This Old House’s timetable was firm; start the project in October 2005, complete it in mid-January 2006, and air in February – less than half the time it would normally take to gut and rebuild a property of this size. “It was insane, completely unrealistic,” said Anderson. So, of course, she agreed to do it.
The Challenge Because This Old House is produced by WGBH in Boston, the film crew flew down at planned intervals timed to produce eight half-hour segments documenting the project’s progress. The on-camera interviews with the show’s hosts were “pretty much like briefing a client,” said Anderson. Several web cams – always on – installed around the house showed the work getting done in real time.
In the first episode, host Kevin O’Connor and master carpenter Norm Abrams walked through the house with the project director Elin Zurbrigg of Mi Casa. Noting the falling plaster, rotted wood, charred bricks and boarded windows, Abrams commented, “This house is in the worst condition of all the houses we’ve ever done.”
In 30 days, Anderson designed the whole house: three bedrooms, two baths, and a laundry room upstairs; kitchen, family room, and living room on the main level; and an expanded basement and new HVAC systems. As a practical matter, noted Anderson, row houses tend to have very little storage space. So she enlarged the basement, made big closets, installed cabinets in the hallway between bedrooms, and called for built-in bookcases. “As a Mom,” she said (her daughters are 7 and 13), “I know that a family needs places to display photos of the kids and their artwork.”
Anderson and the contractor, Mahyar Mahvi of Venus Construction, had to make sure the renovation was historically correct or close to it – a requirement of both the DC Mount Vernon Historic District and the producers of This Old House, who want their restorations to be as accurate as possible.
Early on, it seemed as though the floors, fireplaces, and decorative ceiling medallions could be saved. Then, a fireplace mantle was stolen. And as demolition progressed, it became clear that everything had to go except for the thick brick walls. Floors and interior walls – even the ancient kitchen sink that Anderson declared had great character – had to be replaced, further taxing the meager budget.
But then television “magic” kicked in to stretch those valuable dollars. Once it was known This Old House was filming the project, permits and plans were approved in two days. Show sponsors Anderson Windows and Home Depot donated the windows and appliances. Even the guy at the salvage yard where Zurbrigg selected a replacement mantelpiece dropped his price when she reminded him it was for a good cause.
As for labor, workers put in 16-hour days, seven days a week, according to Mahvi, who personally installed bathroom tile and the entry hall mosaic, one night working until 4 a.m. to finish before the next taping. Anderson and her AMAR colleague June Riley got on the phone to speed delivery of plumbing and electrical fixtures. Every aspect of this job was on the fast track.
Much of the work got done just in time. The front steps weren’t even on the house when the crew drove up to film the final segment, but they were in place before the crew left. When the filming concluded, the project’s partners gathered on those brand new steps for a photo op with Mayor Anthony Williams, who stopped by to cut a ceremonial ribbon strung across the gleaming stoop.
Meticulous Attention to Details The producers of This Old House worked with Mahyar Mahvi to find craftsmen who would painstakingly recreate certain features. One carpenter, for example, spent 45 days building the curved staircase by hand. The front stoop was made by a master ironworker, who’s shown in one episode working freehand with a jigsaw to cut out a lacy pattern on five steel risers. A preservation mason and his crew were summoned from Pennsylvania to clean and re-point the brick façade. Using a blown-up 1983-era photo of the house that came from the city’s Historic Preservation Office, the masons rebuilt the stepped, patterned cornice with salvaged bricks.
That old photo turned out to be quite a find. It revealed that the house, like several of its neighbors, once had a slate turret above the front bay. So yet another crew came and rebuilt the turret, complete with copper finial.
A Millersville, Maryland woodworking shop reproduced the pattern on the house’s original molding, based on a scrap pulled out of the Dumpster on demolition day. With custom-honed cutting blades, the mill made enough trim – about 100 feet – for every door and window in the house.
The small backyard was fixed up, too: a seven-foot cedar fence was erected, a shed installed, and a garden put in – all gratis. Without the resources and reputation of This Old House, not one of those costly extras would have been included.