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The Watertown House

The show kicked off its 20th anniversary with the renovation of a sprawling 1886 Queen Anne-style Victorian in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts.

Our Watertown Victorian finally got her paint and paper, but not until seven months of intensive surgery had come to a close. Problems that had been apparent from the start--crumbling chimneys, a wet basement, paint-caked siding, antiquated systems, a confusing floor plan--were quickly joined by nasty surprises. A sodden back lawn that couldn't grow a lawn. Flues in need of new linings. An optimum floor plan reconfiguration that called for removal of a chimney, two fireplaces, and all three staircases. Inadequate insulation. And the termites, whose visits over the years necessitated costly sill replacement and the removal and reconstruction of all three porches.

Costs added up as quickly as the days went by, yet through their nervous sweat homeowners Christian and Sue remained committed to doing right by their new house. They understood the importance of getting the fundamentals right, so that the trimmings would have a proper base. As Christian said, "I'm going to be carried out of here feet first, so I want a house that will last a lifetime--and then some."

And, oh, the trimmings. A butler's pantry in quartersawn oak. Commercial-grade appliances. Fiber-optic lighting over the staircase. Faux wall treatments. Marble tile. Nickel faucets. An Italian closet system to die for. With impeccable taste and a desire to make a proper home for their new life together (they were married in the house in mid-January), Christian and Sue went about $250,000 beyond their hoped-for target outlay of $300,000. This, in addition to some $150,000 in donated or discounted materials and services, pushes this old Victorian a fair sight beyond the million-dollar mark, putting it in a small but expanding league of similarly valued houses in this neighborhood.

An informal survey taken at the wrap party at the end of December yields the following list of the project's greatest hits:

The oak staircase. Hit upon by the This Old House team and embraced by the homeowners, repositioning and restoration of the original back staircase created an organizing principle that the original floor plan sorely lacked. Stripped to bare wood by the homeowners, fitted with a paneled front piece of quartersawn oak, and tied together with a warm-toned shellac and varnish finish by specialist John Dee, the central stairs now set the tone for the house: stately, handsome, classic.

The copper. On top of each porch, copper shingles; along the eaves, half-round copper gutters with decorative brackets; up each roof valley, more of the same metal. Together with the new paint colors--pumpkin red, olive green, and straw--the copper restored a perfect period look to the house's exterior.

The master shower. With its marble mosaic tile, generous dimensions, dual shower heads, and sliding glass doors, the shower drew rave reviews from all the sybarites in the crowd, which meant just about everyone.

The back yard. Raised three feet, dried out, given a lawn and patio, edged with a gorgeous fence/trellis, and sheltered by three enormous transplanted evergreens, the back yard was virtually unrecognizable from the swampy tangle landscape architect Clarissa Rowe and landscaping contractor Roger Cook faced at the project's start.

The new/old porches. The crew painstakingly duplicated every original detail, from the beadboard ceilings, to the fluted columns, to the railings' graceful goosenecks. Built this time on a pressure-treated frame with rot-resistant cedar, these three porches should last another century if properly maintained.

The fireplace inserts. Two cast-iron English imports, one in the dining room, one in Sue's office, hit just the right Victorian tone while throwing amazing amounts of heat from their compact grates.

The master closet. Designed specifically for this space, built in a computer-controlled factory in Italy, and shipped to the site, the closet system impressed everyone with its lines, sturdiness, and clever features, like the hangers on sticks.

The lighting. Subtle and effective throughout, Doreen Le May Madden's lighting design sported two real show-stoppers: the fiber-optic down lights along the staircase and the brushed aluminum track heads hung from flexible track above the kitchen island. Less showy but just as significant were the kitchen's dimmable fluorescent ceiling lights, an energy-saving first on the show.

The new windows. There were only a few new windows put in (the rest were reconditioned with brass weather stripping and copper weight chains), but the technology they incorporated struck some as the wave of the future. Built from an extruded composite of wood fiber and resins, they were strong, rot-proof, and available in any size. Wood veneers on the interiors hid the high-tech structure beneath.

The kitchen. Some loved its design, some found it hard to imagine working in it. Some loved the pairing of the traditional oak pantry and the sleek pale green main cabinets, some didn't. Bold, unorthodox, and beautifully crafted, the kitchen made a strong impression on everyone who saw it.