With 32 on-air seasons, 17 Emmy Awards and 82 Emmy nominations, there's nothing old about the production standards of the PBS hit series "This Old House."
The public broadcasting classic, which began its life as a one-season, 13-segment wonder for WGBH Boston back in 1979, may have changed hands, hosts, directions, sponsors and owners, but, if anything, its standards have steadily risen over the decades, evolving with changing techniques and technologies.
"Oh yeah, standards don't get any higher than ours," says Tom Silva, a 22-year veteran of the show and familiar on-air face to tens of millions of home-renovating enthusiasts across the nation.
Silva was talking on location in Essex — the show's current production site, at an "enchanted cottage" tucked away high in the wooded hills overlooking Essex's great clam flats and marshes.
Last Thursday was day one for Silva and the 30 or so members of the production crew who are acquainting themselves with the cottage — a vintage 1935 artist's retreat built for his wife, Irene, by the legendary John Hammond, owner and builder of Hammond Castle.
The eccentric couple's idiosyncratic touches remain to this day on the property, particularly in the separate artist's studio, where the original floor — taken from Hammond's private yacht, remains in prime condition, and will be preserved.
Over the next eight months of location shooting, this sequestered woodlands property will be "home" to the crew of "This Old House," and as if by way of neighborly welcome, a wild turkey suddenly appeared and trotted right through their first camera set-up.
The crew sees the turkey as a "good sign," "a great omen." They'd been on the lookout for ticks, not turkeys, someone says. Turkeys, says someone else, are "a lot more fun than ticks."
For Silva and most of the mostly Massachusetts resident crew, this Essex location really does "feel like home."
They shoot wherever the show takes them, and the show has taken them just about anywhere you can think of, says Silva. A Lexington native and life-long contractor, he's shot as far afield as London's Notting Hill, Honolulu and Napa Valley.
"But with all its terrific historical houses," somehow, Silva says, "this is our first time in Essex."
It was Silva who found the cottage through word of mouth, and when he heard that new owners, John Corcoran and his wife, planned on converting it into a retirement home for his parents, he jumped on it.
The 1,302-square-foot space needed everything the PBS production powerhouse could give it. Architecturally integrated handicap planning, environmental upgrades of heating and infrastructure, superb craftsmanship — basically, an unbeatable level and combination of expertise, all of which is present and accounted for in an architecturally rendered-to-scale miniature model of what the finished conversion will look like.
The computer-generated model sits outside the cottage and "stars" in the production's first "take" of the day, as subject for an opening discussion among the show's on-air construction crew, and an introductory project overview for the audience.
Audience inter-action has always been a major part of the show's brand. Kevin O'Connor, who has starred as the show's on-air host since 2003, first contacted it as a member of its viewing audience when, stumped by a problem he'd encountered while renovating his Victorian north of Boston, he emailed in for advice. The rest, as they say on the show's website, is history.
From start to finish, transformation and production of "this Essex old cottage" will, says O'Connor, will take an estimated eight months to complete. With another month for final post-production, it's set to air next winter as an 11-segment series.
This may seem a long time for what, by the show's typical standards, seems a relatively modest challenge, but says Silva, "the devil is in the details."
In this case, the details are, everyone agrees, magical.
Silva and O'Connor lead the way inside the cottage, where large poster boards are plastered with historical, sepia-toned photos alongside architecturally rendered, computer-generated plans for the space.
The rooms may be small, but they are huge on old-world charm. Ceilings soar up to peaked turrets, windows open out onto tumbles of English gardens. In the living room, a big, old brick fire place sits surrounded by colorful, glazed Portuguese tiles. In the kitchen, a square black slate sink is a period treasure.
"The trick," says Silva, "is not to lose all this in translation."
Here, he says, is where the show's high standard's show themselves at their best.
Although the cottage will be "taken down to the studs" and totally rebuilt, every element in it that can be retained or salvaged, will be retained or salvaged. Whatever goes, goes to Habitat for Humanities for recycling into its housing projects.
The project's architectural firm, Space Craft Architecture of Lexington, has overseen renovations of historical buildings throughout Massachusetts and Boston.
The terrific thing about the "new house" they've designed, says Tom Silva, is that it won't "look or feel new."
That, of course, is why viewers love "This Old House."
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at email@example.com.