Norm Abram: History of Arts & Crafts Homes

  • TOH Norm and Mike Gen Next
  • Transcript

    Well, each project taken on by This Old House has very unique characteristics. And this home certainly does, as well. It was built in 1909 in a style called Arts and Crafts. To learn more about the home and the style it embodies, we welcome a guy who certainly embodies style in all his work and in his flammable shirts: Norm Abram.

    Welcome, Norm.

    NORM: It’s good to be here.

    TOM: It’s so great to have you back again. First of all, 37th season. Let’s let that sink in.

    NORM: Yeah.

    TOM: That’s a lot of years.

    NORM: That’s a lot of years.

    TOM: You have inspired millions of people with your work on This Old House and Ask This Old House and Yankee Workshop. What keeps you going?

    NORM: I guess it’s the fans.

    TOM: Yeah.

    NORM: I walk into a grocery store and someone comes up to me and says, “You’re Norm Abram?” And I say, “Yeah.” And they say, “Oh, we watch your show all the time.” And they just start these conversations and they’re also grateful for what we all do.

    You know, I think they respect the brand and they watch the shows. They obviously know what’s going on. And so that’s a good feeling to have that going. It doesn’t feel like 37 years.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: I mean I realize it’s over half my life so far. And that was kind of a shock.

    TOM: Yeah.

    NORM: But it’s an interesting process. I love construction, I love building things and I love sharing the information with the public.

    TOM: Now, this home is built in a style called Arts and Crafts. And I understand that Nick and Emily – we talked with them earlier. Emily actually figured that out with a Google search, which is how we do things today.

    NORM: Yeah.

    TOM: But Arts and Crafts was actually a pretty common design to this particular part of the country, right?

    NORM: Yeah. Well, it came – I think there’s a lot of Arts and Crafts influence across the country, actually. And here, in the Northeast, you see it but you see it on a different form than most people expect it to be.

    TOM: OK.

    NORM: And that’s what happened with our house. In the first shoot that we did here – and Kevin came up and I said, “Oh, what’s the style?” I said, “Arts and Crafts.” He goes, “That’s not an Arts and Crafts.” I said, “Yes it is.” It’s an early version of Arts and Crafts. It’s much more influenced by the English.

    Arts and Crafts really started in Europe, in England, and it was really – came about because it was a transitional period between the Victorian era and very fancy and detailed things to be more about craftsmanship.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: It’s about how things are done and how well they’re done.

    TOM: I thought it was ironic that in England, they saw Victorian homes as factory-made.

    NORM: Right.

    TOM: Factory-made rubbish.

    NORM: Well, that’s right. Right, right. That’s one of the distinguishing factors is that Arts and Crafts was just the opposite of factory-made.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: It was all handmade and there was individual craftsmen working on it. Our house here is very subtle in terms of craftsmen style. The cement on the gables, the half-timbers on the gables and the steep pitched roof and little bit of the overhang and brackets. And as Richard Duffy, who’s our expert here in this town, has a treasure trove of all styles of houses.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: He said, “It’s subtle but it’s there.”

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: So we went on a little tour. And I don’t pretend to be an expert about Arts and Crafts but I learned a lot from him. He took me to a house that represents Arts and Crafts in a way most people would picture it. So he said, “What makes this Arts and Crafts? The large overhangs, the steep roof pitch, the boxed-out bay window.”

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: And that house had an entrance door that was a little different. And I challenged him on that and he said, “Well, this is a New England thing.”

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: This is definitely a New England-period entry. So sometimes we call this Craftsman New England.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: But then he said, “I can show you something that most people will recognize as Craftsman style, which is a bungalow.” And that’s what most people think.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: You’re out in California, you see all these Craftsman-style homes. I personally love a lot of the features of the Craftsman-style homes.

    TOM: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

    NORM: The shed dormers. In the later ones, you see these porches where the roofline comes down and it encompasses the porch, as well. And you see columns made out of stone that are tapered and nice window details. That’s when you start to see what most people think is Arts and Crafts.

    And he took us to another one, which was sided, much like ours. It had the cement and the half-timbers on the gables. But what gave you a signal that it was an Arts and Crafts is that the roofline – rooflines are often very steep and they start from the very top and they come all the way down to the first floor.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: It sometimes has that slight, little curve.

    TOM: Right. It’s almost like a ski jump or something.

    NORM: Right.

    TOM: It shoots all the way down from the top, yeah.

    NORM: Right. So they’re very subtle. And they also – on that house, the windows – you can look at – the windows sometimes are a cue to Arts and Crafts. The top third of the window will be divided lights, the bottom third is a single pane of glass. And so it’s all these little things that you start to see.

    But where you really see it is when you go to a house and you go on the inside and you see the inside of the house. We took us to the Paine Estate where there’s a house there that we just spent our time on the inside. And what was interesting about that is that really brought out the fact about craftsmanship.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: That was a house that was designed by H. H. Richardson. It was built in 1886. And when we went up to the fireplace, there were these very intricate carvings that went down each side of the fireplace to support the mantel. And you have to really look at it closely but they weren’t the same. But they were close to the same.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: And he said, “Well, the idea was that you brought in all these craftsmen and they were given a certain amount of freedom to show their own style.”

    TOM: So each one was made by a separate craftsman?

    NORM: Right. You look at even small turnings on an area where there’s a seating area for a rail.

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: They’re all slightly different.

    TOM: Yeah.

    NORM: And that just gives you the sense that these were done one at a time and it’s all about the quality of the work that gets done.

    TOM: Well, one thing that’s so special about This Old House is you let those homes tell the story, just as every one of those pieces tell the story.

    I want to segue here to a new partnership that you guys have formed with Mike Rowe Works Foundation.

    NORM: Right.

    TOM: You and Mike have gotten together and I’ve talked with Mike about this, about the skills gap.

    NORM: Right.

    TOM: The fact is that there are more jobs out there than there are young people to fill them. And you’ve really taken a bold step forward with a campaign called Generation Next. Tell us about it.

    NORM: Right. Well, Generation Next is really a way that we want to give and make available the opportunity and encourage people to look into the skill trades as an occupation.

    And it’s interesting. Ever since we’ve announced this initiative, I have people coming up to me saying, “I had no idea.” And when you tell them the story and you say, “Look, there’s millions of jobs out there that are not being filled.”

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: And we need to teach people how to fill those jobs. Because if we don’t do that, who’s going to take care of your home? Who’s going to do your plumbing?

    TOM: Right.

    NORM: Who’s going to do the electrical? Not everyone needs a four-year education and as Mike Rowe says, he doesn’t put any – doesn’t short-change education but we want to be able to raise money that we can put into Mike Rowe’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS. And then those will be given out by him for scholarships to people who qualify.

    TOM: And actually, your project house, for one of the project homes for next season, well, the entire profit on that is going to go to the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and you’re going to feature some of those young craftsmen working side by side with the masters.

    NORM: Absolutely. We want to set the course and we want to do a lot of profiles. There’ll be a lot of stuff – a lot of things on the web. We want to profile people who have gone into the trades and love it.

    TOM: Norm Abram, thank you so much, again, for all that you do, all that you’ve done over 37 years of This Old House.

    NORM: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

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