On Saturday afternoons for the last seven years, Kevin O’Connor, host of PBS’s “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House,” has been captured on film climbing and crawling his way through viewers’ houses, remedying their most perplexing home improvement hang-ups. And while O’Connor, who resides in Beverly, has become somewhat of a fixture in homes across the country, what devotees of the shows might not know is that his path to do-it-yourself stardom—and to domestic bliss on the North Shore—was anything but planned.
A New Jersey native, O’Connor earned degrees from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and from Boston University, a course of study that would lead him to a career, however brief, in banking. After stints at Fleet Bank and Bank of America, O’Connor, a longtime home-improvement hobbyist and all-around handyman, and his wife, Kathleen, felt the urge to take on a new kind of project: finding a fixer-upper and turning it into their dream home.
“We really wanted to dive into a big, old, historical Victorian home and fix it up, live in it for a while, and either turn it around and sell it or hang on to it,” O’Connor says of beginning the search for their new home. While the couple initially set their sights on Boston, their search proved fruitless. Finally, a friend already living on the North Shore emailed the couple a listing of a Queen Anne-style home built in Beverly in 1894 that seemed to fit the bill. Little did anyone know that the simple gesture would ultimately change the O’Connors’ lives.
The home in the listing, it would turn out, wasn’t even on the market yet—never mind the fact that neither of them had ever been to Beverly—but that didn’t stop the O’Connors in their pursuit. “We really didn’t know much about Beverly because we didn’t have much occasion to come here. But we saw the listing and it was one of those sort of ‘Eureka!’ moments,” O’Connor says. “My wife came up on a weekend. The house wasn’t even on the market yet, and she called the realtor and said, ‘Will you please let me in? I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’ It was that kind of thing. Within two or three days, we’d both seen it and had an offer in on the place, and we were working towards closing on it.”
With their search successful, O’Connor says the next step was getting to know their new town. “After we made the offer and after it was accepted—closing was completed on Halloween of 2001—we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, what is Beverly?’” At the time, he was working in Boston at the bank and Kathleen was working in New Hampshire, so a tour of Beverly was much needed. “I walked to the train station because I wanted to know what my commute was going to be like,” says O’Connor. “I went out and walked down to the beach, too. The train station was seven minutes away and the beach was three minutes away. Then we were saying, ‘Wow, Beverly is awesome!’ Now we know we love the house and we love the town.’ We just dove in with both feet.” And dive in they did, pouring the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears into the complete and total transformation of their new home.
It was during this initial process that O’Connor had his first encounter with the folks at “Ask This Old House,” whom he emailed in frustration, hoping for guidance in removing some troublesome wallpaper, among other annoyances. “It’s typical in older homes that the outside corners of walls will be rounded, whereas in today’s homes those corners are sharper. We had the rounded corners, and we were scraping plaster and wallpaper and in a couple of those corners needed to be fixed,” O’Connor says. “I just didn’t know how to do it. We were scraping wallpaper in every room of the house, layers of wallpaper, each that had been painted and then wallpapered over. We were scraping like crazy, and this stuff just wasn’t coming off.” Finally, O’Connor says, the pair got fed up. “We thought, ‘There has to be a magic bullet out there, a clever way to do this, and if anyone would know, our friends at ‘This Old House’ would know.’”
Not only was the O’Connors’ email received, but the show’s producers responded with a request to bring the crew out to film a corresponding segment at their home. “We were psyched,” O’Connor says. So the crew, including Tom Silva and painting expert Jim Clark, came out to the home and began filming. Silva and O’Connor filmed a scene on how to replace rounded corners, and then O’Connor and his wife filmed a scene on how to strip multiple layers of wallpaper.
“It was a ton of fun,” O’Connor says. “I remember running down to the front porch as they all walked away and saying, ‘Hang on a second! I’ve got to get a picture of you guys. I’ll never see you again, and I’ve got tell my buddies that you were here.’” After he snapped the picture on the front porch he figured that was the end of it. Turns out, it was just the beginning.
