Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
The pursuit of living in a historic home—whether the chase involves a restoration or an investigation of the structure’s past—is a story to be told.
Thankfully for us old-house fans, those stories are captured in an array of TV shows, many of which we’ve had in our YouTube queue for a while now and that we’re spreading the word about today.
Some of these programs let you vicariously live out the fantasy of restoring a run-down English country home. Others use live action role play to uncover how these houses were actually used—and reused—over the years. And while most are technically off the air, they’re all still available if you do a little poking around on the internet.
Restoration Home—which ran on the BBC from 2011 to 2013—follows individuals, couples, and families who buy neglected but architecturally significant English country houses and decide to restore them.
The host, Caroline Quentin, chronicles the often extensive and unruly restorations. She is joined by architectural historian Kieran Long and social historian Kate Williams, who are tasked with uncovering as much as possible about the house’s history and the people who originally built it.
This show doesn’t offer an idealistic view of the restoration process. Unlike many shows, which end with a perfectly staged and completed home, this program often concludes with a semi-complete job and plans for what’s to come.
While budgets may vary (the episode featured here is a multimillion-dollar project, but there are many episodes with more realistic budgets), there’s one thing these homeowners have in common: an unwavering passion for old houses and a dedication to their rehabilitation.
Country House Rescue
Grand country houses often started out as self-sustaining entities, funded by rent collected from farmers and other tenants on the estate’s extensive plot of land.
Country House Rescue, which ran in England from 2008 to 2012, returns to the concept of the country house as a businesses. The host, businesswoman Ruth Watson, travels to mansions around the UK that have been inherited by aristocrats who either don’t have the financial wherewithal to support the house, or don’t know where to start to maintain a home of such incredible size.
Over the course of the episode, Watson coaches the homeowner on how to establish a small-scale business—like a bed & breakfast—at the house to make the estate more financially sound, with the ultimate goal of helping the owner maintain and improve their family home.
The miniseries Manor House, also from across the pond, answers the question “What was country house life really like at the turn of the 20th century?”
The show, set at the impressive Manderston House in Scotland, is a live-action role play Downton Abbey. While the program shows off the incredible opulence of Manderston (the staircase is made of silver, for example), it also illuminates how the house was used a century ago.
The series looks at the physically difficult, and often inappropriately romanticized, life of servants as well as the cultural difficulties—like the strict and sometimes emotionally suffocating expectations—that come along with an aristocratic life of leisure.
Manor House reveals how two starkly different lifestyles can co-exist under a single roof—and how life wasn’t always as great as some of our favorite TV shows make it out to have been.
To celebrate the millennium, 1900 House premiered on PBS to illustrate how much our lifestyles have changed in just a century.
Set in England, the miniseries starts out with the extensive restoration of a middle-class house built in 1900 that has been continuously updated and renovated over the decades. A family was then brought in with the task of living for a few months as they did in 1900.
This program takes a much more accessible approach to how life was lived in these houses. In the absence of teams of servants, the show examines how regular families did laundry, cooked, cleaned, and dealt with other aspects of daily life.
The first few episodes, when they’re collecting all the housewares to faithfully recreate a Victorian home, is when this series truly shines.
History of the Home
Similar to 1900 House, History of the Home—a four-part series by Lucy Worsley, chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces—shows how life was lived by families of more modest means.
However, unlike 1900 House, this program focuses on how specific rooms of the house have evolved over the course of British domestic history. Worsley starts out in Tudor England and works her way up to the present day, looking at the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and living room.
Martha Stewart: Renovating with Style
In the early ’90s, Martha Stewart purchased a run-down Connecticut farmhouse, not far from her own home in Westport. Apparently, the house had always caught her eye, and she leapt at the chance to purchase it when the house came up for sale.
Thankfully for us, she recorded every moment of the exhaustive renovation and restoration. She gets very realistic about the renovation processes, talking about the delicate balance between historic charm and modern practicality, along with when to know if you should gut a room or try to save its features.
However, the best part of this hour-long feature is how iconically ’90s it is. The film is fuzzy, everyone’s outerwear is ridiculously oversized, and even though there are a few mishaps—just wait until the incorrect kitchen cabinets are delivered—one thing is certain: Martha knows how to renovate with style.
We’d by lying if we said that we didn’t wake up extra early on Saturday mornings to catch every new episode of America’s Castles when it aired in the early 2000s.
America’s Castles focuses solely on grand Gilded Age mansions and their history. The program takes its viewers on a granular, room-by-room tour of the best houses in New York City, Newport, and the Hamptons, while speaking to some of the most famous (and notorious) families from the turn of the 20th century.
If you’re one for the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors, then get ready to fall down the rabbit hole with us.