When Ron Tanner, an author and writing professor at Loyola University Maryland, purchased a condemned Victorian brownstone in Charles Village 14 years ago (against his real estate agent's advice), he knew nothing about restoration.
The fact that the three-story rowhouse belonged to — and was trashed by — a college fraternity over a decade did not deter him and his then-girlfriend, Jill Eicher. In fact, they made it their mission to save the home from further destruction and restore it to its 1897 glory. Tanner even documented the process in his book "From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story."
The couple "were warned by just about everyone we'd end up 'broke and brokenhearted,' " Tanner said.
But at a cost of $125,000 and with a $60,000 203(k) rehabilitation loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, all things seemed possible. Well, almost all — there were restrictions on the HUD loan, one especially that still stings.
"Unfortunately, our 203(k) rehab loan gave us only six months to bring this condemned property up to code,'' Tanner said. "We couldn't save both the windows —33 of them — and the house in that time frame. Our replacement windows have the same look as the old ones,but oh, how we wish we had that old, wavy glass."
In his book, Tanner mentions the "to-do" list he made before he bought the house. It reads like a litany of tasks to perform after an earthquake. Among them were to "clean out 4,500 square feet of old furniture and garbage, repair three fallen ceilings, replace all of the plumbing, rebuild the master bathroom, rebuild the three-story wooden porch, replace the roof, [and] rewire the house for electricity." Even the more cosmetic tasks were a large undertaking, such as to "refinish the wood floors, replace seventy-two finely turned, custom-made balusters, repair and replaster every wall, find and install four vintage fireplace mantels [and to] find and install fourteen ceiling lights."
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It is almost impossible to think of all that being accomplished in 14 years, not to mention the acquisition of mostly period furniture furnishings to fill the house. Tanner and Eicher even went beyond that, collecting hundreds of antique pieces of artwork, including gilt-framed mirrors, paintings and stained glass. Their purchases for the 20-by-70-foot home came from flea markets, auctions, antiques shops, secondhand shops the Internet and warehouses such as the Historic York in Pennsylvania and Second Chance in Baltimore.
Tanner and Eicher took a break in 2003 to get married in their front parlor. Today, they entertain throughout the home's multiple rooms and feed their friends and family in a dining room that seats 21 people at a Queen Anne-style walnut table. From this experience, they also created a do-it-yourself website, houselove.org.
"Both of us love the generous proportions of Victorian houses and their eclectic details," Tanner said. "Our house is just big enough so that we feel somewhat awed by its high ceilings and generous rooms, but it's not so big that we feel lost or overwhelmed in it. Also, our house hit every bullet point on our wish list, including the carriage-house garage, the brick-walled yard, the corner lot site, the butler's pantry and the three-story tower."
In the restoration, both Tanner and Eicher got a favorite room out of the deal.
"I've always wanted an antique library, crammed with old books in fine old cabinets," Tanner said. "Since I built [the] library [on the third floor] myself, it's exactly what I've dreamed of."
For Eicher, a social worker at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, her favorite room is her second-floor office because "it has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, a big display case for my collection of Steiff animals, as well as a fireplace and a great view."
"It's also a dream home because it would be out of our price range if we hadn't gotten it so cheaply due to its condition. I'm so glad we got the biggest, nicest house out of the ones we looked at and then have taken the time to make it grand," Eicher said.