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Condo conversion of old 1887 house captured for TV

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Saws and tape measures are reinhabiting old houses across the country like woodpeckers in old trees, since real estate is valuable and new housing is short. But something else has been added to one abandoned house on a hill here: tripods and TV cameras. Around the dungarees and work boots stroll women in high heels and blazers and men in dark suits.

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All the hammering is recorded on videotape. Simply, it's "how-to" television.

This particular old house, born in 1887, will not only live again, but each step of its renovation into condominiums is recorded for broadcast on local television today and national television in the fall.

The project is being orchestrated by WGBH, Boston's educational Channel 2, and a Boston designer and builder, Bob Vila, emcees the program. The cameras follow Mr. Vila through the house as he explains the work, discusses strategy and economy with architects, and helps a team of carpenters actually perform the work.

The project is to reconstitute the historic, shingle-sided Bigelow House with five condominium units on a program entitled "This Old House."

The point of the 26-week series is to show armchair remodelers what can be done in restoring old homes, what is actually worth the amount of work and money involved, and how to do it, especially while preserving a historic building.

The Bigelow House is a historic site and is treated as such. It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, the famed 19th-century architect who also designed Trinity Church in Boston and some other Eastern landmarks.

The program is a sequel to last year's highly successful "This Old House," in which WGBH restored a dilapidated Victorian house in Dorchester, a section of Boston.

Last year, "This Old House" was WGBH's most popular series ever, and its predecessors at WBGH include Julia Child's "French Chef" and "Crockett's Victory Garden."

Next fall, like these earlier series, "This Old House" will be syndicated nationally via the Public Broadcasting Service. The nine-month PBS showing will begin with last year's 13-week reconstruction of the Dorchester house and follow with this year's 26 weeks at the Newton house.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the new "This Old House" is to convert a single-family house into condominiums. Russell Morash, the producer who also did "French Chef" and "Crockett's Victory Garden," notes that in spite of the appeal of old houses, they are often out of financial reach, especially to younger people.

Some of the legal aspects of condominiums and cooperative apartments will be discussed in the series, such as zoning changes and building permits. But much of the work demonstrated on the show will be applicable to smaller projects on single-family homes.

The Bigelow House, four stories built around a courtyard, hasn't changed much on the outside since 1887. It stands alone on top of Oak Hill with a small, zinc-covered belvedere, or gallery, on top of its steep roof commanding a view of most of the rolling country south and west of Boston.

"Just absolutely fabulous," declared one of the executives with Montgomery Ward, sponsor of the PBS broadcast of the project, who had flown from Chicago to Boston on a spring day to tour the house firsthand.

The Bigelow is a storybook kind of house, a good house for children: 10,000 square feet full of various sizes and shapes of rooms, staircases, corner fireplaces in bedrooms, odd closets and nooks, and a flying turret.

Four condominium units will be built into the main house, the fifth in the attached barn, while the exterior of the house will remain much the same as it has always been.

The Newton Historical Preservation Association bought the house from the City of Newton for $10,000; the Mutual Bank for Savings, Newton, is extending $500, 000 credit for the project; and the property will be sold on the open market next fall.

The house that starred in last year's "This Old House" in Dorchester was purchased by WGBH for $17,000 and sold for $55,000 after extensive renovations.

Meanwhile, WGBH is already looking for new talent to star in its third "This Old House" series, this time probably an inner-city building.