He built a ‘fantasy world’ in his apartment. It’s now a historic site.

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When Claire Jones stepped into the apartment of her husband’s late uncle for the first time, she discovered what looked like the trappings of a carnival.

A giant concrete sculpture of a roaring lion’s head stood in the living room, enveloping the fireplace. Looming in the next room was a giant Minotaur head. Papier-mâché sculptures littered the hallways and colorful murals adorned every wall and ceiling, even in the bathroom.

Jones and her family had known Ron Gittins as an eccentric and solitary artist. But they hadn’t realized until shortly after he died in 2019 at age 79 that he had carved, sculpted and painted his passion onto the walls of his rented apartment in Birkenhead, a riverside town in northwestern England where he lived alone.

It couldn’t stay, Gittins’s landlord had said. But Jones knew she wanted to preserve the scene.

“I was just kind of like, ‘We can’t just let this go,’” she told The Washington Post.

For years, Gittins’s family worked to protect his whimsical life’s work, insisting that the apartment, “Ron’s Place,” was an irreplaceable art installation worthy of preservation. This month, the British government agreed. Historic England, a national body that designates historically significant sites in England, added Ron’s Place to its National Heritage List, the family announced in early April.

The designation, which forbids an owner from making changes to Ron’s Place without governmental consent, places Gittins’s apartment among the ranks of the medieval churches and Victorian villas that usually receive such recognition in the country, securing an unlikely legacy for Gittins’s creation. The apartment received a Grade II listing, which is given to “particularly important buildings of more than special interest,” according to Historic England.

“This was Ron, who led a very small, private life,” said Paul Kelly, a board member of the Wirral Arts and Culture Community Land Trust, an organization created to manage Ron’s Place. “Suddenly, he was being recognized as having done something of interest on that scale. … What an extraordinary thing.”

Gittins, a self-employed artist and theater performer, was an outcast of sorts among his family, his niece Jan Williams wrote to The Post. He showed up at reunions in flamboyant outfits and spoke in codes, joking that he was a secret agent. He was known in Birkenhead as the local eccentric who sometimes strutted around town dressed as a Roman centurion.

He was, Williams said, “colorful, larger than life, loud, opinionated, argumentative yet affectionate.”

Gittins kept his family at a distance. He let few people into his apartment, which his rental agreement had permitted him to decorate “to his own taste,” according to the Ron’s Place website.

Walking into Gittins’s home after his death felt like finally discovering the world he’d been inhabiting, Williams said. The lion’s head glistened with eyes made from shards of glass, and a frying pan sat in its mouth. Strewn around the apartment were smaller models, like an Egyptian sarcophagus that opened up to reveal a model mummy. While sorting through Gittins’s possessions, Williams found a postcard he had written addressed to her, saying that he couldn’t wait to show her his creations.

“Ron had created a fantasy world for his own pleasure,” Williams said. “A sort of stage set where he played the leading role.”

Williams, herself an artist and photographer, led the effort to save Gittins’s apartment. She first arranged to keep renting the apartment from his landlord, fundraising to cover the cost and forming a community organization to manage the space. Endorsements trickled in from singers, authors and sculptors who visited Ron’s Place at the family’s invitation. They landed a story in the Guardian and a video feature from the BBC.

In November 2022, the building that housed Ron’s Place was put up for auction. Buyers circled, and Williams scrambled to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars they needed to win a bidding war. It ended in a “fairytale-style” miracle, Williams said: On March 1, 2023, the last day of the auction, a donor emailed with an offer to lend Williams’s organization most of the money it needed to purchase the building for about $400,000. The donor told Williams she had learned about Ron’s Place that morning, while reading the newspaper on her commute.

“It felt as if it was meant to be,” Williams said.

In a Hail Mary bid to delay the sale, Williams had also petitioned Historic England to list Ron’s Place as historically significant. It was a long shot — the designation is normally given to churches, inns and manors with centuries’ more history than Gittins’s apartment.

Historic England, however, heeded her request, even after Williams and the land trust secured ownership of Ron’s Place. When Sarah Charlesworth, an evaluator with Historic England, visited the apartment later that year, she immediately noticed the same floor-to-ceiling lion statue that had greeted Williams and Jones years earlier.

“I was actually thinking ‘This is a slam dunk’ as soon as I came in,” Charlesworth said.

Ron’s Place seemed to her like a striking example of “outsider art” — artwork created by people with no formal artistic training and without the intention of being exhibited or sold. It was, Charlesworth said, a facet of Britain’s history just as worthy of preservation as its churches and castles.

“Listing is not just about stately homes and chocolate box cottages,” she said. “It is about being representative and inclusive and making sure that we do represent all aspects of the nation’s history.”

The apartment is closed to visitors as it undergoes repairs. Williams and Kelly, the Wirral Arts and Culture Community Land Trust board member, said the organization has plans after acquiring the entire building that houses Ron’s Place, which also includes a garden and three upstairs apartments. They hope to preserve Gittins’s artwork on the ground floor as a museum and art space and renovate the other apartments into low-cost housing units for artists.

It’s an unlikely legacy for Gittins after devoting much of his life to the secret world in his apartment, Kelly said. But he thinks Gittins would be pleased to see others taking notice.

“Ron was a real outsider,” Kelly said. “But … this has been recognition for his work. He would be loving it.”

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