Like any kid that grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was a big Bob Vila fan. I watched him on This Old House, followed him to Home Again, joined the Sears Craftsman Club - you know, the normal stuff we all did.
So, when This Old House Ventures, the current owners and producers of the show, announced that they were going to make all the old episodes available online through their new This Old House Insider program, I immediately signed up for the chance to rewatch old projects that probably haven’t been rebroadcast on TV in more than 20 years. I was surprised at how many details, and even dialogue, I remembered, but, one thing stood out to me that I missed on first viewing, Bob Vila has a serious hatred for the American garage.
Garages are extremely useful. They protect your car from the elements, save your wax job, give you a sheltered place to unload the groceries, and, eventually, become a fantastic place to pack full of all the junk you don’t want in the house but can’t bear to part with. Given that most This Old House projects take place in New England, where winter weather can be quite severe, you would think that the utility of a garage would be appreciated by most homeowners - which makes Mr. Vila’s hatred of them all the more perplexing
It all started in the very first season in 1979, when they rehabbed a mid 19th century 2nd Empire house in Dorchester. That home had a very attractive, all brick 2-car detached garage added in the 1930s, and Vila spent the entire season complaining about it. During the initial walk through with a real estate appraiser on the very first episode, Vila apologized for its ugly appearance, and was contradicted by the appraiser, who pointed out what an asset it was to have in the city, and how much money such a solid structure would cost to build new.
Later, Vila proposed painting the whole thing white, to hide the “ugly” red brick, but eventually thought better of the idea, due to the maintenance nightmare that is painted brick. In another episode, he suggests that a future homeowner ought to install a trellis or fence of some sort to screen the garage from view - again, this is a perfectly decent looking, 1930s brick garage, not exactly an eyesore. Finally, in another episode, he suggests that, since it is a 2-car garage, the new homeowner would probably want to convert half of it to a wood shop. As if the late 1970s middle class family that would be buying the home would have no use for a second garage bay, and as if the house itself didn’t have a perfectly fine, fully excavated basement to use as a shop.
OK, so maybe that was just “early installment weirdness” on the first season? Except, that it repeated. Their third project, in 1981, was a 3-bedroom 1950s rancher in Woburn with another detached, 2-car garage, that had been added in the late 1960s.
This was the period where the show was actually close to being cancelled. The second season - converting a sprawling country mansion into five luxury condominiums - had been a near disaster. The real estate market tanked just as construction was concluding, and three of the five units remained unsold by the time work was scheduled to start on the next project. This was the era when the show was still done on a shoestring budget, houses were purchased by the Boston PBS station, WGBH, and had to be resold for at least break even at the end of the season to keep it all solvent. Hence the decision to work on a small, not really old, starter home for the next project. If they went in the hole again, it would probably be over. I believe Vila actually did do quite a bit of the work himself, off camera, on this project, in the interest of saving the show.
The main idea here was to create a proper master bedroom suite with its own bathroom, which would obviously make the house more salable to a modern family. To do that with a minimum of new construction, the existing living room was converted to a master suite, and the garage was connected to the house with a new foyer/sunroom addition, to replace the lost front door that once led into the living room. That required converting the bedroom on that corner to living space so that the foyer would connect to the rest of the house. Easy enough, so far. Except, to replace the lost living room, Vila had the garage converted to a new living space, and that back bedroom became a new formal dining room. Now, setting aside the fact that dining rooms make terrible connecting spaces to walk through, because of the bulky table and chairs, this conversion eliminated important options for future homeowners. That garage had been built in the ONLY place on the entire property where a garage could be located. It was at the head of the driveway, and adjacent to the main living spaces. If anyone wanted to add one later, they would have to create a totally new driveway and curb cut on the opposite side of the property, and the garage would be on the bedroom side of the house, instead of the living side. This house had a largish eat-in kitchen and no dining room originally. The idea of converting that back bedroom into a new living room and making do without a dining room, saving the garage as a garage, apparently never occurred to him. That would have still given a future family the option of adding a larger family room out the back of the house later on. If you ask people which they use more, their dining room or their garage, I can bet what the answer would be.
