From The New York Times
The show’s three hosts contemplate how home renovation has evolved over the years.
While filming a 40th anniversary special for “This Old House” recently, Bob Vila, the show’s original host, stopped to consider why, after all these years, people still can’t seem to get enough of home improvement shows.
“This Old House,” which began chronicling home renovations in 1979, was one of the first such shows to air on national television and arguably helped create the D.I.Y. nation we all live in.
“It’s like cooking,” said Mr. Vila, who is now 73 and spends his time sitting on the boards of various nonprofits, living mostly in Palm Beach, Fla., and occasionally on the Upper East Side and Martha’s Vineyard.
Say you want to rip out your bathroom linoleum and replace it with ceramic tile. First, maybe you get inspiration from TV; next, you binge a bunch of random YouTube videos or find a how-to video on ThisOldHouse.com or Mr. Vila’s website, BobVila.com. Armed with your shopping list, you head to the store, get your ingredients, come home and lose a weekend laying a floor.
Subscribe to With Interest
Catch up and prep for the week ahead with this newsletter of the most important business insights, delivered Sundays.
“At the end of the project, you’re a hero,” Mr. Vila said.
Four decades after Mr. Vila and the rest of the original “This Old House” crew introduced viewers to the concept of watching contractors turn tired homes into pretty ones, knocking down walls is big entertainment. “This Old House” is a powerful brand with a magazine, a website and a spinoff, “Ask This Old House.”
The show’s creator, Russell Morash, whose credits include “The French Chef” with Julia Child and “The Victory Garden,” was crowned the “father of how-to television” by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences when it awarded him a lifetime achievement Emmy in 2014. His brand of educational television paved the way for a genre of reality TV centered around what would otherwise be mundane tasks.
Now the competition is stiff. Renovation-hungry viewers can tune in 24 hours a day to HGTV’s endless loop of angst-ridden shows, including “Love It or List It” and “Flip or Flop.” Other networks, including Bravo, have their own high-drama renovation lineups, with shows like “Buying It Blind” and “Flipping Exes.”
But “This Old House” didn’t originally follow the formula of the anxious homeowner saved by a crew of knowledgeable tradesmen that has come to define the genre. Its first season, which aired on WGBH Boston, a local public television station, had no homeowner at all. Instead, it chronicled the restoration of a vacant and dilapidated Victorian house in Dorchester, Mass., that the station bought and later sold. PBS picked up the unlikely hit show the following season, and in 1982, producers featured a homeowner restoring a Greek Revival house in Arlington, Mass. After that, the formula took hold.
To find the right house, the show accepts proposals from homeowners, architects and builders, selecting homes based on the scope of work, budget, timing, style and location. (Mr. Vila said that Mr. Morash particularly liked houses in warmer places, like Santa Barbara, Calif., where a winter spent on location would be more appealing than in cold New England.)
There have been changes over the years. Scenes are shorter, and features like “sweat equity,” where homeowners strap on a tool belt and get to work, add drama.
The houses are different, too. One Rhode Island house featured in 2018 was described as an “idea house,” with vacation-focused elements like a plunge pool, barbecue station and outdoor shower.
But despite the competition from flashier cable TV shows, “This Old House” has largely stuck to its formula, with a cast that includes members from 1979 who still work on one house over multiple episodes.
And it’s a formula that continues to work. In the first quarter of 2019, “This Old House” reached 2.043 million households, and “Ask This Old House” reached 1.876 million households, making them the two top-rated shows in their category, beating HGTV’s entire lineup, according to Nielsen data provided by “This Old House.”
“What HGTV is doing is great, but we look at this content in a different manner. We don’t redo a house in one episode,” said Dan Suratt, chief executive of This Old House Ventures. “People want that level of detail, and that’s what’s lacking in the other shows.”
In other words, rather than a 30-second shot referring to insulation, “This Old House” viewers get an in-depth primer on choosing and installing it.
Mr. Vila, who left the show in 1989 over a dispute about his celebrity endorsements, could be credited with creating the handyman-hero aesthetic: the rumpled, but somehow polished workman in a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots. That uniform has come to be synonymous with home improvement television, with variations worn by current HGTV stars like Jonathan Scott of “Property Brothers” and Chip Gaines of “Fixer Upper.”
“Bob inspired an entire generation of industry professionals — I was one of them,” said Mr. Gaines, who is starting a new TV network in 2020 to replace Discovery’s DIY Network, with his wife, Joanna Gaines. “He single-handedly shifted the narrative of an age-old trade.”
By the 1990s, Mr. Vila had his own show, “At Home with Bob Vila,” and was making periodic cameos on the sitcom “Home Improvement,” where Tim Allen played the fictional host of a show called “Tool Time” and Mr. Vila played his rival.
