The fraternity boys had done their worst.
Knowing the city of Baltimore was evicting them, the collegiate brothers set out to destroy the 4,500-square-foot brownstone that had housed their fraternity for a decade.
“There was garbage everywhere,” said Ron Tanner, who knows more about the house than anyone. “The boys had left all their furniture behind. ... The ceilings were caving in. The toilets were full, but the plumbing didn't work.
“Garbage was piled up to the ceiling in one room, and the boys had taken baseball bats to 72 original banisters and to all the walls.”
It seemed unsalvageable. Condemned by the city, the house stood largely empty for about a year, occupied only by rats and the homeless.
Then Tanner found it, and the house became something else entirely.
Love and hope
Tanner, 58, is a writing instructor at Loyola University. He has impressive credentials, counting among his writing awards a Faulkner Society gold medal and a Pushcart Prize.
Back in 2000, he was renowned more for his words than for his home improvement skills.
“I knew how to paint a room,” he said. “That's all.”
Perhaps if he had known more he would've realized how much work it would take to save the fraternity house. Perhaps he would've walked away.
But probably not.
Tanner, you see, was smitten. Not by the house, but by a woman. Her name was Jill Eicher, and Tanner, who had been a disaster in past relationships, was willing to do anything to please her.
Eicher, 10 years his junior, had agreed to help him search for a house to buy. She'd even agreed to help with repairs. She hadn't said anything about moving in with him, but Tanner hoped that was implied.
They visited the house in December 2000, braving the cold to stare up at the three-story Queen Anne home and dream. The damage was obvious, even from the outside, but Tanner and Eicher were blind to its flaws. They saw potential.
“It didn't occur to me to worry about the condition of the house or all the work that this wrecked behemoth would demand,” Tanner wrote in his new book, “From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story.”
“I had never done carpentry,” he wrote. “I knew nothing about wiring or plumbing or plastering. In eighth-grade wood shop, I had earned a ‘C' for making a pathetic, lopsided box as my final project. I had no patience for plans. I had no tolerance for the painstaking care our shop teacher demanded of us.
“All I could think now, as Jill and I gaped at the backside of this grand old place, was that I'd lucked out and found both the woman and the house of my dreams and, if I played my cards right, I'd win both.”
Tanner obtained a rehabilitation loan. The house sold for $125,000, but the bank included an extra $60,000 so he could bring the building up to code.
“We ran out of money after a month,” Tanner said in a phone interview. “After that, we had to learn how to do everything ourselves. We had to learn the hard way and learn fast.”
There were plenty of missteps.
“The couple's trial-and-error methods of paint stripping and floor finishing often proved disastrous, even dangerous,” according to Baltimore's Urbanite magazine. “Eicher, whom Tanner lovingly chastises for refusing to wear work gloves or a mask, came down with a debilitating case of lead poisoning and was bedridden for more than a week. Tanner, desperate to get the house up to code in its first year, averaged four hours of sleep, often working through the night.”
Meeting city codes took more than a year, Tanner said. The house still was a wreck, barely meeting the minimum requirements to escape the wrecking ball.
In 2003, Tanner and Eicher got married in a ceremony at the home they'd rebuilt together.
The house “didn't start looking good until year four or five,” Tanner said. “By year seven it was looking really good. Now it's great.”
Their efforts were featured in This Old House magazine in 2008. The article went viral, becoming one of the magazine's most popular posts ever.
The house's transformation is amazing. Trashed walls that bore spray-painted expletives now gleam. A Victorian library, complete with Persian rug, sprawls across what was a devastated room. The grounds are manicured. The neighborhood eyesore has become its crown jewel.
Now a licensed home inspector, Tanner is touring the country to promote his book.