The launch of the home renovation show “This Old House,” in 1979, changed the landscape of television as it introduced a new genre. Steve Thomas was a part of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) reality-TV show for 14 years since 1989, and earned an Emmy for Outstanding Service Show Host in 1998. During his time, it became the network’s most-watched series and the highest-rated in that genre in TV history, so loyal viewers wondered why he left the show.
Steve Thomas Rooney was born on 14 November 1952, in Pomona, California, but he along with his five younger siblings was raised in Spokane, Washington State. His grandfather was an episcopal missionary in a remote Arctic village called Point Hope, but his father bought old houses to fix then resell to earn money for his growing family. In the early 1960’s, Steve accompanied his father on his jobs, and also scavenged mahogany left at the docks in San Francisco by stevedores.
Steve Thomas and Paterson Habitat for Humanity volunteers raise a truss for the 500,000th Habitat house, built in Maai Mahiu, Kenya in September 2011. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Steffan Hacker
He learned at an early age that ‘you can build and transform homes with tools, knowledge, and the willingness to put your hands to work.’
He studied medieval aesthetics and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy when he graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington State in 1974. Steve supported himself through college by painting houses, and then before he knew it, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was flipping houses. ‘When I renovated my first house right out of college, my tool kit consisted of a circular saw, a drill, and some hand tools.’ His first project was a 1920’s house in Olympia, Washington State. His college major helped him in the way he tackled his house projects, as he said that ‘Philosophy is the art of critical thinking. When it comes to building, that means you can think critically about every aspect of the build.’
He was just a kid when he started surfing and sailing, having his first surfboard at 10 and first dinghy at 13. Soon after college, he gave in to his wanderlust and sense of adventure.
What got him hooked to the sea was when he crewed on an Hawaii-bound yacht, and then back to Seattle. The following year, he was out in the Mediterranean as the first mate of a 103-foot Schooner – about 30meters – and then worked for a boat builder in Antibes, France by the end of the year. After that, he delivered a 43-foot, or 12-meter sloop to San Francisco from England, passing through the Canary Islands, across the Caribbean, and then to Panama Canal and Galapagos Islands.
During his voyage to the Pacific, he became interested in the traditional navigation techniques when he discovered that he was accurate in judging the boat’s speed with his eye, having lost the rotator of his taffrail log. After a year of research, learning the language, and obtaining anthropological research grants, he went to Satawal, Micronesia in 1983, to be mentored by Mau Piailug, a famous navigator who had mastered wayfinding methods in sailing across the ocean without the use of instruments, guided only by the stars, wind, waves, and even birds.
Steve wrote about his experience on Satawal Island as he learned from the master navigator, in the book “The Last Navigator: A Young Man, an Ancient Mariner, the Secrets of the Sea,” published in 1987. He met a British documentary producer by chance in Venice, which led to a film being made in 1988 about Steve with Mau Piailug and his crew, as they sailed from Satawal to Saipan on board a 32-foot, 10-meter outrigger canoe that he helped build. Their expedition took six days without the aid of radio, compass, charts, or any modern technology on board. The documentary film was aired as part of the PBS’ Adventure series in 1989.
He felt fortunate to have this experience, as it was the realization of a great dream. He said, ‘The knowledge he gave me about navigation is considered priceless in his culture; the knowledge he gave me about myself, I have come to see, is priceless as well.’
During his voyage in 1979, Steve met his future wife Evelyn “Evy” Blum, who was on vacation, and they had fun for a few weeks. After the trip, the couple renovated a house they bought on Boston’s North Shore, and planned to sell it so that they could buy a boat and travel the world, but it took a backseat to his quest in Sawatal Island.
When their son Sam was born, Steve went to the Alaskan Arctic hoping to make documentaries on his family’s history in Point Hope, on Eskimos, and on the oil industry. After his last visit to the Arctic in 1989, he had come to the realization that he needed a job with a steady income, saying that being an author and documentary filmmaker wouldn’t feed his family. As he was contemplating his future plans, the opportunity to do the reality TV series came along.
“This Old House”
How did it start?
The American TV director and producer, Russell Morash, was the creator of “This Old House.” He was driving by a construction site when saw a group of people engrossed in watching the workers from behind a window.
