What does it take to restore a house that’s hundreds of years old? That’s the question explored in the HGTV show “Houses With History,” which has just returned for Season 2.
On the show (streaming on discovery+), home preservationist Mike Lemieux, designer (and Lemieux’s wife) Jen MacDonald, and carpenter Rich Soares are on a mission to save centuries-old dwellings around Plymouth, MA, outfitting them with modern conveniences while still maintaining their historic charm.
Curious to learn more about these homes and what goes into their work, we talked to Lemieux, MacDonald, and Soares about how they got started, the oldest house they’ve renovated, and what we should all keep in mind about old homes.
How did the three of you meet and start working on old houses?
Mike Lemieux: Jen and I knew each other since high school. She was actually one my of sister’s best friends. And I think we went out on one date. Then 20 years eclipsed, and we reconnected.
Jen MacDonald: And we’re both interested in investing in real estate. So we started with a multifamily home in the Boston area, which was built in the 1800s. At the start, this was supposed to be a side hustle.
Lemieux: And then Rich and I were college roommates, and since he had his hands in construction for so long, I was like, “Do you want to come in and help us work on this house?”
MacDonald: Eventually we ended up quitting our jobs. I quit my finance job, and people were just really falling in love with our renovations. Some of our houses we would flip, some we would keep for rentals. We were doing open houses, and people would come in and they would say, “Can you do this to our house? Can you design our house?”
I’ve heard you were discovered by New Kids on the Block’s Jonathan Knight. How did that happen?
MacDonald: About five years ago, there was, like, this new interest in antique homes suddenly, and we’ve been working on them for forever. So we were doing a lot of antique homes, and it seems like all the networks started to become interested and we were approached by four or five different producers. And Jon had actually been down here looking at a property that we were renovating and he said, “You got to have a show for sure.”
Lemieux: Jon came down and walked through a couple of projects we were doing. And it didn’t really hit any of us right away who he was. And then we were fixing one of the houses when I spotted Jon, and I’m like, “Hey! So what do you do?” He said, “I was with a band my whole life.” And I’m like, “Wait, Jon Knight?” And we were like, “Oh! We know who you are!”
MacDonald: And he is the sweetest!
What’s the oldest home you’ve worked on?
Lemieux: The oldest one I think was one in Pembroke, Water Street. And that was actually built in 1600. And when you think about that, it’s at the heart of the real beginning of the colonization of America, and there was nothing really here. And this house itself was a stronghold when there were wars and conflicts going on.
That time period, when there was friction between colonists and Native Americans, that house was a safe haven to come to protect and then grow families. It spans from generation after generation of really prominent people. It’s chilling in a way when you walk into a house like that and realized what it has seen.
MacDonald: We’ve also worked on a blacksmith house from 1707, slightly younger but almost unchanged in 300 years. So it’s just crazy when you come in contact with the house where the family was just scraping by with this dairy farm and how unchanged the house is since it was built.
Is it more difficult to work on an old house than a new one?
Rich Soares: Yes, definitely. You’ve got to think of what the end product is. So if you are trying to preserve the history, then you go about it a certain way, [rather] than if you are just trying to make it look new.
But obviously, new construction, you want to start with a good foundation and work up to the roof. I think on an old house, you kind of have to think of the roof and work down. You want to make sure there is no rain coming in, and you want to protect it from the elements and then kind of work inside that box.
I did a house not too long ago, and a couple of guys on the crew said that, while working on an older build, they wouldn’t even take their level out of the truck because they don’t want to have anything too perfect. It would look out of place. With a historic house, there’s a lot of judgment and standing back and just kind of looking with your eyes.
Do you have some good tips for homeowners with old houses that want to make their place feel true to the era?
MacDonald: Use the materials that you have. Like, appreciate the old doors. There is always a solution to antique windows. If you just take the time and have the patience, you can restore an old window yourself.
Restoring an old piece is doable if you have the time and the patience to learn it instead of throwing it away. And I think that is something a lot of people are taken with recently. People are so used to just tossing something out when it breaks. But there are ways to make those pieces work again, and they are actually better materials than a lot of what you can find now. So I love just leaning into what’s old in the house and going with it.
For example, we have, like, a pink bathtub in one of the houses and it’s all the rage right now, the pink and the green. The plumber thought I was crazy for saving that tub, but I was like, “I’m just going to lean into it. I’m going to add pink marble tiles.”
Lemieux: When I was just growing up, I learned to not be afraid of knocking on doors and just being curious, because then that leads you to reading, that leads you to your local library, the local historic society, the Registry of Deeds, whatever it may be. The information is out there if you just dig.
Why is it so important to you to renovate these old houses and preserve their history?
Lemieux: We as a society really like to understand where we came from. And the houses are the best ways to represent that. And when you start to understand and you start to value that, you see a lot of the through line throughout your community, and that makes your community even stronger and you understand what it took to build something, what any family, any individual, would have struggled to go through to just maintain and have a life in that community and be part of it.
I think that everybody wants to belong to something, and the best way to do that is to understand it and there’s no better way than starting with the history.
MacDonald: Like Mike always says, “Once it’s gone, you just can’t get that back.” The craftsmanship is gone, the materials are gone.
Lemieux: And the whole story is gone with it.