Who is Norm Abram?

Born in October 1949, Norman L. Abram is an American writer, TV host and master carpenter, probably best known for his work on “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop”. Born in Rhode Island, the future celebrity was raised and attended high school in Massachusetts. His love for carpentry came from his father, who passed on many practical skills; in fact, Norm’s first job came at the age of nine, when he installed hardwood floors to help his father for a client.

Throughout high school and college, Norm worked with his father during summer vacations, which helped him soak up invaluable knowledge of the wood-working trade. Initially, Norm was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also became a brother of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. However, he found the theoretical engineering courses dull, and changed majors to business administration. Once realizing that hands-on work was more his thing, he dropped out just before graduation.

Early Career

Norm had no trouble on the work front once he left college, and put in three years at a prestigious New England-based construction firm, where he was soon promoted to site supervisor. At the age of 27, the master carpenter founded Integrated Structures Inc., a general contracting firm which operated for over a decade. His first big independent project was building a general store in Nantucket, thus marking the beginning of a long and fruitful independent career, doing what he loved most.

Just three years into his journey as an entrepreneur, Norm’s life changed forever in 1980, when he took on a construction job building a small workshop/garage in Russell Morash’s backyard. Russell, who was impressed by Norm’s efficient way of working, was a television producer with popular programs on his resume, such as “The French Chef”. Russell invited Norm to help out renovating a dilapidated Victorian house in Dorchester, with a WGBH-TV camera crew present to record the process, which would become the first episode of “This Old House”.

Since then, Norm has remained a steadfast fixture on the show, and inspired a generation of aspiring carpenters.

“This Old House”

With headquarters in Connecticut, “This Old House” is a vast home improvement media brand, with a magazine, website, and TV shows under its belt. The series, which airs weekly on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), sees its cast members remodel project houses.

The show was produced by WGBH-TV until 2001, when it was acquired by Time Inc. and turned into This Old House Ventures. “This Old House” magazine launched in 1995, and featured handy tips for the general public in working on their abodes.

In recent years, This Old House Ventures has been sold twice: once to the private equity firm TZP Growth Partners, and in 2021 to Roku. As is to be expected for a show which has been on air for over four decades, cast members such as Bob Vila and Roger Cook have also come and gone.

The key to the show’s success – and what has helped it become one of WGBH’s most popular programs and receive 17 Emmy Awards – lies in its solid formula. Despite the network purchasing the first two project houses for renovation, the series’ original focus was on renovating older properties, with help from the actual homeowners.

Some projects, with an example being Weatherbee Farm, have become infamous amongst viewers. A dispute between Bob and Norm and the homeowners of Weatherbee Farm over the direction that the project was taking led to Bob remarking at the end of the episode that the owners could’ve done more work. Squabbles between cast members and homeowners are what ultimately led to the show focusing on luxury homes, with more work being done by tradespeople and expert contractors, but the show’s essence remained the same.

Known for his fiery temper and eccentric ways, Bob left “This Old House” in 1989, following a dispute over his commercial work. At the time, The Home Depot was one of the show’s underwriters, but Bob was working on commercials with its direct competitor, Rickel Home Centers. When Home Depot dropped its sponsorship of the show, producers fired the host in an attempt to bring them back.

There was a noticeable shift in the program when Steve Thomas took over hosting, from 1989 to 2003. Cast members finally felt confident enough to gripe about Bob taking up too much screentime for himself, and claimed that the show felt more like a team effort with him gone. When Steve moved on to other projects, he was replaced by Kevin O’Connor, a homeowner who had previously appeared on the show to help with wallpaper removal.

Norm’s role in the program has seen subtle changes since Kevin became host, as the master carpenter has appeared alongside the latter in several season-opening episodes to introduce new projects. When Kevin’s son was born in the middle of a project, Norm also filled in, further showcasing his versatility and ease in front of the camera.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary season, “This Old House” collaborated with the non-profit development corporation Nuestra Comunidad, to renovate a foreclosed Second Empire style home in Boston. Then to celebrate the 40th season in 2019, revisits of notable projects were included in some episodes, with tours provided by the original homeowners. Taking viewers on a trip down memory lane, the first highlighted home was the show’s original project house.

Other Projects

In the late 1980s, Russell began planning for “The New Yankee Workshop”, which would be the first spin-off from “This Old House”, and feature Norm. The small workshop that Norm built for Russell almost a decade prior was used to film episodes, after being adapted to meet the master carpenter’s requirements.

With the first episode airing in 1989, Norm showcased furniture or other projects which he’d made, using a healthy mix of simple tools and newer equipment. The show, aired on PBS for 21 seasons, and had an excellent run until it was suspended indefinitely for Norm to focus on other projects.

Despite a busy filming schedule, Norm always makes time for other commitments, such as his role on the board of trustees of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. In 2001, he delivered the commencement speech at Boston’s North Bennet Street School, which has a prestigious reputation for teaching craftsmanship. He has also been part of the Generation NEXT apprenticeship program, and other efforts to train youth in the building trades.

