December 23, 2013

[Interview] A Conversation with Home Renovation Expert Bob Vila

  • By: Lauren Walser

We only had the space to print a snippet of the wisdom Bob Vila shared with Preservation magazine in our upcoming Winter 2014 issue, but we know you’re eager to read more. Read on for the full transcript of our interview with the star of This Old House and Bob Vila’s Home Again.

You can visit to learn even more. We suggest exploring his popular “How To Center” and watching his online series Building Green.

How did your love of old houses begin?

I think it’s a combination of stuff that’s in my genes and having grown up in kind of a frontier town without any real historic architecture. My family is from Havana, and my father came across at the end of World War II, so I was born and raised in Florida. But his mother and other relatives had been in Havana for a couple generations. I used to go as a kid, and 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, we had very basic kind of houses, with some exceptions like Miami Beach and Coral Gables. But 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 styles that were so popular there.

And as I say, it’s in the gene pool. My grandmother had built a house in the teens or the ‘20s -- a Neoclassical house. There are very few pictures of it, but some day I want to go and visit. And really, I guess I always had this love for the old.

Everybody remarked on it when I was a kid, saying I got it from Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine, may she rest in peace, lived in a splendid apartment in Havana, filled with antiques she had collected in Europe. Everybody kind of made fun of her, because she had a taste for the Baroque.

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

I’ve been associated now for about seven or eight years with [The Finca Vigía Foundation], which was founded about 10 or 11 years ago by a woman named Jenny Phillips, whose grandfather was Max Perkins. Max Perkins was Hemingway’s publisher at Scribner’s.

Jenny went to Cuba because she heard a lot of her grandfather’s papers were at Hemingway’s house, and they were in danger of being lost because of the conditions of the house. And she was right. She basically started this organization with the goal of helping the Cubans not just restore the house, but prevent it from falling apart.

Bob Vila working at Ernest Hemingway's Finca Vigia.

For me, it was very interesting because it was the first time I had gone back to Cuba since 1959. I had left as a 12-year-old, and went back as a 58-year-old, so it’s been an interesting journey for me.

The relationship [between our organization and the Cubans] is very special. It’s the only cross-cultural relationship between the Cuban Cultural Ministry and an American nonprofit. We’ve had a great deal of assistance from Congressman [Jim] McGovern (D-Mass.), and of course [former National Trust for Historic Preservation president] Dick Moe is affiliated with us; he’s a friend. And the National Trust has been very, very helpful over the course of the years.

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. The intention was that it become kind of a museum for the Cuban people. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions outside Havana.

Do you have a favorite architectural style?

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. It’s very much a Regency house in plan, but very much a Florida house in terms of its functioning and overall look. So to try to answer your question, I guess I’m not terribly discriminating. I love so many architectural styles.

I have never owned a Modernist, glass box-type house. And it’s ironic: My son, a builder and developer, is very much enamored of that and has just built a beautiful big glass modernist house in East Hampton, which is for sale. He’s making a reputation for himself with this kind of contemporary style of architecture, which is the opposite of what he grew up with.

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, which was over 10 years ago: 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 go to make changes or improvements or additions. It’s something I’m really concerned with.

Bob Vila working at Ernest Hemingway's Finca Vigia.

If someone tells you they’re interested in buying a house, but they’re looking for something newly constructed, do you try to convince them to go for an old home, instead?

I think that everybody needs to get an understanding of what turns them on and go in that direction. I tell people that the most important thing is to find the neighborhood and schools and kind of shelter that they can be comfortable in and won’t outgrow right away or have to think about modifying right away.

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

I think the most important thing is to avoid the money pit problem that so many people face. That means 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 takes into account what your lifestyle would be, and if you would be able to afford it maintaining it, lighting it, maintaining the gardens, etc. In other words, don’t get yourself lovesick over something that’s going to become a real burden to you.

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.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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