David: For the past thirty years, Norm Abram has served as the master carpenter for This Old House. The program got its start on Boston's WGBH in 1979 and then became a national favorite in 1980. Abram has become a beloved and inspiring figure who demystifies the home renovation and restoration process to millions.
Abram, who also hosts The New Yankee Workshop, has been making frequent trips to Brooklyn these past few months, as This Old House tackled its first ever New York City project with the restoration of a brownstone in Brooklyn. We spoke Abram at the wrap party for the project, which brought a decrepit Prospect Heights SRO (see some photographs from last December) back to its former glory.
How do you feel about this first New York City project?
It's wonderful. At the end of the day, we had a great general contractor in Mike Streaman who took care of the day-to-day operations and we just come in and report the progress, put it all together so the viewers around the country can see what's been happening.
What was a surprising challenge for this project?
Perhaps the most interesting challenge was that this went from a single room occupancy—somewhat cut-up but not overly so, which was encouraging because a lot of the woodwork was in tact—but to get rid of all the things you didn't need and to bring it back to more of a single family home with a twist in that there are these rental apartments to help supplement their income.
I think the biggest thing was just bringing it from that multiple unit to this [more] single family setting.
Have you visited some other brownstones in the area?
Our producers generally come down here when the word is out [that they are looking for a project in the area] and visit houses for the project. We had proposed projects from all over the NYC area. Once this one was selected, my job was to meet with the general contractor and take a look at a similar project that he's done. So right down the street, Mike took me down to a house he worked on.
We do that for two reasons: To get a sense of what a place might look like after it's been fixed up and, secondly, to see the quality of work that the contractor does. We have pretty high standards, so we're looking for someone who's really good and that always tells a story.
What was your favorite part?
Being a person who loves wood and I'm a pretty serious woodworker, [Abram's New Yankee Workshop biography notes that he's "been perfecting his woodworking skills since he was a boy, when he made wooden toys for his sister"], I loved all the beautiful wood and fretwork. It was sad to see that some people had made some mistakes along the way, like stripping the wood when they should have left it alone, but with John Thomas, the wood refinisher, he's brought it all back and it looks wonderful. It almost looks like it had never been distressed in a way that was frustrating...he brought it back it to life. So that's been an exciting part of it.
You have a shop at home—was it interesting going to the warehouse in Greenpoint where [contractor] Mike [Streaman] has his workshops?
Anytime I get an invitation to go to someone's workshop whether it be a commercial woodworking shop or a private woodworking shop, I'm ready to go. Because I want to see how other people are setting up and how they do their work. The woodworking community is very close—they love to share and show their space and work. So I got to go to Mike's shop and see his craftsmen building the kitchen.
The segment we did showed how they created a small amount of molding. Instead of using a lot of fancy equipment, we made it with what he had—a few router bits... the thinking process of his craftsmen is "we know we can do this...it might be more difficult because we don't have a machine where we can throw it in, but we know we can make it." I like seeing that accomplishment.
[A police car, sirens on and lights going, passes by as the This Old House crew preps its final shot outside the house, complete with a band playing in the street.] I don't think that was part of the script—it's the New York experience! What do you think?
[Laughing] It's great. I mean, everyone we've met has been so friendly. This band lives across the street, we heard them practicing while we worked here and I was told that our director or someone else approached them and said, "Hey, you wanna play?" The only time I've ever seen this happen with musicians coming on the street out of nowhere in when we were in New Orleans.
How do you feel being one of the first people on television to introduce people how to renovate their house and take them through these projects? There are so many programs that do that now—do you watch any any? What do you think of them?
The person who really started this was Russell Morash, the executive producer who started the show 30 years ago. [Morash discovered Abram after hiring him to build a barn on his property; Morash also helped bring Julia Child to television.] It was really his vision, and not just with This Old House, but with The Victory Garden, that people should know how to grow food, appreciate good food, and know and understand their home. And the fact that it grew into the genre of home improvement is an honor.
I think we stand a little bit different from many of them out there, because a lot of them are much more about entertaining and that's fine. The heart of ours is craftsmanship—and we try to entertain at the same time. I think we've loosened up the show a little when we feel that we can do that, yet our focus is on educating homeowners.
What's amazing is how informative the show is. For instance, as someone who lives in an apartment who is never really going to need insulation work done, it's always interesting to see how it's put in, what kind is being used...
You know a major project covers a lot of steps in the renovation. And we don't expect the viewer like yourself to renovate an entire home. But you can pull out of the individual segments content and things that do apply to your apartment or condominium or you're thinking about a home.
And the other part of This Old House is not the how-to aspect but the dream. Everybody's dream. You can dream for what you want, you might not get exactly that, but at least help you get closer to that goal.
This Old House: Brooklyn premieres on PBS on Saturdays—check your local listings. This weekend's episode features Abram "learns how local wood refinisher John Thomas is using a faux painting technique to disguise old and damaged woodwork."
Norm Abram discusses the next scene with homeowner Karen Shen and director David Vos(Tien Mao/Gothamist)
Abram pats contractor Mike Streaman on the back while This Old House host Kevin O'Connor thanks him.(Tien Mao/Gothamist)