To celebrate the longevity of “This Old House,” PBS recently turned an Upper West Side brownstone into a temporary set for an anniversary special that will air next month and that brings Mr. Vila together for the first time with his successors, Kevin O’Connor, the show’s current host, and Steve Thomas, the host from 1989 to 2003, for a round-table discussion. The show will also include interviews with past homeowners and footage from some of the episodes.
Mr. O’Connor, a former banker who was tapped to be the show’s host after impressing the producers when he and his wife, Kathleen, appeared as homeowners on an episode of “Ask This Old House,” said he saw the hunger for fix-it-up programming continuing to grow.
“If you’re spending 30 percent of your time watching home improvement, you’re going to catch the bug; you’re going to get an interest,” Mr. O’Connor, 51, said. Finish watching an episode, he added, and “you can fire up YouTube and figure out how to build a deck.”
Mr. Thomas, who became the host of the show after producers noticed his book and documentary about learning to sail in Micronesia, is less enthusiastic about D.I.Y. mania. “The guys on YouTube may or may not be smoking crack,” he said. “You get incorrect, inaccurate and basically bad information on YouTube.”
Mr. Thomas, 66, now lives in Port Clyde, Me., and is still renovating houses, including two adjacent cottages on Hupper Island that he sold to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the first in 2006 and the second in 2016.
Unlike many shows, “This Old House” has never shied away from the grittier bits of home renovation. In the final episode of the 2017 renovation of a home in Newton, Mass., Richard Trethewey, the show’s plumbing and heating expert since 1980, showcased a new heating system, explaining in detail how the heat pumps, air handlers and refrigerant lines worked.
The highlight of the scene was new radiant heating — in the garage, of all places. “This place will be comfortable for years to come,” he told viewers.
Later in the episode, Liz McQuillan Delfino, the homeowner, showed off what would have been the highlight on any other show: the new kitchen, with an island made of reclaimed oak from an Ohio barn, a sliding barn door for the pantry and a tile depicting the goddess Fortuna on the wall behind the stove.
“She stands on a ball, and her cloak waves in the wind, and you never know if you’re going to get good luck or bad luck,” said Ms. Delfino, 37, who grew up in the house, inheriting it from her mother, and now lives there with her husband, Joe Delfino, 37, and their two children.
Yet even from the start, “This Old House” wasn’t entirely about boilers and knob-and-tube wiring. It has long dabbled in the celebrity cameo.
In an episode that aired on New Year’s Eve in 1983, Mr. Vila visited the new Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, with Ivana Trump providing a tour of a model apartment. Wearing a royal blue dress draped with a scarf, she pointed out the mirrored walls, lacquered finishes and a mural with 24-karat gold details. “As you can see, all our clientele are black-tie people, very sophisticated people, and this is the feel that they like,” Ms. Trump said.
“Ivana has this marvelous accent and was this beautiful woman,” Vila recalled. “She kept saying, ‘onyx, gold, silk.’ I’ve never forgotten it.”
A young Donald Trump then walked Mr. Vila through the atrium, explaining the scope of his investment. “When you’re going to spend the kind of money that we’ve spent — where we’ve spent for the finest marble, for the finest bronze, for the finest everything else — you have to be careful,” Mr. Trump told him.
Mr. Vila remembers being underwhelmed by his encounter with the future president. “How shall I put it without being castigated?” he said. “It was not exciting television.”
Over the years, dozens of homes have gotten the “This Old House” treatment. And for some of those homeowners, like Terry and Sima Maitland, the experience of a season spent on television was as memorable as the improvements themselves.
In the early 1990s, the couple and their three children were living in a cramped 1710 house in Acton, Mass., with oddly shaped rooms, virtually no closets and a tiny kitchen in need of new appliances. Also, the pipes repeatedly froze, bricks were crumbling and falling into the chimney flues, and the only bathtub would not drain.
“We always had this fantasy that ‘This Old House’ was going to come and save us,” recalled Mr. Maitland, 71, a real estate broker who still lives in the house with Ms. Maitland, also 71, a retired teacher.
So the Maitlands sent the show a letter, begging for help. Eventually, a producer called, and then a location scout paid them a visit. Their $150,000 renovation became a subject of the 1994 season. Like other homeowners featured on the show, the Maitlands paid for the renovation, but they got deeply discounted materials from companies angling for a mention of their products, resulting in a higher-end renovation than they would have had otherwise.
The season chronicled Tom Silva, the show’s longtime general contractor, building an addition that expanded the house from 2,200 square feet to 3,400. The addition made room for a new kitchen, family room, laundry room, powder room and a master suite with a bathroom.
