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‘This Old House’ puts finishing touches on Essex cottage

ESSEX – A lot had changed since the TV crews arrived at the cottage on the hillside above rural Apple Street last spring.

By early December, the brushy, overgrown lot had been partly cleared to open up the view; a modest lawn sodded; new stone paths laid. An ugly dormer addition is gone, replaced by a more logical roofline. There’s still a lot to do, inside and out, but it was clear that PBS’s “This Old House” was working its magic once again.

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“We have to be done by the middle of January,” said longtime series general contractor Tom Silva.

Will they make it?

“We have to be done by the middle of January,” he repeated, deadpan. Then he shrugged, no big deal, a smile almost breaking through. “We’ll get there.”

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The 11-episode Essex story will air on WGBH and other PBS stations beginning then.

“You know from watching the show for years that they pull this off,” said homeowner John Corcoran, “but it’s amazing when it happens on your own watch.”

A small addition has been built to host a new kitchen, and the walls inside the cottage have been newly plastered. But the oak flooring had not been installed, and neither had the appliances. This particular morning, with one contractor crew installing a new metal roof and another working on landscaping, the production team’s attention was focused on the living room, where Silva was cutting and installing trim on the fireplace.

Director Thom Draudt watched as cameraman Steve “Dino” D’Onofrio followed Silva from table saw to mantel, the contractor calmly explaining what he was doing. At a makeshift table off-camera, senior series producer Deborah Hood and members of her team glanced from small wireless monitors to the live action. Series host Kevin O’Connor stood nearby, getting ready for his turn before the camera.

“There are only seven production days after this,” Hood said, clutching a thick notebook. “A lot has to happen in the next six weeks.”

Work began earlier this year on the original 1,700-square-foot cottage, which was built circa 1935 for Irene Hammond, wife of prolific inventor John Hammond. She used the cottage as a place to paint and relax away from the couple’s famous Hammond Castle on the shore in the Magnolia section of West Gloucester.

The cottage later passed to family members, who lived there for many years. But it was sold in the 1990s, and got a bit shopworn while being used as a rental property.

Along the way, someone added that second-story dormer, which was so ugly and out of proportion that Silva still frowns when it’s mentioned. “I hated it,” he admitted. “It was just a big box put on top of a beautiful little cottage. I don’t know what people were thinking.”

Enter Corcoran, founder and president of Waltham-based Trinity Partners LLC, a holding company, and a longtime fan of “This Old House.” He and his family live close by and were buying the cottage to serve as a guest house and an eventual home for his wife’s parents. Silva was already working on the kitchen in Corcoran’s main residence as a private contractor, and when they talked about the cottage, he suggested they put the project on the show, which began as a local series on WGBH in 1979 and went national a year later.

Corcoran says he and his family are “private people,” but their time with the show hasn’t been stressful so far. “It’s not on TV yet,” Corcoran said with a smile, “but it’s certainly been a point of conversation for a lot of people.”

Clearing out brush and scrub around the cottage provided more light and opened up the view toward Castle Hill on the Crane Estate.

“Bringing back the landscape was ambitious, but I think it was part of the story,” said Corcoran, who picked up a chainsaw himself at times. “I think the lesson is: If you let it go, it starts to take over. This house was hidden away. If we had done the house but didn’t do the landscape, the exercise would have been incomplete.”

“The overall effect is subtle, though,” he added. “Nature is being celebrated here.”

Parts of the project might have taken longer than usual because of that dormer, Silva said. “The structural integrity of the building was definitely butchered, and it had to be rebuilt. And we had to do a lot of fixing up on the other floors to bring the building back to shape, because it was leaning and twisting. But it’s all good now.”

With thoughts of his in-laws facing mobility issues as they get older, Corcoran asked that the house be reconfigured so that they would have everything they need on the ground floor of the now-1,878-square-foot home.

“There are no steps, no thresholds, and the doorways are a little wider than normal” in case the house has to accommodate a wheelchair or walker, Silva said.

They’ve also added special features, including geothermal heat for the cottage and a backup generator concealed behind a stone wall on the property. “Next time there’s a blackout, I’m coming down here,” Corcoran said.

There were plenty of good reasons to go ahead with “This Old House,” Corcoran said, even though he still pays for the project.

“I love the idea of showcasing good design. It’s been nice for Essex to show off the town,” he said.

With the show’s team, he knows he’s getting the best in both concept and execution.

“Everything is done at world-class levels,” Corcoran said. “And you don’t have to worry about your roof leaking.”

To check air dates, go to www.thisoldhouse.com.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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