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 show found its new host in Steve Thomas, a shipbuilder and sailor who had recently appeared in a well-received PBS miniseries. Vila’s departure eased the tension on-set, but subsequent seasons were not without drama—an unavoidable byproduct when the stress of a home renovation is coupled with the frenzy of television production. The show has always asked its homeowners to contribute sweat equity to help get their jobs done, but few realize just how busy they’ll be.
Igoe: The good news is that you actually get your house done on time. The bad news, I have to tell you, is that it was crazy from the get-go, and it just increased exponentially. It was a madhouse. It was pure chaos.
Vos: Our timeline’s pretty compressed.
Silva: One of the projects recently grew almost double in size, and the last two months I had 30, 35 people working six days a week to try and bring it in on time. I did it, but it’s a tough process.
Gallant: My wife and I had a fair amount of vacation time before the project, and we used it all. Occasionally, we’d hear from Bruce [Irving], “The plaster guys are coming on Monday, so you’ve got to pull down these three ceilings over the weekend.” We enlisted as many strong people as we could.
Wickwire: One night we came home from work, and inside the house were all these boxes of shingles. The pile must have been 10, 12 feet high. They said, “Well, you’re going to have to stain every single one of these.” I said, “You got to be kidding me.” They told us we’re taping Tuesday and they gotta be done. They don’t care when you get it done, but it’s gotta be done by Tuesday, if you have to stay all night.
Nolen: It’s renovation at warp speed.
Silva: Outlets are being hung, trim is being made, and the walls aren’t even completed. You can’t actually finish something until the camera has seen it. That’s the hardest part of the whole deal for me.
As if a televised renovation isn’t challenging enough, over the course of most projects the homeowners come to realize that being on the show is their one chance to take advantage of the cast’s expert craftsmanship—which can tempt them to stretch their ambitions, no matter the cost.
Beliveau: We increased our budget about 20 percent to get on the show, and then we went over that as well. We had talked to other homeowners, and they said, “You just need to keep an eye on the budget—it goes haywire.”
Silva: Before you know it, the homeowners realize what they’re getting. The next thing you know, they’re using those four magic words in construction that always extend the project and always raise the budget. Those words are “while you’re at it….”
Maitland: Bruce was constantly pulling in on the reins. We really couldn’t afford to do air conditioning, but the contractor said, “I’ll just put all the stuff in anyway—who’s gonna know?” Bruce said, “I’m gonna know, and furthermore, your budget is a national laughingstock.” They filmed the air-conditioning equipment being carried back out of the house while we stood there going, “Bring it back!”
Fleming: We had a small bathroom, and we wanted to put in one of these megatubs, you know? Russ said, “When is the last time you took a bath?” I said, “I don’t know, five years ago.” It was just one of those reality checks.
In 2003 Steve Thomas left the show and was replaced by Kevin O’Connor (pictured right), a mortgage broker who had appeared as a homeowner on a segment of Ask This Old House. He so quickly connected with Tom Silva and the producers that he seemed like a natural choice to join the cast.
Morash: We were stripping wallpaper off Kevin’s house—which needed everything and he knew it—and I remember sort of, not helplessness, but his feeling that powerful forces were overtaking his time and finances. That was appealing. That’s what it’s all about: You take on too big a house, and you do too many things to it all at once, and you sit down at night and have a sip of wine and think, What did I get myself into? Kevin had a lot of that about him.
Silva: So I see Kevin’s toolbox and Russ goes, “What can you do with the tools?” I took his paintbrushes and hot-glued them to the inside of his cabinets. You open the cabinet door, all his paintbrushes were hanging neatly.
Kevin O’Connor (host): You’ve got to understand—it’s one thing to pull a gag on somebody, but this is my kitchen. What’s with that?
Burton: That’s Tommy. When he likes you, he picks on you.
O’Connor: When they first called and spoke to my wife, they didn’t say what they wanted. We sat around the table and talked about it that night. My wife said they were going to ask me to host. I was convinced Russ [Morash] needed a loan.
Burton: Kevin has, more than anyone else, built a relationship with these guys. In some ways, they mentor him, which is kind of cool.