This Old House: An Oral History

On its 30th anniversary, the creators, cast, and (mostly) lucky homeowners of This Old House reveal what the cameras haven’t shown—from how the series almost didn’t get off the ground to who really foots the bill for all those jaw-dropping renovations.

For the first several seasons, WGBH bought the properties the show worked on, then sold them after renovations were complete. But the slumping real estate market of the early ’80s convinced the producers to change their modus operandi: From then on, homeowners would pay for all the construction work while enjoying the perks (and occasional headaches) of having a lot of the materials donated by eager sponsors.

Becton: Selling those houses was always sort of nail-biting. We thought, We’re not real estate developers. Meanwhile, Russ’s realization was that real homeowners might make a more interesting story line.

Dean Gallant (Belmont home-owner, 1993 season): We had the common misconception that if the show selected you, they would pay for everything.

Terry Maitland (Acton home-owner, 1994 season): There are two huge benefits to working with the show. One is that it’s going to be done in six months, which is extraordinary. The other good thing is all the goodies. All the donations.

Christian Nolen (Watertown homeowner, 1998 season): At the time, Kohler was the plumbing supplier of choice. They said, “You don’t have to, but if you use Kohler, it’s going to get donated.” I said, “You know, I think I can find a toilet in the Kohler line.”

Janice Levine Igoe (Lexington homeowner, 1992 season): You get what they call a bigger bang for the buck.

Lynn Wickwire (Concord homeowner, 1989 season): We got a letter from the IRS saying, “You owe taxes on all these donated items.” It was a ton of money—the taxes were going to be something like $70,000. We said, “We can’t do that—we’ll have to sell the [house].” We ended up hiring a very good tax lawyer. It eventually settled, but we were a week away from going to court.

this old house

Clockwise from top left: Silva, atop a project’s skylight; director David Vos gets some help with his shot; contractor Tom Silva teaches O’Connor some job-site etiquette; original host Bob Vila in his shaggier days. Photographs by Keller + Keller (Silva); Russell Kaye (Vos); Kindra Clineff (Silva and O’Connor); courtesy of bob villa.com (Villa).

As This Old House became a sensation, homeowners were increasingly eager to pitch their own projects to the producers. Starting in 1986, the show began filming two renovations a year: one somewhere in Massachusetts (always), and another, less-intensive job in a warmer locale like New Orleans or Bermuda. Finding options has never been difficult.

Bruce Irving (former executive producer): We got boxes and boxes of proposals. We got everything from handwritten notes to full-on bound quasi-PowerPoints. A homeowner named Mills Fleming really was memorable in his high-quality pursuit. It was something along the lines of a phone call, a follow-up presentation with photographs, and then—after my resounding silence—another phone call. He pursued me like a stalker.

Mills Fleming (Savannah, Georgia, homeowner, 1996 season): I would say I was “appropriately diligent.”

Chris Wolfe (producer, Ask This Old House): We once got a letter from a man that said something like “I’m writing to you because I need some help with a project. I’m trying to make a hole in a wall, and I have a pair of tweezers, a toothbrush, and a spoon.” He went on to say that he was in a federal prison.

 

Builder Tom Silva joined the show full time in 1986, followed by landscaper Roger Cook two years later. Silva Brothers Construction, which Silva co-owns with his brother Dick and nephew Charlie, has been the general contractor on every Massachusetts-based This Old House project since.

Morash: Tommy’s father was a carpenter, and Tommy and his wife, Virginia, and their children lived next to us in our old house in Lexington. Tommy helped me fix up my house. Isn’t that interesting? It’s all a family.

Roger Cook (landscape contractor): It does feel like a family. We’re all fishermen, and we’ll get together in the summer and go boating. Tommy and Rich [Trethewey] like to be on the water, but I’m the best fisherman.

Igoe: The Silva brothers are known for some of their antics, their practical jokes.

David Vos (director): They’re all wiseguys. They could have been great standup comedians or phenomenal builders. They went with both.

Maitland: Charlie Silva has a dummy that he keeps in his truck. It was a filming day, and this new [production assistant] from ‘GBH was walking around kind of starry-eyed. So Charlie had this dummy up on the roof, and he let out a huge scream and dropped it. Everyone was in on it, they started running over, Oh my God, oh my God.

Irving: The hallmark of that particular joke was that the PA was standing there with her little clipboard. Over the edge falls this dummy, and she looks up, sees it all happen, and makes a note. We were just like, there’s an unflappable PA.

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