Saturday, May 8, 2010

Gift Horses

A commentary, while I can't work on the house:

I don't have cable TV service. With renovations and everything else going on I don't have time to watch it. And even if I took the time I don't have anything to watch it on. My A.D. 2000 model is so fried it won't pick up a signal, and the last thing I'm going to do is buy a nice new flat screen TV and end up with wallpaper paste and Big Wally's plaster adhesive all over it.

So I figured my sojourn in the hospital a couple of weeks ago would be my chance to taste the sweets of cable-TV land. I didn't watch as much as I expected to: old habits die hard and as soon as I got a connection on my laptop-- when I wasn't being poked, prodded, blood-pressured, sampled, or stethoscoped-- I spent most of my time either online or happily looking out the window (nice river view).

But on the Sunday night, knowing I was going home the next day, I decided to take advantage. Thus I had my first look at a program called Holmes on Homes, a home reno reality show with a twist. On this series, Mike Holmes, the General Contractor with a Heart, comes to the rescue of homeowners who have been screwed around by previous builders and puts their dwellings right.

What's not to like? It doesn't hurt (let's get this out in the open right away, shall we?) that Mr. Holmes is built like a blond crewcut Greek demigod, with musculature that gives the impression he could hold up an entire house like Herakles if called on to do so.

He knows exactly what he's doing in the construction field and he's dedicated to doing it right. And if a little matter of bathroom leakage should lead to replacing a house's entire plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems, with a new roof to top it all off, so be it. I like the way he explains what the previous contractors did wrong and presents how he's going to do it right-- if HGTV would post detail drawings on their website of the correct assemblies, somebody like me could earn architecture continuing ed credits just by watching this show.

Holmes on Homes is a home renovation series with meat and muscle to it (lol). So once I got home I went online to see if I could pick up other episodes. After some experimentation, I determined that HGTV has the best streaming, so while recovering from my surgery I've happily been watching Mike and his heroic crews work their virtuous construction magic.

Well, pretty happily, until the two-part episode I viewed yesterday. Ah, alas, it never fails-- the best of us do. Fail, I mean. Even paragons have their flaws. And Mike Holmes' flaw is that although he's great with construction and pretty darn good at contemporary domestic design, he has no feeling for historical work.

It was painful. The project centered on a Craftsman bungalow in Toronto or Ottawa or somewhere (Holmes on Homes is a Canadian production and 99% of the locations are north of the border). The homeowners had suffered a fire and subsequently from a dishonest and incompetent contractor hired by the insurance company (no reflection on the insurance company, Mr. Holmes is careful to say) and from the deaths of the grandmother and husband/father of the family. So in comes Mighty Mike Holmes, to undo what the previous wood butchers did and obliterate the fire damage and rectify any other problems the house might have.

And it had plenty. A sagging center support, a leaking old underground oil storage tank in the backyard, and raccoons that had had the run of the place for the eight months since the fire, thanks to the previous GC having failed to make the place tight. And that wasn't the end of it, either.

But this house had plenty going for it too. A lovely Craftsman box newel post and grillework at the main stairs. Graceful arches between the rooms. Leaded glass metal windows (Hope's brand, I'd guess) in the living room. A charming rustic stone fireplace. True divided light upper sashes on the second floor. Not to mention the room arrangement and flow that the remaining members of the family, mother and daughter, had been used to and had enjoyed for the previous eighteen years.

Never mind all that. Mike knows best. Mike was going to come in there and give them new, new, new. And damned if he didn't. Silly new ersatz-Colonial stair balusters with a volute newel for the stairs. Boring new single-light casement-and-picture units with white enameled hardware replaced all the windows. The fireplace stone (which he pronounced "ugly") was covered over with new one-color, unvariegated red brick with a new electric fire. And oh, now since the fireplace wasn't woodburning anymore, he had the roofers take down the chimneys. So much for the bungalow roofline! Most of the walls on the first floor he removed, so it acquired a very modern open plan. Upstairs, the bedrooms were totally reconfigured. Outside, the old porch railing (brick, I think it was, to match the brick of the house) was replaced by a totally incongruous 3/4 height unpainted wood railing all-but-impossible to see over or through.

To be fair, both mother and daughter were brought into the house during the work and Mike explained to them what he was planning to do. Somehow, I don't think they grasped the implications. Or they felt such a debt of gratitude they thought they had no room to object. But now that they've been back in for awhile, I have to wonder how they feel. At the "big reveal," they both agreed that it was "Beautiful, beautiful." And so it was, for what it was. But was what it was what it ought to have been? "It really doesn't seem like our house," they said, and they were absolutely right. It wasn't.

I imagine there's some sort of agreement people who go on shows like Holmes on Homes or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition sign saying they'll accept whatever plans and finishes the show's designers or contractors come up with, in return for not having to pay for the work being done. And of course, it's said you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. But if you need a sturdy nag to pull the plow and they land you with an expensive racehorse and tell you you can't sell it, what are you going to do?

Frankly, if I had a beloved Craftsman home and it was transmogrified into generic (but high-quality!) Modern, I would be utterly dismayed. The very mention of the word "gratitude" would make me want to spit. Forget the free reno, let's just sell up and move.


Sandy said...

That man turns my knees to jelly! I'm so glad I didn't see that particular "double feature". I would have cried buckets. I'm all for what he does because he is very good at it, (and they do it for free) but he doesn't have a restoration bone is his body.

p.s. You can also watch Neecy Nash and her Clean House crew on

Kate H. said...

Oh, I know! I luuuuvvves watching him crank up a jack column! And talk about beautiful, true tilework. But that's so neatly put-- "he hasn't a restoration bone in his body." :-(

This episode explains why on another one the owner left Post-Its all over her condo explaining what she wanted and did not!