I love old homes. I have been drawn to them for as long as I can remember. When I was perhaps eight years old, I fell in love with a towering, yellow Victorian mansion set high on a hill on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My childhood plan was to live there with my handsome husband and a dozen orphan children. I begged my mom to drive slowly by the house whenever there was the slightest excuse, so I could gawk and dream.
My passion was fueled by the now legendary TV program This Old House.
It was an innovative concept for its time…To document the entire journey of an old, dilapidated house slowly being rehabilitated and given new life. Let the television audience in on the entire process: from gutting the ramshackle structure to spreading the last coat of fresh paint. Let them see the discovery of mold under the shower base. The crumbling of a plaster wall. And—eventually—the sun shining through the sparkling new windows, onto the gleaming new kitchen countertop.
Everyone loves to see an ugly duckling turned graceful swan.
Public television producer Russell Morash knew well the highs and lows of classic home renovation. His father had been a carpenter. And while the other kids in the neighborhood were playing baseball, he was by his father’s side, reframing and shingling their family home.
As an adult, Morash carried on the tradition. He and his wife spent twenty years transforming their “termite-infested, rotting ruin of a farmhouse.” And in 1978 they still weren’t done when he made a ground-breaking pitch to the Boston public television station (WGBH).
Morash convinced station executives that the same sophisticated viewers who devoured public television programming about microbiology and international diplomacy were often stumped when something simple went wrong with their house. Morash envisioned This Old House as “an extended vicarious experience of the total rehab process from start to finish.” His plan—unheard of at the time—was to take a real house, film in real time, and use real workmen who would explain exactly what they were doing.
But, he added, “This Old House will be more than a working model of rehab hints for homeowners and do-it-yourselfers. It will expand viewers’ perceptions of what a home can be.”
This Old House aired nationally in 1980. The series featured the renovation of a crumbling 1860s Victorian in Boston. The show’s initial host, Bob Vila, was a Cuban-American builder, who specialized in old homes. He became the father of home renovation television…and my hero.
I was eleven. Wrapped in a flannel nightgown and curled up on our fraying beige carpeting, I watched the series on a fourteen-inch black and white TV on Twin Cities Public Television. Riveted.
I currently live in a 1922 Arts and Crafts home in McHenry, IL, with my handsome husband and our two adopted children. (No, not a dozen…Yet.) According to the McHenry Landmark Commission, wealthy merchant William Pries built our house, sparing no expense, and connected it by a tunnel to the old McHenry Brewery across the street. Legend has it that, during Prohibition, liquor was carted through the tunnel to the speakeasy in our basement. This might account for the neatly plastered rooms on the lower level and the thick wooden doors that all lock from the inside. It might account for the full-height cellar underneath our front porch, accessible via a funny little double door at shoulder height. It might also account for the secret trap door and hiding place at the bottom of our extra-large laundry chute. Who knows? But the house definitely has some fabulously odd features.
I have often asked myself what it is about old homes. Why I am so partial to them. Of course, I love the character and the quality of the craftsmanship. I am intrigued by the history and often imagine the wide variety of life moments that have happened within the same walls. The celebrations. The arguments. The conversations. The heart breaks. The mundane tasks. The life-altering decisions. The quiet moments.
And then—with an old house—there is the opportunity for transformation. So much possibility. The peeling paint. The scratched floors. The dated kitchen. But the potential. The hope. The broken begging to be made whole. Then, at the end of every home renovation show, the long-awaited revelation.
This is what I want to talk about. Renovation. Rehabilitation. Revelation. Of old homes, sure. There will undoubtedly be some of that. We still have a long list of projects at our house. But even more so, the transformation in our lives. I am that termite-infested, rotting ruin of a farmhouse after all. (Thank God, he sees potential!) And as sophisticated as we imagine ourselves to be, I think most of us are regularly stumped by some of the “simple” problems of life.
Old home renovation certainly isn’t a new or original metaphor for personal or spiritual growth.
C.S. Lewis used it. In Mere Christianity he wrote: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
But then C.S. Lewis wasn’t the first to use the image either. Jesus Christ used it. Not surprising, I suppose, since his father had also been a carpenter. At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, he challenges the crowd to hear his words and to do them. To not build their house on the sand. But instead, to be like the wise man, who built his house on the rock.
No, admittedly, it isn’t an original image. But I like it.