A couple of months after filming his help segment with the crew of “Ask This Old House” in 2003, O’Connor says he received a phone call “out of the blue” from the show’s producers, asking if he’d like to host the show. And the rest, as they say, is history. “It doesn’t happen in this industry at all,” O’Connor says of his serendipitous rise to TV show hostdom. “And the fact that it happened this way is such a testament to ‘This Old House’ and who they are.”
When asked how he was received by the crew and experts at “This Old House,” O’Connor describes his arrival to the show as being met with open arms. “I definitely appreciated it at the time, and I appreciate it even more the longer I was with the crew, because these guys have been together for many years doing this, and I kind of fell out of the sky on them,” O’Connor says. Turnover on the show is a bit of a rarity. Bob Vila manned the reins for 10 years, followed by Steve Thomas. “But they just embraced me as family immediately, and that’s a testament to their generosity, and probably a testament to the chemistry that we had,” O’Connor continues, referring to the experts’ on-set hijinks at the Beverly “Ask” taping.
“I can remember the day we were filming that ‘Ask’ episode with Tom [Silva] and Jim Clark before I had the job. They felt comfortable enough with me to pull pranks on me, gluing my tools to the cabinets in my kitchen and screwing my toolbox shut. Which is kind of remarkable, you know—the guys show up to help me, and they’re out there messing with my tools. But it was because we had a good rapport, and I think they thought I could take a joke and that I appreciated the jokes.” O’Connor says, remembering his crew’s initial reaction, “They just said, ‘Sure, let the kid come out and prove himself. We’re behind him.’”
Fast forward seven years, and O’Connor now is as much a fixture on the popular program as are any of his castmates. But what he’s not, O’Connor admits, or what he’s not trying to be, anyway, is an expert in home improvement like his colleagues. Even with the ample face time that comes with being host, O’Connor doesn’t feel his role is any more important than that of his team of experts.
“My role is to be the proxy for the homeowner,” O’Connor says. “Every weekday evening, I’ve got three million people sitting on their couches watching this show, many of them simply for entertainment, a lot of them out of curiosity and because they’re trying to go through this themselves: ‘How do I fix this? How do I solve that?’ They don’t have the opportunity to raise their hands and say, ‘Tom, I didn’t understand what you said, can you repeat that?’ or, ‘Wait a second, you forgot to tell me how much it costs.’ So, because they don’t have that opportunity, that’s my job.”
Still, despite having his mark on center stage, O’Connor is quick to dispel any notion that he is himself in the same league with Silva, Clark, and the show’s other DIY doyens. In fact, he says, “I spend my time trying to make sure that I don’t give advice on the show, because why would you take my advice when you could get advice from a guy who’s got 30 years of experience under his belt?” Much like those who make up his television audience, O’Connor considers himself a pupil of the guys he shows up to work with every day.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ve learned on this project, because I’ve been in a master class five days a week for the last seven years with the masters of their trades,” O’Connor says. Despite everything he has learned on the set, he says he can’t hold a candle to the people with whom he works because no matter how smart he gets, they continue to get smarter, too. “They’ve got 30 years and three and four generations of this stuff in their blood.”
That’s not to say, however, that O’Connor can’t hold his own on the home front. “I try to be an expert for my own personal edification, and on my own house, I’m getting much better at it. I feel really confident and my list of questions to the guys is getting shorter every year.”
What O’Connor has had to become adept—if not an expert—at is managing a hectic filming and production schedule, one that limits our time with him to an hour-long call on his cell phone. “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House,” or simply “Ask,” as O’Connor calls the latter, deliberately feature different formats and filming schedules in order to address a variety of topics. “Ask,” now in its eighth season, features relatively simple fixes like hanging a new door, installing a sprinkler system or changing out a hot water heater. On the other hand, “This Old House,” which has filmed for 30 years, covers comprehensive project renovations—from conception to completion—that take up an entire season, or 26 episodes.
