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.
The first season of This Old House, which followed the renovation of the Dorchester home for 13 episodes, was a massive hit that set a new ratings record for WGBH. Its popularity only grew when PBS snatched up the show for national distribution the next season. Viewers found getting advice from real experts—as opposed to actors—uniquely helpful. The format, however, was less popular with contractors.
Trethewey: At first we were nervous that we were giving away trade secrets, like a magician.
Morash: Richard has had to carry an important message back to the plumbing industry: More information on the part of the public is a good thing, not a bad thing. And I think he’s right.
Abram: Contractors would say, “Why are you doing this?” I used to hear that a lot. I felt it was people being insecure. There are going to be do-it-yourselfers no matter what. For those who aren’t going to do it themselves, isn’t it better that they understand your skill and how much work it actually takes? I think contractors finally got that.
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.
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.