"This Old House" is America’s longest-running home improvement show, airing on PBS since 1979. Now, for the first time, host Kevin O’Connor takes us on a personally guided tour of his favorite homes room by room in "The Best Homes from This Old House." Here's an excerpt.
On a mild summer evening in August 2008, Kevin Costello and his wife, Karen Shen, walked with their three young sons on the wide sidewalks of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, passing neighbors and friends out enjoying the summer evening. As they finished their stroll, they sat on the stoop of an old, run-down brownstone, watching the neighborhood pass by and smiling as they considered their good luck at having found and purchased the century-old boardinghouse behind them. In Brooklyn, stoops serve as front yards, and now this stoop in this up-and-coming neighborhood was theirs, with all of its problems—and all of its promise.
Constructed in 1904, this brownstone was one of thousands built at the beginning of the twentieth century to provide housing for the legions of people working in the boroughs of New York City, Manhattan in particular. The exterior was now more red than brown, thanks to the latest of countless coats of paint, but it had the distinctive window bays and details befitting a home designed by the noted architect Axel Hedman. The first floor sat about eight feet above the street, with a front staircase that led both up to the elegant front door and down to the garden-level entryway. That garden, or what was left of it, was behind the house and walled in by brownstones on both sides, making it accessible only through the house. Not that anyone would want to access it. When "This Old House" began the Brooklyn project, the garden was completely overgrown, with loose concrete underfoot and a rusty steel arbor overhead. But as bad as the garden looked, it was in better condition than the inside of the house.
At some point, probably in the 1940s, a previous owner had converted the building into a rooming house, surely to make some money off the young men returning to New York after World War II. The building had been divided into nine separate units, and through the entryway, past the nine doorbells, a dark, narrow staircase led to nine apartment doors. When we arrived, one still had a sign that said manager’s stuck to it.
Behind just about every door was a tiny apartment; most of them had sinks and cook tops squeezed into unlikely corners amid cramped living spaces. There were windows only on the front and back façades of the house, and since each floor was split into multiple apartments, most of the units had only a single source of light. The resulting darkness made small spaces seem even smaller and cast a pall over the entire house, but at least the shadows and dark corners hid most of the dirt.
Ironically, the building’s neglect turned out to be its saving grace. Previous owners had made few improvements but also few changes, and that meant many of the home’s original details remained intact, albeit in a strange alliance with its boardinghouse history. On the second floor, for example, a grand dressing room with built-in cabinets and closets made of bird’s-eye maple remained completely intact—except for the kitchen sink awkwardly placed in the countertop of a woman’s vanity, its peeling laminate an odd complement to the faded ripples of the maple.
On the main floor, wide plaster cove moldings graced tall ceilings and oak wainscoting adorned the shabby walls. A large piece of fretwork that ran wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling separated the original front parlor, which had been converted into a separate apartment, from the original kitchen (now a second unit). The fretwork’s turned spindles and fluted columns had been retrofitted to receive an old gas line for a wall-mounted sconce, but other than that modification and its worn finish, the piece was in nearly original condition. All of these details—the bird’s-eye maple, the oak wainscoting, the plaster coves, the ornate fretwork—were tired and worn but they were still in the house! And after one hundred and four years and who knows how many different renovations and reconfigurations, the preservation of all these details was extraordinary. The details were, in fact, the reason Karen and Kevin fell in love with the building, and as they sat on their stoop that summer evening, aware of the work that lay ahead of them, they were eager to get started.
And so were we. "This Old House" had never worked in New York City before, and now that we were there, it made sense to work on the city’s iconic housing style: the brownstone. To me, the word “brownstone” inspires visions of elegant façades and stately buildings lining the avenues of expensive neighborhoods in New York, Boston, or other American cities. But the truth about these buildings is that in many neighborhoods, they were designed for middle-income families: worker housing, rolled out four to six at a time by developers building densely packed, affordable homes in much the same way that modern subdivisions are built today. There’s a reason “brownstone” is interchangeable with “row house,” a more pedestrian way to describe the housing style. And this house, despite the ornate details inside, was a modest building designed for families of modest income. The renovation we were about to undertake would continue that tradition.
Karen and Kevin wanted to build a home for their family but needed some rental income to help pay for the recent purchase and pending renovation. The plan was to renovate the first and second floors for their family and then to create two rental apartments, one on the top floor and another on the garden level. Their two older sons would share a bedroom on the third floor and the baby would sleep in an alcove next to the new master bedroom. Karen and Kevin hoped to take back the top floor in about five years, after replenishing their savings and paying off some of the mortgage, so their family could spread out.
