Episode Descriptions


Season 20: Watertown, MA
This project premiered on PBS
September 26th, 1998
18 half-hour episodes; Programs #1801-1819

Our 20th season on public television began with the renovation of a circa 1886 Victorian with a large circa 1915 rear addition, in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts. Essentially untouched since it was built, the house was recently purchased by a young couple from nearby Cambridge, Christian Nolen and Susan Denny, who were attracted by the classic neighborhood, spacious yard, and the relative affordability of Watertown. Along with the This Old House gang and designer/architect team Sandra and Toby Fairbank, they plan to address the house's many problems: a boggy basement and backyard, paint-encrusted siding, crumbling chimneys, outdated heating and wiring, and a labyrinthine floorplan that masks the house's spacious 5,000 square feet.

Program #1801
The show opens with the This Old House's team visiting a potential project that the show decided to pass on: ac. 1720 colonial that was nearly destroyed by a chimney fire. They tour the house to see what a fire can do to a building, and meet the homeowner who, with his insurance settlement, is resurrecting his old home. Then it's off to Watertown and the project the show did pick, a sprawling 1886 Queen Anne-style house in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts. Around 1915, the original structure was married to a Colonial Revival-style addition, and then given a period makeover. We receive a tour of the building and meet its new owners, Christian Nolen and Susan Denny, who have a designer/architect team in place and are ready to get to work.

Program #1802
Our host opens the show with a visit to the Watertown Arsenal, now decommissioned and slated for redevelopment into office space. The highlight of the property is the Italianate Commander's Residence, a brick mansion being given to the town by the developer for use as a community center. At the project, the crew experiments with methods of stripping the exterior of its paint burden, while our host visits a renovated house in Cambridge, whose design was the reason Christian and Sue chose their designer/architect team, Sandra and Toby Fairbank. Richard Trethewey checks the state of the heating plant (grossly oversized) and the pipes (mostly OK), and Sandra Fairbank and Christian go over a proposed reordering of the house's tangled floorplan.

Program #1803
The crew begin to dismantle the grand oak staircase as the house's new floorplan comes into focus—seen in a virtual-reality walkthrough, it calls for removing all three staircases and repositioning one in the center of the house, providing a sensible and easily navigated layout on both the first and second floors. We visit the house next door, which is for sale, with Realtor John Petrowsky, to get an idea of what the market is like and whether Christian and Sue are on the right track in the scope of their renovation. A professional crew removes asbestos from the basement of the project house, and the staircase comes apart in three large sections.

Program #1804
As a professionally installed scaffolding system rises up to the roof ridge, landscape architect Clarissa Rowe walks around the lot, assessing problems—mostly an overabundance of weedy trees and terrible drainage—and possible solutions. Our master carpenter relives his western odyssey with the US Forest Service, 22 miles into the wilderness by horseback to repair parts of an historic Service compound. Back at the house, the old second floor bath is demoed, but not before the crew save the old sink and some of the tiles.

Program #1805
The landscape work begins with landscaper Roger Cook and arborist Matt Foti marking trees slated for pruning or removal and Matt's crew relieving the yard of some of its overgrown burden. Inside, the crew begins to rebuild the old oak staircase in the center of the building while mason Lenny Belliveau assesses the state of the flues with the help of a tiny "lipstick" camera. Atop the scaffolding, we learn how he has rebuilt the chimneys from the roof up, copying the corbelled and decorated originals.

Program #1806
The team's work to complete the reframing of the second floor starts with the use of engineered lumber, which makes for wide clear spans in the new kitchen area. Landscape architect Clarissa Rowe shows us two plans for the yard. Thinking ahead, homeowner Christian Nolen visits a hands-on showroom to choose high-end appliances for the house, while Sue Denny and a/v specialist Steve Hayes review a new wiring and distribution system that will ensure that, no matter how data is sent or received in the future, the walls will never have to be opened to rewire.

Program #1807
The show opens with a walk along a newly restored natural corridor lining the banks of the Charles River in Watertown. The result of years of hard reclamation work by the Metropolitan District Commission, it forms part of an unbroken systems of walk- and bikeways stretching from the mouth of the river west to Waltham. Back at the house, the crew opens up a water-damaged corner of the building to find rot, carpenter ants, and...termites. Homeowner Christian Nolen is presented with a plan to heat and cool the building efficiently, while still using the existing ductwork. Our host visits the Browne House, circa 1690, the oldest house in Watertown, and one of the first restoration efforts by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. At the site, historic preservationist Andrea Gilmore explains the architectural features that make our subject house a Queen Anne Victorian, and she reveals its original colors.