“There was a certain team spirit between Tommy and the producers,” Ms. Maitland said. “It was very collegial.”
The family became local celebrities. For years, tourists from as far away as Kansas and Minnesota drove up the driveway to photograph the restored house. One fan sent a tool belt to the school where Ms. Maitland worked, asking if Norm Abram, the show’s master carpenter, could sign it. (He did.)
During the months those episodes aired, the couple were accosted by locals with strong opinions. A shopper at a paint store once stopped Ms. Maitland to tell her to hold her ground about an on-air dispute regarding kitchen cabinets materials.
“Somebody said, ‘I know who you are! Don’t let them push you around. Get your cherry cabinets,’” Mr. Maitland recalled. “The guys on the show used to call it public takedowns.” (Ms. Maitland got her cherry cabinets.)
Twenty-five years later, the Maitlands have made few changes to the house. “Still, every time I come up the driveway I can’t believe we live here,” Mr. Maitland said.
Not all the show’s guests have been such eager participants. David and Janet McCue knew little about the show and had no interest in appearing on it when they were approached in 2001 by Mr. Thomas, a member of their yacht club. A mutual friend introduced them, telling Mr. Thomas that Mr. and Mrs. McCue were planning to restore their 1883 shingled waterfront house in Manchester, Mass., which had been stripped of much of its character during a previous renovation.
“It looked like a motor hotel in Hyannis,” said Mr. McCue, 65, the founder of McCue Corporation, a safety equipment manufacturer. (Mrs. McCue, now 60, who worked in the fashion industry, is retired.)
Initially, Mr. McCue rejected the offer, as the couple had already renovated five homes and had no interest in doing this one publicly. “I can’t imagine doing this on TV,” he remembers thinking. “I wouldn’t want a camera in my face.”
Then a producer paid them a visit. “He was utterly charming, and our ‘no’ went to ‘maybe,’” Mr. McCue said. The next day, the McCues received a delivery: a box of videotapes of past episodes, with a note that said “homework.”
Soon after, the McCues met with Mr. Morash and Mr. Silva, and were finally persuaded. “Russ was known as awfully crotchety. But I didn’t mind; I grew up in England with crotchety people,” Mr. McCue said. “I thought he was great and authentic and real and didn’t mince words.”
And so the McCues agreed to chronicle their $2.1 million renovation on air, restoring the house to its 19th-century grandeur, rebuilding porches and dormers, adding a music room, an art studio, an open kitchen and two-story windows to the foyer.
The 7,100-square-foot house is now on the market for $9.75 million. One of the selling points: It was rebuilt by Tom Silva of “This Old House.”
Like the other homes featured on the show, the McCue house became a character in its own right, with a story that bound its history to its future. “The house is, in many ways, the most important character on the show,” Mr. Vila said.
And if it’s got enough character, it makes for good television.
For Its 40th Birthday, ‘This Old House’ Revisits Its Birthplace
Forty is not old for a house, but it’s an unheard-of age for a television show. All the same, This Old House has been a public television staple for four decades. To mark the anniversary, carpenter Norm Abram, plumber Richard Trethewey and host Kevin O’Connor visited the house that served for show’s first project, a mansard-roofed Victorian in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
“Norm looked at a skylight in the kitchen that he installed 40 years ago,” O’Conner says. “There are no leaks – the skylight still functions beautifully. So does the heating system installed all those years ago. The house looks darn good. Other than different paint colors and a new kitchen, it looks the same.”
In 1979, when This Old House began as a local show broadcast by WGBH in Boston, the genre of renovation programming did not exist. There was no HGTV, no “Property Brothers,” no “Fixer Upper” power couple Chip and Joanna Gaines, and the idea of flipping a house was not yet a thing. This Old House, produced by the same station that brought Julia Child to a national audience, began as an earnest, step-by-step renovation of an aging house that caught on with its audience; after one year, the show went national. Today it is the number one-rated home improvement series and has won 18 Emmy Awards.
It has never changed its format. While houses get torn apart, rebuilt and decorated with dizzying speed on other home improvement programs, This Old House takes its time, focusing on a few specific aspects of a project during each episode. Viewers are treated to the drama of driving nails, the fine points of plumbing and up close images of grout. Sealing ductwork becomes a high point in a show that does for home improvement what Julia Child did for cooking. Just as we were mesmerized watching her sauté onions, so are we fascinated when Tom Silva talks about flashing. Who knew that watching carpentry and masonry could be so much fun?
The fortieth season will see the renovation of a mid-century split-level house in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“The original house will be preserved, and the additions and renovations will make it look much more mid-century modern,” says O’Conner. “It will scream mid-century modern, whereas before, it only whispered it.”