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The Newton house, from an early season of This Old House.
Newton Free Library/Courtesy of Digital Public Library of America

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When This Old House was new

The show starred a Victorian home “struggling back from the brink”—with gentrification playing a key part in its success

When This Old House premiered in February 1979, there was little evidence to suggest that the show would be on the air for 40 years. The camerawork was hokey, the dialogue was stilted, and the host, a veteran home renovator named Bob Vila, seemed awkward on camera.

The inaugural episode, which aired on WGBH, features Vila and an appraiser named John Hewitt touring the titular old house—a dilapidated Victorian in Dorchester that a crew of local tradesmen would fix up over 13 half-hour episodes. There were no property owners to impress with a big reveal at the end of the season; the station had purchased the house with the intention of selling it once the renovation was complete.

“Oh boy, this is all gone, all shot, terrible,” Hewitt declares, gesturing to the porch roof of the property. It turns out that the bulkhead doors, too, are “all shot,” as is the door to the mud room, and just about every other part of the building. As the two men wander through the house, Hewitt rattles off a litany of diagnoses—mostly that various fixtures are “all shot” or “gotta go.” (These statements must be read in a gravelly Boston accent for full effect.) This sequence—Hewitt and Vila intently discussing water damage, gutters, and roof rafters—goes on until the credits roll. The 28-minute premiere has the effect of, well, a real estate appraisal, with the teacherly earnestness of public TV programming.

The program’s creator, Russell Morash, has been called the “granddaddy of do-it-yourself TV.” Before This Old House, Morash churned out educational programming on WGBH as producer of Crockett’s Victory Garden and Julia Child’s The French Chef. But before he was the “granddaddy” of anything, Morash was the son of a carpenter. This Old House was a personal project as well as a professional one, Morash says: He “wanted to secretly celebrate” his father’s skills.

The show was technical, slow-paced, and mundane—and Boston-area viewers devoured it. During its first season, This Old House drew nearly a quarter of a million viewers each week, nearly double the viewership of the popular Crockett’s Victory Garden. This Old House fans eagerly doled out donations to WGBH, often outpacing the audiences of other shows on the channel. The station raised $24,000 during the first 11 minutes of the season finale. After the remodeled Dorchester house was unveiled, more than 100 potential buyers made appointments to visit it.

The home renovation genre, in all its glossy, escapist glory, can be traced back to a crew of bashful Boston handymen, and that old house on Percival Street.

This Old House was picked up for national broadcast on PBS in 1980 and has since expanded into a home renovation media conglomerate with 40 seasons, a magazine, 80 Daytime Emmy nominations, and several spinoff programs. The home makeover did not clinch its spot in the canon of American entertainment until the following decade, when HGTV—the 24-hour hamster wheel of real estate content—launched in 1994. But the home renovation genre, in all its glossy, escapist glory, can be traced back to a crew of bashful Boston handymen, and that old house on Percival Street.

The pitch to take the show national on PBS attributed the “unexpected popularity” of This Old House to the intersection of “good television and a bad economy.”

When the show premiered, the U.S. was on the precipice of a demographic milestone: A record 42 million Americans would reach the age of 30 during the ’80s. Baby boomers were looking to settle down, but the inflationary economy of the ’70s made building new houses prohibitively expensive. Fixing up cheap urban properties became an alluring alternative, especially for young, white, college-educated folks who were drawn to the cultural activity in cities. Between 1970 and 1978, the number of college graduates living in American cities increased by 44 percent.

This Old House was different from other instructional shows of the time, its promoters said, because it had characters and an intriguing plot. As WGBH pitched it, the protagonist of the show was not Vila or the handymen but the house itself: “Set in one of Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods, the hero is a Victorian home with a character of its own, struggling back from the brink.” The “inner-city” label is now understood to be outdated, imprecise, and racially coded, but its implications were integral to the show’s narrative.