The war continued in 1983, with their 19th century Greek Revival in Arlington. This season was an attempt to turn the house into an “Idea House for the ‘80s”, incorporating modern thoughts and features. The second floor gained a fitness room with floor to ceiling mirrors and a grab bar, as well as a sauna and a deck. The kitchen was expanded with a greenhouse, the living room became a media room with a high end projection TV and surround sound, and an attractive looking wine cellar was created in the basement. To pay for it all, part of the second floor was turned into a revenue generating rental apartment. About the only amenity this house lacked was a garage, which was odd, because it had one to start with. A wood frame, slate roofed, single car garage had been added in the 1940s. It had to get out of the way of the kitchen addition, but was too well constructed to throw away, so it was relocated to the back of the lot and converted into a woodworking shop. Again, the number of people that own cars is probably larger than the number of people that do woodworking, and the house had a full basement that was big enough for a shop. In relocating the garage, they turned it around so that the front faced away from the driveway, with no room to grade one back in up to it, basically preventing it from ever being turned back into a garage. This season was especially anti-car, as the proposed 2-car parking pad off the back alley was deleted for budget reasons, leaving only a rather small and narrow driveway off a dangerously busy main street to service a two family home.
Up until this point, we’ve been dealing with homes that WGBH-TV owned. As you know, the show eventually abandoned that capital-intensive format and started simply filming private homeowners doing renovations on their own houses that they had already planned and would pay for themselves. Surely, when working with actual homeowners, Bob Vila’s anti-garage bias would be kept in check?
Not so fast. The 1987 season, one of the last before Vila quit in an argument over outside endorsements, dealt with the expansion of a 1940s Cape Cod in Reading - expanding it from a “half cape” to a “full cape”, and adding 17th and 18th century detailing. The original house had a single car garage built into the basement, which was covered over by the new addition. On this project, they actually reconstructed the garage bay in the addition - except, they regraded the driveway away from it, and decided to install regular “people doors” instead of a garage door in the opening. They went through all the trouble to build, or rebuild, a garage, then made it totally unusable as a garage. This was the season where the homeowners totally failed at tracking their budget or monitoring how much money they spent and casually brushed off all of Vila’s questions on the subject, until the final episode, when the costs were tallied and they were at 150% of what they wanted to spend. Surely, they didn’t veto a functioning garage on cost grounds. They had to be talked into not having it, by Bob Vila.
As further proof that this is a Bob Vila issue and not a This Old House or PBS issue: after he quit in 1988, he formed his own production company and launched a similar show in syndication, Bob Vila’s Home Again, which premiered in 1990 and ran (with a slight retooling and title change) through 2007. One of his earliest projects on the new show involved buying and upgrading a rather sloppily constructed 1970s split level in Quincy. On that, the architect suggested adding an addition to the side, containing a badly needed master bedroom suite upstairs and a 2-car garage downstairs. Vila immediately dismissed the idea as making the house look “too big and fancy” for the middle class suburban neighborhood, and settled on building an airlock vestibule around the front door instead. Again, this is Massachusetts. A garage is a welcome asset for homebuyers there, not a fancy extravagance for the rich.
So, what, exactly is the deal here? Did people in the 1980s just see garages as above ground basements - useless empty expanses waiting to be reclaimed as living space? Did ‘80s yuppies trade in their BMWs frequently enough that they didn’t have to worry about keeping them in good shape? Or, does Bob Vila enjoy cars with failing clear coats and sun bleached interiors, and does he consider scraping a thick ice layer off the windshield every morning to be good cardio? What is the cause of his hatred of garages? Did a beloved childhood pet get crushed under an overhead door, creating a deep seated trauma that he carries with him in adulthood? I demand answers.