Shown: Bob Vila, Steve Thomas, and Kevin O’Connor recently came together for the first time to talk about their experiences as hosts of This Old House.
This Old House’s first on-air host actually started out as its first homeowner. In the never-aired pilot for what eventually became This Old House, Bob and his wife showed a Boston Globe reporter around the circa-1840 Newton, MA, house the couple had restored.
One year later, Bob got a call that a totally revamped version of that pilot had been green-lighted. “I was restoring brownstones, and thought it would be good publicity for my company,” he says. “Plus, I thought it would be fun.” The show’s first season, with the Dorchester House, debuted on Boston’s PBS station, WGBH, in February 1979.
A degree in journalism, as well as his experience as a contractor, came in handy for the hosting gig. “I wasn’t intimidated by a camera; I’d been trained as a journalist,” Bob says. “But before This Old House, nobody had really been interviewing people like electricians and plumbers.”
Houses people could relate to, like Season 7’s low-slung Tampa House, built in the 1950s, stand out as favorites from his time on the show. “Renovating a house that was a little run-down, but wasn’t a disaster, let viewers see the possibilities in buying a 30-year-old ranch.”
A casual mention of his own remodel—a Georgian Colonial in Salem, MA—led to Steve Thomas auditioning to be TOH ’s second host. He was just back from shooting a documentary in Micronesia about his first passion, sailing, and his publicist asked what he was up to.
“My screen test was to explain the Concord Barn”—work began in 1989—without a script. It went well, but there was a catch: He had to agree to shave his beard, because the producers felt he looked too much like Norm!
“I was terrified,” Steve says of his first few times talking to the camera. So he focused on what he loved about building “and asking questions and being curious. The role of the host isn’t to be an expert; it’s to bring the experts’ knowledge to the audience.”
Acton and Manchester-by-the-Sea were in terrible shape, he recalls, leaving some wondering if they were worth saving. “But a community is a conversation among buildings as well as people,” Steve says. “If you destroy the built environment because it’s inconvenient to save it, you destroy that connection. At the end of the day, This Old House is about preserving that conversation and maintaining communities.”
A letter to TOH magazine—written by his wife, Kathleen—started Kevin O’Connor on the path to hosting the show he grew up watching. “We’d bought this fixer-upper, an enormous 1893 Queen Anne, and quickly realized there was way too much to do,” Kevin says. “But it was a no-brainer that if you ran into problems, you’d turn to This Old House.”
When producers contacted the couple, “all I heard was ‘Tom Silva’ and I said yes,” Kevin says. He and Kathleen had no idea that one of the segments they filmed would be part of a new show called Ask This Old House (episode 22) or that the producers would be back in touch.
“I was a banker, and while we were filming, everyone was asking me about loans and interest rates.” So when TOH called again, he assumed it was for financial advice, not a job offer. “Next thing you know, I was on a job site [2003’s Concord Cottage], asking all the questions. They were the masters, I was the student, and we just got to it.”
But the Carlisle House, which TOH bought to renovate, is Kevin’s favorite to date. “It was this monster of a project where Tom Silva could do whatever he wanted.” And when the TOH-owned house was finished, since there were no homeowners anxious to move in, “We got to hang out. Some of my fondest memories are from there. For a couple of months, it was our house.”