July 1, 2012

The Part He Was Born to Play

Before he played characters such as Serge in Beverly Hills Cop or Balki on the '80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, actor Bronson Pinchot was honing a different kind of craft: historic restoration. As a child, Pinchot fixed up an old shed behind his 1920s hou

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

"I remember being 8 and looking at worn surfaces and things that weren’t plumb and thinking how it was a secret between them and me that they had sur­vived, and I was going to leave them the way they were," Pinchot says.

The Bronson Pinchot Project, which debuted this year on the DIY Network, follows the actor and a team of craftsmen as they refurbish historic properties in rural Harford, Penn. Preservation spoke to Pinchot about his work.

Q: How did you come across your 1840 Greek Revival that you’ve focused on so much during the show?

A: I called the fella who owned it, and I said, "I'd like to come up and see the house," and he said, "I'm out of town," and I said, "But I only have one day on this coast!" Then he said the magic words: "Well, the door's unlocked." I drove up to the house and I can still feel my heart try­ing to yank itself out of my chest because there it was. It was not in good condition, but it was what it was with those beautiful columns. I went to the back door and the church bells started to ring—I’m really not making this up—I opened the door and the smell of cinnamon toast hit me in the face, and I said, "Okay, I get it!"

I call the house Mrs. Pinchot because no one can ever get my attention off it. I can’t describe to you how many times some poor, well-meaning woman has said, "If it came down between me and the house…" and I've said, "Don’t finish that sentence, you’re not going to like the answer."

Q: Your passion on the show is so much about the old being better than the new. Why is that so important?

A: Because it’s got all the soul of everyone who’s ever touched it and lived in it, so it means that a house from 1820, or 1840, or 1780 has all the children that slid down the banister. That’s in the grain of the wood. And it’s profoundly meaningful. People often say that when they go to a house when they know who lived there, Monticello or Mount Vernon, they feel something. But just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean you can’t feel them.

Q: When you are combining salvage pieces from different time periods, how does that work?

A: I’m big on intentions. The intention of most homebuilders before World War II was just, "I want something that makes me happy when I drive up the driveway." So if I decide to paint it cream and the original guy painted it red, both of our intentions are identical, and that is to make something that makes us smile. It really would be troublesome if my show was called "The Everything We Do Is Authentic Project," but it is authentic to me.

Q: What has it been like being on camera and not playing a character?

A: It’s better than cherry cobbler, which is saying something.

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