UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

Old House New Tricks
Liz Bagley ’93 and Christine Flynn ’74 tackle a major renovation, taking This Old House viewers along for the ride.
By Carol Cambo

Photo: Bagley and Flynn
Liz Bagley ’93 and Christine Flynn ’74.

The handsome two-family stucco at 98 Saint Andrew Road in East Boston has 90 years’ worth of stories to tell: stories about hardworking Irish-immigrant owners who were ferry captains and postmen; about holiday sing-alongs around the piano; stories about four generations of a family stitched together by shared memory and proud history.

Christine Flynn ’74 and her niece, Liz Bagley ’93, are writing the latest chapter in the house’s story, with help from Norm Abram ’72. Their home starred in the fall 2006 television series of Abram’s show, This Old House, featuring a major renovation that preserved the best of the dwelling’s past and also gave it modern twists befitting the address of two successful businesswomen. The best part of the story is that the women managed to keep the family home where it belongs: in the family.

* * * * * * * * *

“Oh my gawd!” Flynn shrieks with amazement as she strides up the sidewalk, seeing her new front yard for the first time. When she left on business three days before, it was bare earth. Her father Tom’s rose bush (planted more than 30 years ago when he retired from the postal service and took up gardening to fill his days) was still ensconced in landscaper Roger Cook’s own perennial bed several towns away. Now, white fencing and flagstones border hydrangeas and green grass, and the rose bush has been returned to its proper place. Flynn’s wish for a cottage garden has miraculously taken root in her absence. Today the TV crew is here, and the house is almost finished. “Every time I return home, there’s something new,” explains Flynn. She works for a travel incentive company and roams the world half of each month. “Lately I feel as though I am coming home to a rich person’s house, it looks so nice.”

If you’ve ever lived through a major renovation, ever shuffled through sheetrock dust on your way to the coffeepot, say, or leaned against a freshly painted doorframe in your best suit, you know a special kind of anguish. Imagine living through such a renovation with television crews documenting how and why you went over budget, exposing your proverbial and actual dirty laundry as well as your gutted bathrooms, uninsulated attic, and your not-up-to-code wiring and plumbing. Add to this webcams in every room broadcasting day and night, and you glimpse what life was like for Flynn and Bagley for eight months of last year. But both say the inconvenience was worth it to see their dreams realized.*

“Just Breathe.”
I stayed at my friend Diane’s house for four nights recently. I forgot what it was like to be surrounded by orderliness and beautiful décor in its proper place. I actually cooked on a stove, washed dishes in a sink, and ate at a kitchen table. I walked without fear of tripping over wooden planks, or stuffed boxes or extension cords.
— Christine Flynn’s weblog,
Oct. 25, 2006

When Flynn’s grandparents, the Greers, purchased their just-built home in 1916, the neighborhood was brand-new, located across Boston Harbor from a spit of sand that would later become Logan Airport. East Boston has been the first home in America for many immigrant communities over the years. First Irish and Italian, then Jewish families took root; now mailboxes bear Colombian and Brazilian surnames. The accents may differ, but the common language of a strong work ethic and a desire to provide for one’s familiy has long united residents. There’s one more trait East Bostonians share: an uncanny ability to filter out the roar of jets flying overhead every few minutes.

“You stop hearing it after a while,” says Bagley. Even so, MassPort installed new soundproofing windows a few years ago for all area residents. For Bagley, the occasional whiff of engine fuel is small potatoes compared to having a water view, a 10-minute commute (she works downtown, in Fidelity Investments’ information technology division), and being a few steps from Constitution Beach, where she built sandcastles as a kid.

Tomorrow is the big day—the first episode airs. We got an advance copy and had some family and friends over yesterday to watch. It is . . . not as bad as I thought! At least in this episode. I am not one to get in pictures, so you can imagine my anxiety. People ask why I agreed to have my house done on camera if I am camera shy. I guess if they have to ask, they don’t get it. The best-of-the-best doing what they love to your home is more than reason enough.
— Liz Bagley’s weblog, Oct. 4

When Flynn’s aunt passed away and the house went up for sale, Bagley sold her South End condo, and she and Flynn bought the two-family together—including all its shag carpeting, dark wood, outdated kitchens, and crumbling stucco. They had vision, a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, and $250,000 to spend. On a whim, they decided to enter the contest to be the next This Old House project.

“One of the reasons we chose the house,” say TOH producer Deborah Wood, “is because single women represent the fastest-growing segment of the new home ownership market.” As well, the ladies’ desire for very different finished spaces—Bagley sought upscale, hotel-sleek, while her aunt Chris envisioned seaside-cottage—presented the TOH crew with interesting challenges, and viewers a wide variety of projects and styles.

To save money, the women pitched in throughout the process. To a soundtrack of whining saws and pounding hammers, they ripped down miles of ivy; learned to tile, sand, and strip; uncovered beautiful wooden floors; and took down a three-story chimney.

“Day of Reckoning”
It is a good thing that I previewed the first episode with longtime buddies from UMass, Hanrahan and Ryan. They totally goofed on it, which was great. Otherwise I would still be under the covers. They thought I looked like an ad for antidepressants because I am so “animated.” I told them that the crew encourages and prompts you to be animated. They said, “Well, why does Liz look so normal?” Good thing I have known them since college. Like my neighbor Tommy said en route to a Patriots’ game: “You’re in the game, now you have to play!” Good advice. It is what it is . . . have a few yuks on me.
— Christine Flynn’s weblog,
Oct. 5, 2006

Slowly but surely, Flynn’s and Bagley’s spaces took shape. “It was emotional at times,” admits Bagley, watching what she had first known as her grandparents’ home change into a very different place, her place. Ninety years of family history was right beneath the surface . . . literally. “We found whiskey bottles in the walls,” she laughs.

When the project was near completion, Bagley half-joked that she was worried about her aunt. “She’s going to have separation anxiety. We’ve had so many people around for so long . . . workers, neighbors, friends. It’s going to be too quiet.”

As the women prepared to say good-bye to the carpenters and landscapers, they were also getting ready to be reunited with their family home. This old house at 98 Saint Andrew Road is ready for a new generation.

*On TOH, homeowners pay for the renovation, but have the added benefit of having the best-in-the-business do the work as well as getting some appliances and materials at a cheaper rate, or for free, in exchange for on-screen promotion.


Baby Brain
Child development expert professor Rachel Keen reaches for new knowledge.
Baghdad ER
Judith Lee ’86 helped heal the wounds of war.
Old House, New Tricks
Two alumnae tackle a major renovation, taking This Old House viewers along for the ride.
Play Ball!
If baseball is your career and your pastime, you've hit a home run.
Sports Management Graduates
The people behind the scenes.
Eye-Opening Technology
Creating animated spaces for the visually impaired.
Wireless Wonders
The Revolabs Guys take the teleconferencing world by storm.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

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