Watching an old house come to life before your eyes

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.

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.

"Housing costs have risen a great deal even in the short time since we started producing the first 'This Old House' series," Mr. Morash observes. "A lot of people -- especially young people -- are finding that their dreams of owning a single-family home are out of reach. We're suggesting that people consider joining forces with others in the same position to look for larger, old homes with condominium possibilities."

Real estate prices have risen so precipitously that Russ Morash now believes the final selling prices will be closer to $100 a square foot. Any profits will be divided between the station and the NHPA.

A recent press tour of the Newton property provided some firsthand glimpses of the trials and triumphs of the on-site production of "This Old House."

During a circuit of the nearly completed main house unit, Bob Vila pointed out such well-planned elements as double insulation which will aid in keeping heating costs down to $600 a year for the 3,000-square-foot unit. He also drew attention to Richardsonian detailing that will be retained or restored wherever possible.

"It's unfortunate," he commented in the spacious main entry hall, "that lots of things were 'ripped off' during the period when the house was abandoned. But we're going to a good deal of pains to reproduce the newel post and baulisters and to find the right type of handrail for the staircase. We'll end up with a replica of what was here originally."

Happily, unique oak doors designed by Richardson for the house are still extant, and will be refinished and reinstalled. However, another important Richardsonian detail presented more of a problem.

The many facades of the main house and its four attendant buildings contain a total of 144 windows. These were designed by Richardson with horizontal panes -- a highly unusual configuration. But, since the fenestration could not be altered because of the historic character of the house, all 144 windows had to be reproduced. Replica milling of frames and installation of the reproduction windows came to $25,000.

"We gave up a long time ago trying to plan what's going to be on next week," says associate producer Chris Gilbert. Rather than saying, 'during week one, we want to do framing; and during week two, we want to plaster,' we simply follow the house. We know no more than two days ahead what we will tape each week."

After a survey of progress made the preceding week, craftsmen in sections of the house that are ready for videotaping are given a loose rehearsal of questions and answers with Bob Vila. But all segments are essentially unscripted.

Given these circumstances, it is notable that only once during the hundreds of segments that make up "This Old House" has a craftsman "frozen" in front of the camera. In this instance, Gilbert explained, Bob Vila skillfully filled in, and the moment of stage fright is not apparent to viewers.

Vila's depth of knowledge of construction, design, architecture and building materials is such that he can fill in at any time, Gilbert indicated. He is, it is widely agreed, the ideal talent for this type of television show: the person who knows his subject so well that viewers unconsciously trust him.

With two "This Old House" series "in the can" by fall, is WGBH thinking of a third? a reporter wondered during the press tour.

The answer from Russ Morash was an immediate "Yes." And then he elaborated, "One of our ideas is to have our cameras present at an auction and buy a piece of land for $4,000 or $5,000, which frequently happens with abandoned lots in the city.

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