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New Host for `Old House' Is a Veteran Fixer-Upper'


THIS OLD HOUSE PBS, tomorrow, 8-8:30 p.m. Prime-time season premi`ere, with Stephen Thomas as host. Produced by WGBH, Boston. IF God had called me up and said, `Steve, you can have any job you want, just name it,' I never would've thought of `This Old House,''' says Stephen Thomas, the new host of the top-rated half-hour show on PBS. ``But it's perfect. I love it.''

The series he is moving into has won five Emmys and attracts 12 million viewers a week, capitalizing on an American interest in renovation that amounted to $101 billion in 1988.

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Speaking by phone from his renovated home in an ``historic district north of Boston,'' the author, sailor, and seasoned fixer-upper seems, by force of sheer irrepressibility, to be the perfect onscreen guide, viewer confidant, and foil to the experts. He'll be holding the hands of 12 million would-be renovators through this season's project: transforming an 1835 barn in Concord, Mass., into a single-family home.

``They chose me because I have an eclectic background,'' says the man whose has sailed to Micronesia using only stars, birds, and waves for navigation - among other adventures. Mr. Thomas describes himself as the son of an inveterate fixer-upper who spent a lifetime ``recycling'' houses. One of six children, son Stephen purchased his first house in 1974 and has been buying, renovating, and selling them ever since - six at last count.

It was Daphne Noyes, publicity director for ``This Old House'' and WGBH's ``Adventure'' series who suggested Thomas for the role vacated by 10-year veteran Bob Vila, when Mr. Vila's outside commercial endorsements drew the fire of some of the show's underwriters, who subsequently withdrew funding.

Now Thomas joins the ranks of ``real-people celebrities'' discovered by executive producer Russell Morash: Julia Child (``Bon Appetit'') and Jim Crockett/Bob Thomson (``The Victory Garden''). ``It's still [Mr. Morash's] original format,'' says Thomas of the informal, hand-held-camera style of the show. ``There are long sequences that are sometimes quite complex that we shoot entirely through without resorting to editing,'' he adds. ``If we flub up, we have to go all the way back to the beginning.''

``We'' in most cases includes master carpenter Norm Abrams, on hand since the show's beginning, as well as individual specialists brought in as projects progress. Tedd Benson, author of ``Building the Timber-Frame House'' will assist the Thomas and Abrams in the current season.

In this week's show, viewers meet Lynn and Barbara Wickwire, owners of the Concord barn. Each has a personal goal. Barbara wants to preserve New England's heritage while doing something entirely new with her life - as reflected in new designs, furnishings, bathrooms, etc. Her husband, Lynn, is tired of the high maintenance factor in his current house and wants to build something structurally sound. The couple has a monetary limit of $250,000.

After examining the structure top to bottom, inside and out, Thomas, Abrams, and Benson inform the Wickwires that the barn will have to be dismantled to the basement. Only then can each section of timber be assessed for possible reuse in the final structure. Future episodes will witness the new timber frame being built atop a newly-strenghthened rubblestone foundation engineered with computer-aided designs. Mr. Benson will lead a timber framing workshop on site.

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The on-camera chemistry between Thomas, Abrams, and the others seems well-suited to the established down-home format. And with the same people behind the scenes, ``House'' seems solidly on track without missing a hammer beat.

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