The first old house sits on Meeting House Hill, which, for much of the 20th century, was a working-class Irish-Catholic enclave within Dorchester. Like many other urban neighborhoods across the country, Meeting House Hill experienced white flight during the ’60s and ’70s. This was the recent history hanging behind This Old House: a changing neighborhood unsettled by racist fearmongering, school desegregation, and economic decline.

In 1968, the city of Boston bolstered its efforts to increase minority homeownership through the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (B-BURG), a consortium of local banks. The program provided black families with federally-insured mortgages. But the only homes made available to black families were located in heavily white and Jewish swaths of Dorchester and Mattapan. Real estate agents flocked to these areas and urged white residents to sell their houses as soon as possible. This strategy—stirring racist panic to make homeowners sell their properties for cheap—is known as blockbusting.

“The scare tactics that were used were unconscionable,” recalls Davida Andelman, a local organizer and former community health worker who has lived in the area for four decades. “It was pure, unadulterated racism.”

An essay titled “Confessions of a Blockbuster,” which was published in the Metropolitan Real Estate Journal, detailed the cruel practice from the perspective of an anonymous real estate salesman who worked to redline the area during the late ‘60s and early 70’s. “Some of the milder things were: property values are going down, you’re going to get a thousand dollars less next month than this,” he explained. “Sometimes it was only necessary to tell people that their little twelve-year-old daughter would be raped, and they’d have a mulatto grandchild.”

Meeting House Hill didn’t fall within the red lines of the B-BURG perimeter, but it wasn’t far from it. “There was probably more than a ripple effect,” says Mike Prokosch, who moved to Meeting House Hill in 1972 as a young community activist. “Our landlord and landlady were first-generation Irish... They kind of watched their investment evaporate as housing values dropped, and racial change in the neighborhood was part of that.”

But racialized hysteria in Dorchester didn’t end with B-BURG. The mid-’70s brought a court-mandated busing program to desegregate Boston’s public schools, and with it an infamously violent period known as the Boston busing crisis. White protesters slung rocks and yelled slurs at buses carrying black students; fights erupted inside the schools as well. The best-known busing disasters took place in the white neighborhood of South Boston, but the anxieties of the period seeped into Dorchester, too. A collective of white parents who staunchly opposed the desegregation program met regularly at First Parish, a stately hilltop church just a four-minute walk from the house on Percival Street.

Hewitt, the appraiser in the first episode, estimated that the Dorchester property was worth between $16,000 and $17,000 before renovation. At the end of the season, the house was valued at $75,000, and an anonymous buyer snagged it for $55,000.

The Boston Globe’s editorial board, noting that the selling price was more than double that of nearby houses, wrote, “Our guess is that This Old House will push up prices in the neighborhood and that it will bring speculators with money in hand for any neighborhood folks… When they are through, prices will be higher still and another urban neighborhood will be on its way to gentrification.” The fiery closing line of the editorial, which referred to neighborhood people who could get priced out, read, “Television hasn’t yet discovered a ‘how-to-fix-it’ series for them.”

Morash remembers the Globe editorial as a “slap in the face.” The people behind This Old House couldn’t get caught up in the political undertones of the show, he says, because they had an entire home renovation project ahead of them. “We were stuffing a 10-pound fish in a 5-pound bag,” he says.

�PBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

Whether Morash intended it or not, the specter of gentrification loomed over the Dorchester renovation. In a 1979 feature about Dorchester, one Globe journalist reported that the demographic pendulum was starting to swing from “ghettoization” to gentrification. Mayor Kevin White appeared on the 10th episode of This Old House and cheerfully affirmed that the neighborhood was “on the way back.” When Vila, the host, pressed him to discuss the “criminals” who were purportedly “having a field day out here,” White launched into a strange monologue about upping the presence of mounted police in the neighborhood. “Horses, they’re sensitive in the neighborhood,” he said. “Hearing at night just the cloppity-clop of horses… gives you a sense of comfort.”

The term “gentrification” had been coined by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, 15 years prior, but skeptics still dismissed it as a lefty watchword. A spokesman for the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, in an impassioned response to the Globe editorial, encased the term in scare quotes: “Now that middle-class whites are moving back into the urban neighborhoods, The Globe is stridently decrying ‘gentrification,’ the latest fashionable buzz word to catch the fancy of editorial social observers.”

