“Everywhere we go, the number one thing people always ask is, ‘When are we going to see your houses on the show!’ Well, with our Milton project, viewers finally got their chance…” When This Old House opened the doors to its 19th season on PBS, it wasn’t a new set of homeowners welcoming viewers, but the show’s host and master carpenter. In a dramatic twist, the series’ producers turned the tables on the This Old House team by putting the whole cast in the homeowner’s shoes. Their challenge: to turn an antique Colonial farmhouse and its classic red barn in Milton, Massachusetts, into their vision of a “dream house” and a This Old House Show House.
It wasn’t the first time that This Old House assumed the role of both renovator and homeowner. When the series premiered in 1980, producing station WGBH purchased a dilapidated Victorian in Dorchester, Massachusetts—and the rest is history. Eighteen years later, the public was invited to visit the house that America’s favorite home team renovated, before it was sold on the open market.
We’d been wanting to do a project like this for quite some time. While we enjoy working with our homeowners, it is their house, and the final product is often a reflection of their particular needs. Having participated in the renovation of more than 31 homes across the United States and England, we thought it was time to see what the ‘guys,’ with their 19 years of collective wisdom, would do if it were theirs.
The subject of the restoration was the John Crehore House, named after the gentleman who first notched and pegged the traditional timber-frame Colonial in 1724. Upon purchase, the classic symmetrical white clapboard and black-shuttered facade still looked much as it did when it was first built. And while no less than six additions had been grafted onto the main house, it had managed to retain its vintage character and an extraordinary amount of architectural detailing: raised panel pine breastwork over two of its six brick fireplaces; wide pine plank flooring; dentil molding; double-hung six-over-six windows; and its original eastern white pine clapboards, complete with rosehead nails.
Throughout its nearly three-hundred-year history, the Crehore House had been home to the families of a New England furniture maker, a gentleman farmer, a prominent Boston judge, and a respected psychiatrist. Located in a sought-after neighborhood of historic homes, the expansive homestead can easily be considered today’s commuter’s dream, a rural-seeming spot less than ten miles from downtown Boston.
The house was purchased off the open market for $415,000, and the producers initially gave the team a budget of $300,000 to accomplish the entire project. Considering that it included a complete renovation of a 3,800-square-foot historic home, its adjacent barn, and 2.9 acres of landscape, they had to weigh every decision carefully. In the end, like so many homeowners before them, the TOH crew found many more things wrong than they had anticipated; that, along with their inability to sweep problems under the carpet, ended up pushing the renovation cost over $500,000.
Over the course of 19 episodes, viewers watched as the crew worked its way through the antique home’s rotten sections, contorted floorplan, ancient systems, and overgrown landscape, fixing them and installing the modern features homeowners expect. No doubt many viewers enjoyed watching the This Old House team navigate the same tough fiscal and design decisions that typically face homeowners.
In the spirit of celebrating collective wisdom, the team invited a few of its other award-winning PBS colleagues to share their expert opinions and sage advice on key aspects of the renovation. Culinary grande dame Julia Child and chef Marian Morash of The Victory Garden shared their recipes for creating the ultimate cook’s kitchen, while landscape architect Tom Wirth and landscaping contractor Roger Cook of The Victory Garden collaborated on landscape design, including a dramatic reworking of the driveway. To create a plan for the redesign of the house and barn, the team enlisted Boston architect and series alumnus Richard Bechtel of Bechtel Frank Erickson Architects. Our master carpenter built the next best thing to The New Yankee Workshop, his version of the ultimate home workshop, on the footprint of the barn’s decrepit old ell. And finally, well-known local and national design teams—from Laura Ashley to Smith & Hawken—arrived to transform each room in their own signature fashion.
“Our hope was to leave more than our goodwill behind on this project. We wanted to make this homestead so wonderful, that we would want to own it ourselves,” said the series executive producer/director. “And, to our dismay, we succeeded.”
The actual purchasers were Robert and Suzanne Grudem who, with their three children, moved back to the Boston area from Bellevue, Washington. They discovered the house on the cover of This Old House Magazine’s special collector’s edition of the Milton project while waiting in line to purchase grout at a local home center. They purchased the house, along with many of its furnishings, for $1.55 million.