Program #1808
A Dig Safe representative is on site to explain the nonprofit organization's function: to notify all utilities of impending excavation so that they can mark buried lines. Out back, Roger Cook and crew remove topsoil to begin the digging of a massive drywell that will hopefully control the water that drains from surrounding yards onto the property during rainstorms. The team review the extensive termite damage to the front sill; to replace it, they need to jack up the balloon-framed wall above it—no easy task, since the floors are not really attached to the wall studs in this type of construction. Meanwhile, Christian and our host take a tour through the mocked-up kitchen, where Christian is asked a few pointed questions about the design.

Program #1809
Entomologist and pest control contractor Steve Marken takes us on a termite-damage tour of the house, pointing out the conditions that led to the original infestation. Out back, Roger Cook shows us the drywell and drainage pipe system he's installed to handle the water problem. The This Old House team work with excavator Jim McLaughlin as they try to pull out the old galvanized water service, with a new copper pipe attached to the end, to replace the old pipe without having to dig up the front lawn. Homeowners Sue Denny and Christian Nolen experiment with exterior paint colors on the side of the building—our host advises them to consult with historic paint expert Andrea Gilmore. Inside, homeowner Christian learns the effect, or lack thereof, of the skylight he's considering installing over the central stairway.

Program #1810
Roger Cook and Christian Bilodeau plant 30-foot evergreens as a screen in the backyard, using Christian's tree spade. Tom updates us on the project's progress: termite damage has necessitated replacement of all three porches, rough wiring is well underway, and rough plumbing has already been inspected. Out on the front lawn, homeowners Christian and Sue put a first coat of finish paint on some of the 8000+ new red cedar shingles and show us the historically accurate new paint scheme: light olive for the body, straw for the trim, and a pumpkin red for the decorative shingling and window sash. Electrician Allen Gallant links the house up with the live Boston Edison service from the street, while the crew cut through the roof for the new skylight. Finally, we visit the granite quarry and finishing yard where new pink granite blocks are being prepped for use on the front part of the Watertown house's foundation, matching the rest of the granite around the sides and back of the building.

Program #1811
The This Old House team installs a zero-clearance fireplace with a handsome cast-iron firebox. Window rehabilitation specialist David Liberty shows us his method of refurbishing the building's existing windows using old-fashioned, long-lasting materials. Show friend George Putnam works with a new stripping chemical to relieve the decorative carving on the front gable of its layers of paint, while our host visits the new owners of last season's home, the 1724 Colonial in Milton, Massachusetts. Our master carpenter checks in with a/v specialist Steve Hayes as he pulls "futureproof" wiring bundles through the walls and back to a central switching box. Finally, custom cabinet maker Ted Goodnow and homeowner Sue Denny show us the progress they've made towards finalizing the kitchen's look.

Program #1812
A busy day on site: The back decking is coming along with a new undermount system. The insulation crew is hard at work inside spraying on foam insulation. Up top, Mark Schaub and his crew prepare to line the chimneys with a concrete lining poured down around bladders in each of the flues, and in the back yard Dick Washburn shows us a unique dipping tank for stripping one of the house's old mantles of paint. In the relative quiet of the workshop, our master carpenter is fabricating a quartersawn white oak raised-panel piece for the bottom of the stairway. Finally, mason Lenny Belliveau works the newly arrived pink granite blocks for veneering the foundation at the front of the building.

Program #1813
Exterior painting by Steve Kiernan and crew is underway out back, as is the erection of a white cedar combination fence and trellis along the driveway. In the kitchen, Fred Morgan explains to us the ancient process of terrazzo flooring, with a modern twist: instead of concrete, epoxy is used. Drywaller Mike Couillard shows us a tiler backing board that, unlike cementitious board, can be worked with regular drywall tools, as well as 56" wide drywall sheets that eliminate a seam when used in high-ceiled rooms such as ours. In the basement, Bill Clayton takes us through the perimeter drain and sump system his company has installed to deal with the flooding the house suffers during heavy rains. Roger Cook and crew unload trees and shrubs from a local nursery and begin sitting them around the yard. Finally, our host gets a lesson in granite work as mason Lenny Belliveau completes the foundation's stone veneer.