This spokesman was correct to say that many in the neighborhood thought the big renovation was a perfectly nice thing to do—several longtime residents have confirmed this in interviews with Curbed. But the writer’s disdain for the “fashionable buzz word” is even more telling.

The people making This Old House were, in fact, aware that the show pushed a narrative of gentrification, but they too brushed off the label. In the WGBH pitch for national broadcast, the authors nested the g-word in a set of scare quotes and parentheses, only briefly acknowledging “(the controversial migration known as ‘gentrification’)” before moving on to the next point. One has to assume they had more urgent matters to address, like the corporate underwriting and the perils of inflation.

As the producers largely did, it’s easy to ignore or even forget the politics of the Dorchester remodeling. The structure of the first season (the show format would change in later seasons) makes this possible: There are no wide-eyed yuppie homeowners to label as “gentrifiers,” just a crew of competent guys in flannel fixing up a run-down place. Margaret Ramage, the Massachusetts General Hospital nurse who would lovingly maintain the house for several decades, chose to be anonymous when she purchased the property for $55,000 and lived very privately until she passed away.

Karen Charles Peterson grew up a few blocks away from the old house on Percival Street, but she never imagined she would live there one day. Born to Trinidadian immigrant parents in Toronto, Charles Peterson moved to the Geneva-Bowdoin neighborhood next to Meeting House Hill when she was a child in the ’70s. She was too young to notice when the WGBH team renovated the property, but she remembers that “it was always the prettiest house in the neighborhood.” She has lived there with her husband for the past six years.

Present-day Meeting House Hill is home to several robust immigrant communities, with Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, and Jamaican cuisines represented in its storefronts. One Family Diner, which Andelman, a retiree, has designated as her “office,” has been owned by a Trinidadian family for 25 years and draws a sizeable Friday lunch crowd. A Black Lives Matter banner hangs on the fence that encircles First Parish, the church where anti-busing advocates gathered decades ago.

It seems like a satisfying epilogue: Meeting House Hill, a pleasant, modest neighborhood replete with immigrant-owned businesses and a diverse community. If it appears too good be true, that’s probably because it is. Home prices in the area are rising rapidly: The average sale price for condos in Dorchester has jumped by more than $200,000 in the last five years, according to data collected by Warren Residential, a Boston-based real estate company. Charles Peterson says her house has tripled in price since she and her husband bought it. “We wouldn’t be able to afford this house today, and that’s just six years,” she says. “The problem is, homes in the neighborhood are pricing out long-standing residents that have lived there for a million years.”

The protagonist of the show was not Vila or the handymen but the house itself.

This Old House has changed substantially, too. Later seasons added a “sweat equity” component in which amateurs participate in the renovation on their own homes. Vila was ousted from the show in 1989 when he began promoting Rickel Home Centers, a competitor to Home Depot, which was a corporate underwriter for This Old House. The rotating crew of tradesmen has experimented with condos and “idea houses” and houses that are not particularly old. The show, now 40 years old and hosted by a cherub-faced ex-banker named Kevin O’Connor, is just a fraction of the This Old House brand, and the This Old House brand is just a tiny fraction of the sprawling home renovation media universe.

The contemporary home renovation genre is nearly unrecognizable from the humble experiment that came to life on WGBH 40 years ago. Impeccably groomed hosts whirl together dramatic renovations at breakneck speed; episodes are meticulously structured and full of gimmicks and melodrama. What unifies the televised home makeover from 1979 to today is an element of class aspiration, the voyeuristic pleasure of witnessing a renovation most people could never afford.

“Your average person” couldn’t have fixed up the Percival Street property on a TV-scale budget, says Andelman from her usual perch at One Family Diner. “I wish they’d have This Old House that’s for reality.”

Marella Gayla is a journalist living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can read more of her work at marellagayla.tumblr.com/writing and follow her on Twitter @marellagayla.