“It’s a lot of TV to make,” O’Connor says. There’s also the element of travel involved in the filming of “Ask,” which is filmed on-site at viewers’ homes all around the country. “We’ve been to 30 or 40 cities answering homeowners’ questions because it’s a national show,” O’Connor explains. And while most of the projects tackled on “This Old House” are completed in New England, projects in past seasons have taken some of the crew to destinations as far away as London, Bermuda, and Hawaii in order to allow filming to continue during the region’s unaccommodating winters. It’s an opportunity O’Connor welcomes, noting, “We can show off housing styles and practices that differ from those we’d use on homes here in New England.”
O’Connor is also unabashedly enthusiastic in his belief in the shows’ authenticity and their dedication to the viewers, characteristics best demonstrated by the quality and makeup of the shows’ experts, crew, and content, he says. “On our shows, there are no big lights, no wardrobe, no makeup team, there’s really nobody calling ‘Action!’ and there are no scripts,” he says. “It’s real guys doing the work, and we’re having, in my case, conversations with real experts whose jobs first and foremost are the trades that they are in, and not television.”
So how do these shows compare to the more mainstream variety that, somehow, find a way to inject sex appeal into stonework and septic systems? “[The shows] differ from every other home improvement show on TV, which usually involve good-looking people who wanted to get into acting and happened to be able to swing a hammer or who have learned to swing a hammer in order to make a television show,” O’Connor says (no offense, Ty Pennington). “We’re not that. We’re not dressed well. We’re [in] jeans, flannels, and work boots, and [we’re] guys doing the work. It’s right for ‘This Old House’ and it’s just fine with me.”
O’Connor says that when the cameras stop rolling on the “This Old House” programs, it’s back to life—and in most cases, work—as usual for the show’s experts. “I’m the only guy who’s all TV all the time,” he says. “The rest of the guys maintain their own businesses. These guys are still in the field, doing landscaping, working on the best heating and plumbing systems, etc., when they’re not on the air.”
Hard though it might be to imagine, O’Connor does enjoy the occasional day when he isn’t on-air. Even then, though, he’s apt to peruse his favorite neighborhood spots for anything from inspiration to ironwork. “I like those charming little places that have gotten me through our renovations or are unique on the North Shore,” O’Connor says, citing a few specifics, like the E.W. Packard Co., a.k.a. The Tin Shop, on River Street in Beverly, for “some of the highest level artistry out of metal,” and the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts on Water Street, also in Beverly. Other favorite stops include Walker Creek in Essex for handmade antique and new furniture, Beverly’s Gove Lumber for its huge in-stock collection of moldings, and Salem Plumbing Supply for its impressive showroom.
Perhaps most important to O’Connor, however, are those places near home that he can enjoy not as TV host or handyman, but as husband and dad. Places like Appleton and Green Meadows farms, both in Hamilton; Coolidge Reservation in Manchester-by-the-Sea; and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, a family favorite. As for the North Shore’s restaurant scene, the recently expanded brood—the couple has a four-year-old son and welcomed twins in 2009—has seen limited outings, with the exception of trips to the Atomic Cafe and a few other favorites on Cabot Street. “My wife and I like to sit at the bar, have some appetizers and a cocktail to decompress,” O’Connor says. “We don’t do it as much as we used to, now with the little ones. That’s kind of our North Shore life.”
As for the Beverly home that started it all? “It’s been our home for seven years now, and we love it. We basically gutted every room of this house and in the process, we did it to suit the way we live our lives. It’s very comfortable, and it fits well for us,” O’Connor says. But he admits that now with five members of the family living under that roof with three bedrooms, at some point they will have to leave, but he hopes to hold onto the property as an investment. “Maybe in 25 or 30 years we’ll downsize and move back into this house. We’re very emotionally attached to this house. It would be very hard to get rid of it.”
Whatever house he ends up in, one thing is for sure: Kevin O’Connor will make it feel like home. “This Old House” airs Saturdays at 5pm on WGBH 2 and “Ask This Old House” airs Wednesdays at 7:30pm on WGBH 2.
His Old House
The house that Kevin and Kathleen O’Connor feverishly gutted and transformed still is an enormous source of pride for the pair. Naturally, we were curious about the home of America’s resident handyman.