Program #1814
The show opens with a plumbing and heating tour of the basement, with stops at: a pressure-reducing valve that steps down the incoming water pressure from 110 psi to a more useful 65 psi; no-hub cast iron waste lines; two-burner high-efficiency boiler; and a topnotch ducting job that interfaces with an air handler, humidifier and electrostatic air cleaner. Upstairs, the terrazzo flooris polished. Our team installs a new window with guts of wood fiber and resins, a wood veneer interior and vinyl-clad exterior. Lighting designer Doreen Le May Madden takes us to a nearby lighting showroom to see what she has come up with for homeowner Sue Denny. Among the surprises is a fiber optic lighting package.

Program #1815
A huge drywell goes in under the front lawn to handle any water pumped out of the basement sump, and chimney specialist Mark Schaub and crew show us the newly "Rumfordized" front parlor fireplace and the cast iron Victorian fireplace inserts they've installed in the dining room and in Sue's office. Homeowner Sue Denny uses a biodegradable stripper to remove built-up varnish from the old oak doors, while Tom and our master carpenter fabricate new fluted posts and replica goosenecks for the house's porches. The new copper shingle system is being installed on all the porch roofs.

Program #1816
The This Old House team shop for lunch supplies at Eastern Lamejun Bakery, one of the oldest Middle Eastern grocery stores in the country. (The Watertown area is home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the country.) At the jobsite, Augustin Crookston and crew install copper gutters and downspouts as homeowners Sue Denny and Christian Nolen sift through the dumpster for some expensive mosaic tiles that were mistakenly thrown out during a jobsite clean up. We visit a larger-scale mine, the Kennecott Utah Copper facility in Salt Lake City, to see the complex process by which pure copper is extracted from ore. Back at the jobsite, floor man Pat Hunt and his crew restore the house's original quartersawn oak flooring and install new material that matches. Finally, the crew install the quartersawn oak wainscot that our master carpenter made in the New Yankee Workshop.

Program #1817
Our host arrives on site to find the building's exterior nearly complete: the new paint scheme is on, the copper gutter system is complete, and Tommy and crew have finished the front porch, from copper shingle roof to new front steps. Roger Cook and his crew are putting in a rice-stone front walk and garden path, leading to the formal herb garden at the house's south side. Inside, the big story is the arrival and installation of the kitchen cabinets. We visit the custom shop where they were made. In the front hall, finishes expert John Dee shows us how he is matching the old, stripped oak of the central staircase to the new oak of the wainscot, using different shades of traditional shellac. Upstairs, Joe Ferrante installs a complex pattern of marble tiles in the master shower, while the crew reassemble the scattered pieces of the central stair's balustrade, handrail and newel posts.

Program #1818
Our host arrives to find Roger Cook and crew installing sod on the front lawn, while inside painting contractor Steve Kiernan gives him a lesson on proper prep and priming in the media room. The crew install the commercial-style hood over the cooktop in the kitchen. Our host continues the finishes tour by observing the decorative painting techniques of Iris Marcus, who is putting up a "silk moiré" pattern on the walls of the dining room. Our host takes us to see the other end of the house's security system, visiting a central station that monitors houses and businesses across New England, while our master carpenter checks in with the closet system installers, who are working with a custom product made in Italy. We find electrician Allen Gallant working on the fiber-optic equipment that supplies light to the oak stairway. Finally, termite man Steve Marken injects a blanket of protection around the building's perimeter to insure that all the fine renovations will remain bug-free.

Program #1819
The final days at the Watertown project start with Richard Trethewey's tour of the completed kitchen, complete with stainless-stee cleanup sink, the completed baths, and the laundry. We get a lesson in wallpapering from expert John Gravallese. Hint #1: use a ton of single-edge razor blades. Decorative painter Julia Purinton and her crew show us their two-tone striped wall treatment in the guest bedroom. Craftsmen install a restored stained-glass panel in the front door and a brand-new one in the front hall. Lighting designer Doreen Le May Madden shows us the finished lighting package in the kitchen—including a dimmable fluorescent ceiling fixture—and the dining room, and Christian prepares some hors d'oeuvres in his new kitchen. We check out Susan's new office, where she's using a high-speed cable modem to surf the Internet, including the new This Old House and New Yankee Workshop sites, and moves on to find Steve Hayes setting up the media room with some new, adjustable and tunable ceiling speakers. Finally, a wrap party puts a rocking end to a major project.