, round door? It’s adorable.”

Perkins read “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” for the first time in sixth grade. She’s seen all of the movies, too. “In high school, my friends and I would go to the premieres.”

She hasn’t been back to the Hobbit house since her research visit. But, “I’m hoping once he has (the painting) framed up, he’ll show me a picture of it in the Hobbit house,” she said. “I loved painting it. I kinda didn’t want to give him.”

When she came over to have a look around, she said, “I have to admit I did pretend that I lived there for a little while. It was all very exciting. I hope it sets off a trend of more Hobbit houses (in Spokane). That would be a awesome.”

Construction started in April. And, “It came together quickly. It’s a very small space,” Oelrich said. “It falls in the shed or pergola category.”

He built his Hobbit house partially under the front porch of the home he shares with his partner, Robbie Thompson, 29. They married two years ago. Oelrich bought the house, tucked at the end of a dead-end street at the Spokane city limits, near Indian Canyon Golf Course, in 2007. He calls it, and the neighborhood in which it sits, Spokane End.

Bilbo Baggins, aka “The Hobbit,” lived at Bag End. And just like the character did in the book, Oelrich hung a sign on his front gate, reading: “No admittance except on party business.”

He framed the walls of the Spokane Hobbit House in his garage, then put them in place around the concrete pad of a floor and covered them with plaster. Even though it’s a small space, “I didn’t realize how much plaster it would take,” Oelrich said, noting he made many unexpected trips to the Home Depot to pick up more plaster and supplies such as extra hinges.

“The door was the hardest part,” he said, adding he has a confession. The door isn’t “perfectly round” – “like a porthole,” as Tolkien wrote – but more of an oval.

Oelrich built it himself by hand, adding a wheel for extra support. His father, a retired engineer, gave him advice. Thompson helped pick out plants, do landscaping and carry loads.

“He has a great eye,” Oelrich said of his partner. “He provides balance. He’s the one to say, ‘You’re going overboard.’ ”

Although he had help, mostly, Oelrich said, “This was a Ryan project.”

And, he said, “It has been a lot of fun.”

There was one thing he couldn’t quite find, however. “I looked forever for a round window. I never found one that works. I went to all sorts of vintage shops and junk stores looking for a round window.”

In the end, he faked it, mounting a rectangular window in the wall but building a exterior trim to give the illusion that the window is round.

He largely completed the project this summer. But Oelrich maintains that his Spokane Hobbit House is a work in progress. “I don’t think there is a completion date,” he said. “I keep thinking of one more little thing that needs to be added.”

So do others. Oelrich found an owl knickknack – along with a note, simply signed from a “Hobbit fan” – that had been left at the Spokane Hobbit House in late July, shortly after he posted photos of the project on Facebook. Today, the owl keeps watch from the book shelf.

In early September, someone dropped off figurines of two “awesome” ents, or anthropomorphic tree creatures found in Tolkien.

And people who usually pass by without stopping have made a point to linger and chat. “It’s been fun to get to know our neighborhood better through our Hobbit House,” Oelrich said.

Friends who saw his post have also stopped to take a look – “You can see the magic from the road,” Oelrich said – or complete the scavenger hunt. Clues are posted at a lectern situated in front of the fence. All point to Tolkien references that are hidden in plain sight: the face of an ent, the Brown Wizard Radagast, assorted mushrooms, a frog, dragonfly, butterfly and “a thrush (bird) that knocks.”

Aug. 31, an Avista “crew completed our scavenger hunt while also trimming the trees around our ‘Shire’ to assure our Hobbit Home stays warm & powered this winter. Thanks Avista!” Oelrich posted on Facebook that same day.

Others have asked to borrow the nook to read a book. And still others are surprised to learn that when Oelrich says “Hobbit House” he really means an actual Hobbit House.

Aug. 30, Oelrich posted a comment from a colleague: “When you asked if I wanted to meet in your ‘Hobbit House’ office I thought it was just a weird metaphor.”

Visitors are welcome. But, remember, the property’s private. So if you don’t know him personally or have an appointment, “Please don’t go past the gate,” said Oelrich, who uses his Spokane Hobbit House as a home office.

“We have a security camera,” he said. “It’s fun to watch people as they drive up. For awhile, we were getting at least one a day.”

These days, the average is two. Oelrich has since added a guest book. There’s a geocache, too. A local artist, Carly Haney, not only created the spider for the space she custom-made the Hobbit-themed geocache. Here’s a hint: It helps to know Tolkien trivia, such as the author’s birthdate.

If he isn’t too busy, Oelrich just might invite visitors in, let them have a look around.

“I just love the conversations that have taken place here,” said Oelrich, who seeks out used copies of Tolkien’s books and has read all but one. “And it came in the mail yesterday.”

Still, he said, “I always go back to ‘The Hobbit.’ I reread ‘The Hobbit’ every year.”

He has a couple of copies left.

“Stop by,” he said. “I’ll loan you a book.”