“It’s a Victorian in the Queen Ann style, which means it has a lot of interesting roof details,” O’Connor says. The 1890s-era house originally was a one-family home, but between the 1930s and the 1950s, it was converted to house two families, which, according to O’Connor, wasn’t uncommon then due to a poor economic climate.
After decades of meticulous care, later in the century the house fell into disrepair, the state in which the O’Connors inherited it (which also included a pink paint job and red roof, leading the couple to dub the house “The Pink Lady”). “Our half didn’t even have a working kitchen,” O’Connor says. “For months, we didn’t have a light in our bathroom. But despite the fact that it was all beat up, it had beautiful moldings, windows, and all the original doors.” The original front door of the house is a giant, four-foot-wide oak door that O’Connor counts among his favorite features. “The place had become pretty rough and tumble, but it had beautiful bones,” he says.
Of his favorite features, O’Connor says that the house’s windows are spectacular. “They’re very unique. The least ornate windows are 11 over 2, which is the light pattern, and some are 15 over 15—very ornate,” he says. “And we love the way [the house] sets up to the neighborhood.
It’s got a big front porch that opens right up to the sidewalk and street. You sit on the front porch and see everything that’s going on, and people walk by and say ‘hi.’ That’s probably one of our favorite things about it.”
KEVIN O’CONNOR’S TOP FIVE HOME IMPROVEMENT TIPS FOR NORTH SHORE RESIDENTS
“It’s the most important thing because of where we live and the type of weather we have,” O’Connor says, noting that temperatures in New England can vary by up to 100 degrees during the course of a year. That huge fluctuation makes weatherization critical, O’Connor says.
“Insulating a house is the first thing you should do. It’s becoming easier to retrofit insulation, which is a big issue for New Englanders because we’ve got lots of the existing housing stock.” O’Connor also says that there are state and federal programs, as well as tax breaks, that will help you in this effort.
“In a perfect world, replacement windows are great because they’re more efficient than old windows, and they’re going to improve both the comfort and the efficiency of the house,” O’Connor says. “The reality is that old, single-pane windows can be just about as efficient as replacement windows. There are a lot of ways for fairly short money that you can improve your existing windows.” He also notes that for those living along the ocean, hurricane windows are a must. O’Connor says that many homeowners don’t realize how critical it is to have a proper window that can sustain certain wind loads. “What most people don’t understand is that if you lose a window in a high-wind situation, you can lose your house. The roof can blow right off if one of your windows is broken or penetrated.”
Paint and Siding
When it comes to applying high-quality paint or siding to your home, O’Connor says there’s no “magic bullet.” You just need someone qualified to do a high-quality job. He also says that homeowners can upgrade their siding. While most people are familiar with vinyl siding, O’Connor is not a fan of it himself because the look of it hasn’t quite been perfected yet. “As an alternative, if you’re going for the look, something that replicates original wood, shingles, or clapboards, go with Hardie board. It’s going to closely replicate the historic look of clapboards or shingles. But it’s really durable.” PVC is another option, particularly for homeowners who are starting from scratch or are doing some renovation in which they’re taking off old siding. “PVC is going to hold up and will never rot.”
O’Connor says this nasty wintertime problem results when ice in a home’s gutters builds up, thus creating a wall that prevents melting snow from draining off the roof. “The ice on your roof could mean leaks in your house,” O’Connor warns. “It happens all the time, and the solution is to either have a cold roof or to insulate your roof. You can’t have an uninsulated roof that lets the heat up from the house.”
“There are a lot of things you can do to your house for curb appeal, and a lot of times people overlook them because they feel so overwhelmed with the paint and the roof and the siding,” O’Connor says. “But my approach is to do one or two little things every year to improve your home’s curb appeal, whether it’s freshening up a porch, putting in a fence, or fixing up the landscaping.” O’Connor notes that he finds the process (and the result) not only very satisfying, but also neighborly.
“So many conversations start in the neighborhood with neighbors doing something to the outside of the houses. It’s a very neighborly thing to do. We live among our them even as much as we live among our families. My thought is, I am building it to live in it, and living in it is the way I communicate with my neighborhood.”