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Welcome New Yankee Workshop Fans!

 March 26, 2013
This Old House Is Really His Old House

David: On a recent rainy morning, there was no easy way to reach the entrance of Scott Omelianuk?s house. Since well before Hurricane Sandy, he had been trying to get the sidewalk in front of the 19th-century brownstone repaired, after it was cracked by the roots of a tree. And lately it had become even more of an obstacle course, after a contractor tore up the pavement to fix the problem and left it covered with a patchwork of plywood.

But Omelianuk, a bald, broad-chested man of 48, seemed to be taking it in stride as he welcomed visitors and disposed of dripping coats and umbrellas. It was merely the latest in a series of home-improvement mishaps, the kind of situation familiar to any average homeowner.

Except that Omelianuk is no average homeowner. He is the editor of This Old House, the magazine associated with the popular PBS show, which has turned home improvement into an art form, its knowledgeable contractors guiding homeowners through seemingly flawless renovations for the past 34 years.

To many, Omelianuk seems an unlikely figure to fill that post, which he has held since 2004. Fourteen years after buying the three-story house, his renovation still isn?t complete: The master bathroom hasn?t been updated, there are stacks of abandoned doors sitting in the mudroom downstairs, and so many other unfinished projects that he has refused requests to include his house on tours.

Worse yet, he has developed a reputation as a sort of lovable curmudgeon, using his editor?s notes in the magazine as an opportunity to rail against the images of perfection promoted on home-renovation shows. It?s an attitude that baffles some of his colleagues.

?I don?t understand how one homeowner can have that many problems,? said Tom Silva, a general contractor and one of the hosts of ?This Old House.? ?He hasn?t been doing his homework to find the right contractor to do the job.?

To be fair, part of the problem may be Omelianuk?s own desire for perfection. When pressed, he?ll admit that he repainted his living room a half-dozen times before finding exactly the right shade of purple. And that elaborate crown molding? He built it himself. He also worked closely with a contractor to make sure that the grain on the European brown oak cabinets in the kitchen would wrap continuously around the room.

Then, too, he has been preoccupied with other things. Since he bought the house in 1999, he has persuaded Cara Dubroff, who is now 43 and studying to become a nurse practitioner, to be part of his life and his renovation plans. He has been struggling to hold on to the readers of his magazine, which has a circulation of 966,312, in what has been a punishing publishing climate. And his time and finances have been consumed by what he described as the ?emotionally disorienting? task of dealing with a diagnosis of unexplained infertility.

?The things that happen to us actually happen to lots of people,? he said, sitting with Dubroff in their television room, where they once had a narrow escape when the ceiling collapsed. ?I?m in a unique position to let people know that happens, and that?s OK.?

In fact, it may be those experiences that have made it possible for Omelianuk to create a magazine that acknowledges just how much time and love renovation requires ? and how transformative it can be.

Longtime friends like Eliot Kaplan, a former boss at GQ, have observed how much Omelianuk?s own renovation has changed him. When Kaplan first met him, he was a ?25-year-old know-it-all fact checker? filled with ?youthful hubris,? Kaplan recalled. ?It?s been a pleasure to see him grow up.?

In Omelianuk?s first year of homeownership, his ego took a beating when he discovered what a money pit he had bought. One of the central beams, it turned out, was being devoured by termites. The windows were so old that one of them fell on top of him while he was napping in a second-floor bedroom. And water poured out of a radiator like a garden hose, damaging the hardwood flooring throughout the house.

Dubroff, who grew up in a doorman building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, did not initially share Omelianuk?s enthusiasm for renovation. But in 2005, after they had dated for three years, she agreed to embark on three major ventures with him: getting married, starting a family and renovating the Hoboken house.

Among other things, they intended to install a new heating system, replace the termite-riddled structural beam and fix the floors, which were not only water-damaged but also sloping. Like many people, they had their share of bad luck with contractors, and the renovations stretched on for years. Omelianuk and Dubroff offer stories of one contractor who was charged with restoring the fireplaces but had a heart attack before he could finish the job, and another suffering from hepatitis C.

And while trouble with contractors makes great fodder for magazine articles, it doesn?t make for a comfortable home life. As Omelianuk put it, ?It?s more like serial torture.?

He added: ?I don?t know what it was that kept us sort of stumbling forward. Stubbornness, maybe stupidity.?

It didn?t help that fertility treatments were becoming so costly that they had to postpone renovation projects. They painted their bedroom in earth tones, in an effort to create what Omelianuk called a cocoon, and Dubroff contemplated whether the house was haunted or cursed.

?We thought we would be pregnant by the end of the renovation,? she said. ?Sometimes, I think, the house ? you did this to me.?

Omelianuk tried to share these frustrations with readers without divulging too much information. In his editor?s notes, he griped about how he felt when his in-laws bought a home and he suspected that they would want their ?handy son-in-law? to work on it, although he hadn?t even finished his own renovation. And in one column, he admitted defeat, advising readers not to try to do it all themselves. Go ahead and hire a plumber, he told them, ?everyone needs a break from the DIY grind.?

This sort of sentiment was not well received by some. In response to one of Omelianuk?s columns, a reader named William wrote in to complain: ?How did you ever become the ?editor? of the wonderful world of This Old House, which has been going on for over 30 years with RESPECTED people?? He went on to add, ?I think it is time for your retirement party!?

Nevertheless, the column developed quite a following. One month, when it was conspicuously absent, concerned readers wrote in asking whether he was still editor in chief, or whether he had been injured doing home repairs.

Leave it to a nosy neighbor to sort things out. Beverly Savage, who lives down the street, was walking her Scottish terriers by Omelianuk?s house one morning when she peered in the front window. Inside, she saw Omelianuk holding up a newborn and laughing.

?I just felt so viscerally his happiness ? you could just see it on the street,? Savage said later. ?Just seeing him and Cara, they were happy in a way that they were sad before this. They were carrying something around that was a really big burden.?

She urged him to share the story of how he and his wife had spent nearly four years trying to get pregnant, just as he did his travails with home renovations. Several months later, Omelianuk came clean in his editor?s note.

?Maybe some of you understand,? he wrote. ?The toddler-height rod in the hall closet sort of mocks you with no hope of tiny coats in it. The microwave you cleverly placed in the island ? the better to give wee ones easy access ? just becomes a bother to your grown-up back. And the mudroom you were excited about doesn?t hold the same interest when you?re told you?ll never have little feet bringing in the mud.?

Now, as the couple showed a visitor around the top floor, Luca, 22 months, somersaulted through the home office, tapped his fingers on an antique typewriter and offered his mother a pre-nap kiss. Any fears that the home was cursed, Dubroff said, have disappeared.

?Does the house feel like a burden?? she said. ?It has, many times. But it doesn?t anymore.?