Lesser-known projects of Norm’s include his voiceover work in an episode of “Freakazoid!”, an animated children’s show, and his appearances on “Between the Lions” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”. The talented TV personality also starred in Foot Locker’s “House of Hoops” commercials, and was in an episode of “Ace of Cakes”.

Work Style & Awards

Norm is known for being an affable and soft-spoken figure, who teaches viewers woodworking techniques in efficient and precise terms, and is considered by many a welcome change from braggadocious TV personalities with short tempers. The master carpenter’s trademark style has become a plaid shirt, and he always begins his shows with a reminder about personal safety, including the importance of wearing protective glasses.

Another helpful tip from Norm is to clearly focus when carrying out potentially dangerous tasks, such as cutting with a power saw. He himself has said that he avoids working when feeling tired or distracted, or after drinking alcohol, no matter how little. The Rhode Island native also advises viewers against misusing tools, or not sharpening them properly, and often talks to himself in the shop, reminding himself of the next steps before carrying them out.

These qualities are what helped Norm win the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeSmart Distinguished Service Award in 2009, which was presented to the small-screen star for his commitment to safety and preventing eye injuries.

Another accolade includes the Ken Burns Lifetime Achievement Award, which was a reward to him by the filmmaker and Old Sturbridge Village in 2018, for “making a significant impact on the arts through a project relevant to the history Old Sturbridge Village works to preserve”.

Spin-offs

A show as popular as “This Old House” will inevitably have spin-offs, and in 2002, Time Inc. created “Ask This Old House”, inspired by a similar feature in the franchise’s magazine. Show regulars include Tom Silva, Roger, Kevin, and Richard Tretheway, but not Norm. Landscaping expert Jennifer Evans also appeared in later seasons, and eventually replaced Roger after his retirement, which was brought on by mysterious health issues.

“Ask This Old House” is filmed in a rural barn in Boston, and counts regular appearances by Mark McCullough, Mauro Henrique, Scott Caron and Heath Eastman, who all specialize in different areas such as masonry and painting. Richard’s son Ross leads “Future House”, the segment of the show that covers smart technology for households.

Show viewers and magazine readers submit questions regarding home improvement or repair to the four regulars, and guest experts are also occasionally invited onto the show to answer specialized questions – the majority of questions are answered in the loft, but in each episode, one of the show’s hosts will pay a couple of homeowners an on-site visit. With help from them, the visiting host will either start or complete the task relevant to the question.

Other segments of “Ask This Old House” include the “What Is It?” segment, in which three of the regulars offer deliberately wrong but humorous guesses about the function of unusual devices. Unsurprisingly, this segment was scrapped and replaced by a useful tips section and “Home Inspection Nightmares”, for which viewers submit photographs of shoddy or rundown home installations, which the hosts then comment on. Despite not reaching the popularity of its parent program, it’s important to note that “Ask This Old House” has racked up five Emmy Awards nominations over the years.

After more than 1,000 episodes, 50 home renovations and 43 years of measuring twice but only cutting once, This Old…

Posted by GBH on Saturday, May 21, 2022

“Inside This Old House”, which aired from 2003 to 2004 on the A&E Network, was a spin-off that didn’t quite work. Sharing similar features to “Ask This Old House”, the show was hosted by Kevin, mainly shot in the loft, and featured the same regular experts with the addition of Norm. The specific theme discussed in each episode could be anything from door installation to landscaping, which was discussed by one or two experts and sometimes a guest expert. Clips of past “This Old House” episodes were often used, and each episode ended up with the “Inside Out” segment that included a humorous overview of what had been discussed up until then.

The CW network also tried its hand at an education show, with “This Old House: Trade School”, which aired in 2017 and was repurposed to meet viewing regulations for adolescents. Norm, Roger, Richard and Tom are the stars of “Trade School”, which provides useful information and shows what it’s like to work alongside the experts in their respective fields.

Personal Life, Norm Today

Norm has been married to his wife Elise, a skilled potter, for decades. Together, the pair live in a modified two-story Colonial which he built in Carlisle, Massachusetts, with help from professionals including his father. One of his books, “Norm Abram’s New House”, recounted his experiences in the planning and building of the home.

As of 2022, Norm has recently purchased a property in Rhode Island, which he plans to turn into a woodworking shop. Another interest of the master carpenter as he approaches his golden years is learning shipbuilding. The host was linked to disturbing cancer rumors in mid-2021 which he has yet to confirm or deny, although he’s believed to be in good health.

Some of Norm and Elise’s interests include kayaking, fishing, visiting art galleries and museums, cooking, and hosting friends in their humble abode. The couple shy away from the spotlight, and prefer to enjoy their private life behind closed doors, so there have never been any rumors of infidelity or marriage woes linked to them.

Previously, Norm was married to Laura Cone, whom he divorced in 1996. The couple share one daughter, Lindsey, who was born in 1981, and also shows little interest in becoming a public figure. The TV personality once mentioned her in an interview, saying: “If I’m somewhere with my daughter and someone [a fan] recognizes me, it’s like she’s invisible. I always say, ‘This is my daughter Lindsey,’ so that they at least acknowledge her.”

Such is life in the public eye, or not!

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