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Watching an old house come to life before your eyes

By Helen Bohn Jordan / September 4, 1980


In Boston, artists' studios have been reclaimed from a former piano factory. Retirees live in a former department store. A contemporary museum is housed in a 19th-century police station. And luxurious condominiums have been carved out of granite warehouses edging the harbor.

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With its wealth of buildings dating back to the 19th century and earlier, Boston has been doing this for decades.

But similar architectural endeavors are under way in other cities. "Preservation fever" is said to be sweeping the country.

Against this background, Boston public television station WGBH determined several years ago that the time was right for a "how to" series on the renovation of old houses.

The series was appropriately christened "This Old House," and for two seasons Boston audiences have been able to observe the step-by-step, on-air rehabilitation of two every different old houses: a single-family dwelling built in Dorchester in 1860 and a rambling country home in Newton designed in the late 1800s by Henry Hobson Richardson, foremost architect of the day.

On Oct. 2, "This Old House" will "go national," and audiences of some 200 PBS stations throughout the country will have the fun of peeking through the hole on the construction fence, so to speak, for 39 weeks.

The guiding force behind the two "This Old House" series is WGBH producer Russell Morash. Russ, as he is known, has shepherded such other "how to" series as "The French Chef," "Julia Child and Company" and "Crockett's Victory Garden" from local to national popularity.

An enthusiastic "rehabber" himself, Russ developed the idea for "This Old House" while doing over his own 1851 farmhouse in Lexington, Mass.

"When you're renovating a house," says Russ in explanation of the thinking that inspired "This Old House," you hire an electrician or a plumber, and you go away in the morning and give him a list of what you want done. Then you come back at night and get his bill. But you don't know what his tools were, what his problems were -- or how he might have done the job more quickly. What this show does is to offer some insights into how these people do their jobs."

Assisting with this insight is the show's host, Bob Vila, a Boston builder and designer who specializes in home restoration, condominium conversion, and commercial property development.

The highly articulate and charismatic Vila is often referred to as a "natural" television talent in the tradition of Julia Child, and is described by WGBH president David Ives as "the latest in the line of Boston personalities who have become television successes by talking about things they know about."

Week by week, Vila guided viewers of "This Old House" through the intricacies of the renovations in Dorchester and Newton. Topics dealt with range from architectural planning to plastering and tiling, from demolition of unwanted walls and additions to true-to-the-period restorations of porches and staircases. In addition to question-and-answer elucidation of the basics of construction through conversations with crafts people, Vila also touches on such renovatin-related topics as building codes, legal restrictions, landscaping, and history of architecture.