It was snowing, so he wondered what could be so interesting as to hold their attention on such a cold day, only to find out that it was just the work itself. This gave him an idea for a show that would feature the process of renovating houses.
“This Old House” was launched on a $50,000 budget, and their first project was renovating a rundown Victorian house in Dorchester, which cost them $30,000; the whole process was covered in 13 episodes. Bostonians were hooked when the series premiered on 20 February 1979 on WGBH-TV, a primary member TV station of PBS licensed to Boston, Massachusetts, as the cast weren’t actors or celebrities, but actual tradesmen, including carpenter Norm Abram and plumber Ron Trethewey. They would later be joined by general contractor Tom Silva and landscaper Roger Cook, with Richard Trethewey replacing his father, Ron, who didn’t enjoy being in the limelight.
After a successful first season, “This Old House” began airing nationally.
Some people in the industry were concerned that the show demystified the process, as the experts would share how things were done, including what tools they used. Sharing the tricks of the trade could mean losing potential business, as homeowners could head to the stores for tools and materials to do the work themselves. It was natural that it would encourage regular people to become do-it-yourselfers, however, most of them would still hire skilled workers to do the job, although having a better understanding of what the work entailed and the skills needed was a good thing, as it meant the contractors and owners could easily come to an agreement.
The series won its first Emmy Award in 1983 for Outstanding Talk/Service Series, and it continued to receive recognition from the award-giving body in the years that followed.
Steve Thomas, TV host
Bob Villa, the host of the series, was fired in 1989 after doing a TV commercial for a competitor of the show’s underwriter.
Steve Thomas helps patch drywall at a Habitat for Humanity build in Santa Fe, New Mexico. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Allen Sullivan
The publicist for the PBS’ Adventure series, who also worked for “This Old House,” gave Steve a call in which the latter mentioned in their conversation the remodeling work he’d done on a Georgian Colonial in Salem, Massachusetts. He was then urged to talk to the show’s producers for an audition. At that time, already more than 400 candidates had been passed over in their search for a new host.
After his interview, Steve’s screen test involved explaining the restoration of an 1835 barn in Concord, Massachusetts, without a script, and he obviously made a good job of it, as he was offered the position on the condition that he shaved his beard, as it was said that he resembled Norm Abram. With both wearing glasses and having beards, the producer said, ‘They looked so much alike we were afraid people would think it was a cruel joke.’
It was said that Steve eased the tension on the set, unlike Bob who reportedly liked to control the scene as he took on the role of an expert who had all the answers, leaving the skilled workers to just agree or disagree with him.
As Steve said, ‘The role of the host isn’t to be an expert; it’s to bring the experts’ knowledge to the audience’ so that’s what he did. Not everyone liked his style of hosting, especially those viewers who had become used to the way Bob did it; they found his skills lacking, and felt that Steve asked dumb questions. However, being nominated several times over the years and even winning an Emmy certainly proved his worth as a host.
This Old House Magazine
With millions of people tuning in to the reality TV show, it meant that they could tap that for potential readers. “This Old House” magazine was launched in 1995, with Steve Thomas and Norm Abram on the cover of the first one – the May/June issue. It featured articles complete with the blueprint of the Napa Valley farmhouse that they renovated on the show at that time; it had all the things that they couldn’t fit into the 30-minute episodes of their house projects. On its pages, technical details, guidelines, and tips from experts could be found about everything involving rehabbing, repairing, and improving houses or their parts.
We travelx pic.twitter.com/3SPNPeFNJs
— Steve Thomas (@SteveThomasHome) September 5, 2019
The magazine didn’t only target male readers, as it had a touch of “Martha Stewart Living” to it based on the photos used and some of the content, which wasn’t really surprising considering that they were both owned by Time Publishing Ventures Inc. It was intentional, since the producers were well aware that women also watched the show; many from the cast and crew believed that “This Old House” was a couples’ show. Steve had his own column in the magazine, entitled “House Calls with Steve.”
“Ask This Old House”
The subsequent spin-off series, “Ask This Old House,” premiered on 10 October 2002. According to Steve, the two shows complemented each other, with the new one serving as a companion series to the original. He said, ‘This Old House is about the dream to renovate a wonderful old house, but Ask This Old House is about the reality of maintaining that house.’ The show featured Steve along with experts such as Tom, Richard and Roger as they answered questions from the viewers and readers of their magazines.
