Long before he started turning up as memorable Hollywood characters like Serge in Beverly Hills Cop, or Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, actor Bronson Pinchot was honing a very different kind of craft: historic restoration. As a child, Pinchot fixed up an old shed behind his 1920s house in South Pasadena, California.
“I remember being eight and looking at worn surfaces and things that weren’t plumb and level and thinking how wonderful a secret they were and how it was a secret between them and me that they had survived and I was going to leave them the way they were,” Pinchot says.
This year Pinchot was cast in the role he says he was born to play in DIY Network’s The Bronson Pinchot Project, which follows the actor and his loyal team of craftsmen as they refurbish historic properties in rural Harford, Pennsylvania. The show’s first season wraps up March 31st.
We caught up with Pinchot while he was making one of his frequent trips to the salvage yard.
What made you want to do the show?
Well, I was already doing it and that was the fun thing about it. I was working on six houses, minding my own business, and Matt Levine at Departure Films just called me and said, “I got a sense of what you’re into and I think there’s a show there and can I come and just take some footage of you doing your thing?” I said sure. They basically just started filming what we’ve always done: we’ve always kidded around; we’ve always learned together; we’ve always experimented; we’ve always used early, pre-Civil War salvage.
How did you come across your 1840 Greek revival that you’ve focused on so much during the show? What can you tell us about the history of the house?
I decided I wanted to live in a Greek revival house, did a search for Greek revival house for sale and my house came up. So I called the fella who owned it and I said, “I’d like to come up and see the house,” and he said “I’m out of town,” and I said “Oh but I only have one day on this coast!” And he said the magic words, “Well, the door’s unlocked.” And I knew I would buy it. You know “You had me at hello”? This was he had me at “The door is open.” I drove up to the house and I turned the corner and I can still feel my heart trying to yank itself out of my chest because there it was. It was not in good condition, but it was what it is with those beautiful columns. I went to the back door and it opened and the church bells started to ring, I’m really not making this up, I opened the door and the smell of cinnamon toast hit me in the face and I said, “Okay, I get it!” So I called the guy and said I’d take it, and I just choked up and I had to call him back because I was looking at the house and I just couldn’t speak.
It was built rather late in the farmer’s life and his children were grown, three of his sons were ministers. [His wife’s] name was Mercy and she’s famous for having gone around in the oxcart with a copper tub and giving sick people a nice warm bath and taking care of them. It was in their hands for one long generation and then just after the Civil War it went to the Joneses, one of whom lived there right into the 20th century. And then it went to some private parties and then came to me.
Your passion on the show is so much about the old being better than the new, why is that so important?
Because it’s got all the soul of everyone who’s ever touched it and lived in it. I saw an  house in North Carolina that ripped my heart out. Right opposite the kitchen sink was a grave monument for the son of the man and woman who built it and he died when he was 20. And his mother put his grave right outside the kitchen window. He was obviously born in that house and she buried him and felt his presence every time she made his favorite food. That’s all in that house. That’s in the grain of the wood. And it’s profoundly meaningful.
In the preservation community there are some that think salvaging is controversial because you’re taking things from their original location and not restoring places faithfully, and I know you’ve referred to “Frankensteining” things together. What do you say to that kind of reaction?
I say to each his own. What we’re looking at right now is stuff from houses that have been torn down and when I say “Frankensteining,” what I mean is when there are four doors that have survived but each one is incomplete in some way, you can get two doors out of them by putting the parts that survive together. I mean what is there to say? I do what I do, and you do what you do, and it all goes in and out of fashion anyway.
So when you are combining pieces from different time periods, how does that work? Are you just aiming for a certain feeling?
I’m big on intentions. The intention of most homebuilders before World War II was just, “I want something that makes me happy when I drive up the driveway.” So if I decide to paint it crème and the original guy painted it bright red, both of our intention is identical and that is to make something that makes us smile. It really would be troublesome if it was called the “Everything we do is Authentic Project,” but it is authentic to me.
Do you have acting projects lined up or are you just focusing on this now?
I don’t have any that I know of this very minute, however it’s not like I don’t do them. Acting’s wonderful. If it happens, that’s great, and if it doesn’t happen? I won’t notice.
Look for more from our interview with Bronson Pinchot in an upcoming issue of Preservation magazine. Click here to subscribe. Want another peek into the show? Check out this teaser video:
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