When work began, we focused our efforts on the owner’s unit. We quickly did away with the nine apartments by taking down walls and closing off hallway doors. On the first floor, the separate back and front apartments became an open floor plan that ran from an elegant parlor in the front to a bright new kitchen in the rear. We restored the old fretwork and used it to separate the new parlor from an adjacent den, and beyond that a small dining area filled with plenty of light, thanks to its southern exposure and the new windows that were no longer wrapped in wrought-iron burglar bars.
When the building served as a rooming house, tenants moved from floor to floor using a four-story staircase on the left side of the building. Tenants and guests shared the front door and passed each other in this common hallway as they came and went. Since there would still be two rental units in the building after renovations, the staircase would remain a shared public space. But Karen and Kevin wanted some privacy too. They wanted to move from their bedrooms on the second floor to their kitchen and living room on the first floor and to the laundry room and guest bedroom carved out of the garden apartment on the ground floor. So we restored an old set of stairs that led from the first floor to the basement. To connect the first and second floors, our contractor, Mike Streaman, cut a four-foot-square hole in the ceiling and installed a metal staircase that Karen and Kevin purchased online from a favorite local website, Brownstoners.com. The iron stair, with its triangular treads spiraling up about eleven feet, became not just the signature feature of the main room but also represented Karen and Kevin’s effort to recycle, restore, and reuse as many period features as possible.
Much of the finer restoration work fell on the shoulders of John Thomas, a soft-spoken artist who painstakingly restored room after room of original woodwork. John used his artist’s touch and nearly inexhaustible patience to clean, stain, patch, and paint just about all of the woodwork in the building—the paneled wainscoting, eight-foot-high oak-veneered doors, the Italianate fretwork, and the floor-to-ceiling maple cabinets in the new master bedroom. John is an alchemist and used homemade concoctions of dyes, stains, and gels to restore a piece of wood to its original richness or to cover years of neglect with his hand-applied interpretations of wood grain that fooled everyone who laid eyes on his work.
John Thomas was just one of the tradesmen who worked with Mike Streaman. The plumbing and heating system was the domain of Randy and Eric Gitli—plumbers, brothers, and, to our delight, lifelong fans of the show. Not long into the project, the Gitlis shared with us an old home video they had made as teenagers, featuring the two of them walking though their mother’s home, playing the roles of plumber and homeowner in a parody of This Old House. It was hilarious to hear two Brooklyn boys, with their acid-washed jeans and mulletlike haircuts, attempt Boston accents. As we all laughed at their good nature (and bad accents), we knew we were in good hands. Vinny Verderosa updated the building’s antiquated electrical system, a huge project he managed to pull off almost silently in the background of our chaotic job site. We only heard from Vinny when we pulled him into scenes for the television show or when his infectious laugh rolled through the brownstone.
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Mike and his team are fiercely loyal to Brooklyn. They work almost exclusively in the borough and pride themselves on how infrequently they cross the bridge to “the other side.” And because they work so frequently in Brooklyn, they also work on lots of brownstones—it’s unavoidable. Their affection for their hometown and its brownstones is contagious, and it was inspiring to see them cram ten months of exquisite restoration work into six intense months to meet our television schedule.
The result was impressive; when we were finished, the old rooming house was completely transformed. We pieced back together the once chopped-up building and ended up with three kitchens, four bathrooms, and six bedrooms in three distinct units. The rental unit on the garden level was reminiscent of the original house, with restored wainscoting and a handsome fireplace, while the rental unit on the top floor had a crisp and clean look, with plenty of sunlight, bright walls, and light-colored oak floors. And in the center was Karen and Kevin’s new home. All of the original details that they loved and that Mike Streaman’s team restored gave the house an unmistakable elegance. It was almost imposing to walk through the restored entry door, with it masculine oak veneer and substantial brass doorknobs. But inside, the home now had a warm, informal feel, thanks to a new, open floor plan that allowed easy flow and interior views from the front to the back of the house.
For a century our brownstone had been reconceived and repurposed by its many occupants, whether they were families, tenants, or landlords. And in 2008, the house was again transformed to serve the needs of new owners. It was now Karen and Kevin’s turn to make this little corner of Brooklyn their home.
From the "The Best Homes from This Old House" by Kevin O'Connor. Copyright © 2011 by Kevin O'Connor. Reprinted by arrangement with Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive