Back Story: Bob Vila on Being House Proud

Television start and home renovation expert Bob Vila talks about his lifelong dedication to historic homes.

Before he became a household name -- starring in popular shows such as This Old House and Bob Vila’s Home Again and making cameos on the sitcom Home Improvement -- Bob Vila learned construction from his father, built houses as a Peace Corps volunteer, and started his own residential remodeling business. Preservation talked with the television star, author, and all-around renovation expert about his lifelong dedication to historic homes.

How did your love of old houses begin?

My family is from Havana, and I used to go as a kid. I remember these wonderful houses with all sorts of architectural ornamentation. So my earliest recollection of experiencing old architecture is from that part of my life, in the early '50s. Back in Miami, growing up in a very middle-class neighborhood, I was used to simple houses. As I became a teenager and got a car and saw more and more of the greater Miami area, I became aware of the Mediterranean style.

Tell us about your work at Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba.

I’ve been associated now for seven or eight years with [the Finca Vigía Foundation]. It was the first time I had gone back to Cuba since 1959. We’ve worked beyond the bricks-and-mortar work of restoring the house, like getting a proper roof on it, and have been preserving Hemingway’s personal collections: his books, his papers. Everything was left there.

What are some of your favorite architectural styles?

For many years, I loved the New England Shingle Style, and I still do. And Mediterranean style, I also love. Our current home was built in the '40s by the great architect Marion Sims Wyeth, and it’s what they refer to as a Florida Regency. I guess I’m not terribly discriminating.

What’s your biggest advice for people who want to invest in an old home?

Before you buy it, get a very competent inspection done that not only gives you an idea of the condition of the house, but that also takes into account what your lifestyle would be, and if you would be able to afford maintaining it, lighting it, maintaining the gardens, et cetera. In other words, don’t get yourself lovesick over something that’s going to become a real burden to you.

What do people do to their historic homes that makes you cringe?

The construction of shed dormers on simple houses is so often done without any understanding of proportions. What was once a nice little kick now looks like some sort of large shipping container or crate that resembles a box more than a house. That’s something I tried to deal with in my last book: helping people understand that they live in houses that started out with architectural styles, and those styles need to be understood and respected when they make changes or additions.

Any hopes for the future of preservation?

I think people need to look beyond their houses and focus on their community -- understanding what they have down the street, whether it’s a 1920s movie palace or a church that no longer has a congregation. I think it would be great if people spent more time and energy understanding their immediate communities and figuring out how to preserve the more important buildings that are in danger.

Online Exclusive: [Interview] A Conversation with Home Renovation Expert Bob Vila

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