'Extreme Makeover' home gets its big unveiling

The crowd was ready. So were the television cameras. The only part of the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" extravaganza that wasn't completely prepared for the big revealing Sunday was the home.

As thousands of volunteers and spectators cheered in anticipation of the big moment, workers were frenetically putting finishing touches on the massive house in Northeast Baltimore — from interior paint to hanging the front door.

Little wonder. At 11,120 square feet, the home is the largest built in the popular reality TV show's history — a lot of work to squeeze into a week. And torrential rain interrupted, throwing the schedule off by two days.

Steve Zwagil, president of Brothers Services Co. in Hampstead, whose employees put on the roof, looked around the inside of the house late Sunday afternoon — at the 100 or more people "working feverishly" — and thought, "There's no way this is going to get done by this evening."

He was right. Chris Rachuba, chairman of the Maryland Community Builders Foundation, which organized the build, was already planning to call in volunteers to come back Monday. But the house was close enough to done by 7:30 p.m. for the high point everyone had gathered to see.

"Move that bus!" the crowd roared, and the colorful "Extreme Makeover" vehicle — strategically parked to hide as much of the huge home as possible — drove off into the setting sun.

With the show's enthusiastic host Ty Pennington by their side, the girls who will live there got their first look at the property, valued by organizers at $1 million. They looked, and hugged, and looked some more.

All are part of Boys Hope Girls Hope, an international nonprofit that brings at-risk children with drive and potential into group-home-style settings, helping prepare them for college and life. The Baltimore affiliate has operated a boys' home since 2001 and hoped to launch another for girls, but a capital campaign started in 2007 was shelved as the economy soured.

The group had the land, a vacant lot a block away from the boys' home. Building on it, though, would be a major expense.

So, the boys wrote to "Extreme Makeover." The shows' organizers were interested. And the Boys Hope Girls Hope leaders — hoping against hope — inducted seven girls into a program in June that was nonresidential with the possibility of more.

"Excited" did not begin to cover how they felt Sunday.

"We are truly blown away by the outpouring of generosity in this community," said Marcia Meehan, executive director of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore.

Excel Homes, a modular-home manufacturer in Pennsylvania, built a large part of the home off-site and trucked it in. Hundreds of volunteers were on location every day, from electricians wiring the house to neighbors passing out cold water. Businesses donated building supplies, services and food.

Lots and lots of food. Leslie Rosenthal with ReMax Advantage in Fulton, who organized that part of the effort, said the dinners alone worked out to 700 full-course meals a day, staggered at 6 p.m., 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Bonnie Christhilf, who lives a block away in the Rosemont East neighborhood, went to the site every chance she could get to help and take photos of the work, so the girls could see how the house grew from nothing. The seven middle-schoolers and high-schoolers were whisked away to Los Angeles as work started.

Christhilf did crowd-control Sunday in the 90-plus-degree heat. Sheryl Nathanson was part of that crowd, pressed up against a metal railing with a good view of the house. The graduate student, who has watched "Extreme Makeover" since she was a junior in high school, couldn't believe that she was actually about to watch an unveiling in person instead of on TV.

"It's really, really cool," said Nathanson, 22, in town to visit her family in Pikesville.

The house itself was built with students in mind. Inside is a library, a computer room and study areas, as well as a two-and-a-half-story great room for the young adults to gather.

After the girls got their first glimpse of the brick-and-siding exterior, they hugged an exhausted but happy Rachuba. Then, they rushed inside to see their new home.

"Who knows how many people it's going to touch over the next 20, 30 years," Rachuba said.