It was said that back then, it was difficult to get the information needed about doing repairs around the house and so the homeowners had to call in a repairman or contractor. Practical matters were tackled in the show such as unclogging drains and cleaning out gutters.
Steve also co-authored several books, including “This Old House Kitchens: A Guide to Design and Renovation” (1992), “This Old House Bathrooms: A Guide to Design and Renovation” (1993), “This Old House Guide to American Houses” (1999), and “Homeowner’s Manual: Advice on Maintaining Your Home” (2000).
Why did Steve leave the show?
Steve had been part of “This Old House” from season 11 through season 24. Being on what he called ‘the granddaddy of the home shows’ was said to have been one of the best adventures of his life.
The show was more than just a job to him; he loved renovating old homes, as he said, ‘There’s something deeply satisfying about taking an old house at the end of its cycle and breathing another 100 years of life into it.’ Granted that some were in terrible shape and that it would be easier to just tear the structure down and start from scratch, but Steve explained that ‘a community is a conversation among buildings as well as people…if you destroy the built environment because it’s inconvenient to save it, you destroy that connection.’ So, if they could save the house, they would. ‘This Old House is about preserving that conversation and maintaining communities,’ he added.
Many were surprised when Steve was replaced in 2003 by Kevin O’Connor after 14 years in the show, but it was made clear that he left of his own accord. A senior producer of the show disclosed, ‘When Steve told us he was leaving, it was quite frightening. First of all, Steve was really good, and secondly, how do you fill a job like that?’
It seemed that at age 50, Steve wanted to pursue other interests, such as sailing and skiing; it was the only explanation given to the public. There was no quarrel between the cast members or with any of the production crew, in fact, he appeared to be on good terms with those he worked with, as no one had anything bad to say about him. Even after a decade had passed since he left, the vice-president for human resources in PBS said that they still considered Steve as a member of the PBS family.
Steve did mention in an interview that people go to the internet for information on how to do things, and that ‘it’s difficult to have an impact on television.’ However, it didn’t seem to be the reason he quit the show, because he went on to appear in other TV shows.
He became part of History Channel’s “Save Our History,” a documentary that highlighted America’s historically significant places that were in danger of being destroyed or forgotten.
— Steve Thomas (@SteveThomasHome) December 23, 2016
It chronicled the restoration of historic homes that had fallen into disrepair. Steve hosted some of the episodes, such as “George Washington’s Workshop” and “The President Slept Here” both in 2004, “Godspeed to Jamestown” in 2006, and “Alaska’s Bloodiest Battle” in 2007.
In the “Renovation Nation” series, Steve introduced the viewers to green-building technology, materials, and techniques, as he visited various places across the US to work with homeowners who had chosen to ‘go green’ in renovating their homes. It premiered in 2008 on cable TV owned by Discovery, called Planet Green, which put the focus on sustainability and environmentalism. The network was re-launched in 2012 as Destination America, as it was considered a failure. The series was canceled in 2010 after two seasons.
Habitat for Humanity
Steve officially joined Habitat for Humanity International in 2011, the non-profit housing organization which brought people together to build homes and communities.
Steve Thomas addresses volunteers and the media at a lunch celebrating the 500,001st house, built in Paterons, New Jersey on World Habitat Day 2011. © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein
He took part in Habitat’s social media campaign on spreading awareness to their programs around the globe. In “What Will You Build? with Steve Thomas,” he shared his knowledge and expertise on home renovation and repairs that were asked by fans on their official sites. Steve hosted a series of online clips that covered their projects, beginning with their 500,000th house that was in Kenya.
In 2012, he became part of the Home Builder’s Blitz project in which he joined other professionals in building affordable housing of more than 200 homes. Steve was grateful for the opportunity to help. The CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, Jonathan Reckford, had said that ‘Steve’s expertise in home renovation and long history with Habitat make him the perfect spokesperson.’ Steve had first worked with them back in 1990 to cover the launch of the new Habitat affiliate in Charlotte.
After he left Habitat, he focused on his building projects, establishing Steve Thomas Builders, with his wife as the COO. They specialized in high-quality building, restorations, and renovations, confirming that Steve is still very much alive and working on what he loves!