I don’t even know what restore means. Restoring is a very arrogant concept. If you’re taking a house from 1812, do you restore it to how it looked the day after it was built, or restore it to the way it looked in 1828, or the way it looked in 1872? Do the minimum to stop it from falling apart, and then get away. Leave it alone, the same as you do with children. You can’t take a little girl who loves dump trucks and put her in a tutu. You really can’t. And if you do, somebody’s going to run away from home. Let them be, and give them the best possible dump truck you can.
Slate: What’s your relationship to these homes? Are you working on them as an investment? Do you live in them all?
Pinchot: They’re just friends—that’s my relationship with them. Once or twice, I’ve said, “I’m going to make this wonderful, and then I’m going to rent it.” As soon as it started to be good, I thought, “No, I can’t let people in here. What if they accidentally hurt it or break the cupboards?” They just become parts of the family. They’re my harem.
Slate: The carpenters and contractors that work on your houses have a naturalness to them. You don’t see those kind of guys on TV much.
Pinchot: They’re not airbrushed at all. Everybody on the show is homegrown. They still don’t really get that we’re doing a television show, and they probably never will. I have to turn in an episode, and I’ve got guns to my head from every quarter from people who need the footage so they can start to edit it, and yet people don’t show up because it’s hunting season. That’s part of their charm.
Slate: On most DIY Network shows, the homeowners join in the work. In the pilot, we see you shopping and making decisions, but you’re not wielding a hammer. Do you also knock in nails?
Pinchot: I really don’t. At the beginning, they said, “Somebody give him a tool and let’s pose with it.” And I said, “No. If you want to see what I do, get me sketching with 500 books on either side.” I’m creating stuff; that’s my work. It’s hard to convey that on television, but I think you ought to try.
Even my guys say sometimes, “When are you going to do some work?” I always say the same thing, sometimes lightly and sometimes a bit sternly: “Any time you’d like to change places with me, you may stay up all night, you may assemble the reference library of 700 books, you may find the houses, you may buy the houses, you may find the salvage, and you may do the drawings. Then I will be happy to dig the hole.”
Slate: Is working on your houses still fun? Has doing the show affected your enjoyment of it all?
Pinchot: The only difference is that I finish things now, because I must. In the old days, I would say, “Well, someday I’ll find the perfect window surround, so although we’ve framed in all the windows, and we’ve found the wainscot, I’ll come back to that another year.” Now I must finish them, because I must turn in finished episodes. And the discipline that imposes is great, because I’ve now finished eight great projects, and I’m really enjoying them.
My favorite thing in the world to hold my sides and howl over is when you see on the cover of a shelter magazine, “Mauve is the new taupe!” I don’t care, you idiots. That’s the nice thing about working entirely with salvage: You just take what you get. I just found some bird-vomit-colored wood. It’s original painted wainscoting from about 1825. There’s a lot to do something with. Would I have picked that color? No. I wouldn’t have said, “Dear God, let me find some bird-crap-colored wood.” But there’s so much of it, and it’s so nice, I will put other material around it. I will put some old early 19th-century textiles to go with it, and I will make a room.
The hunters brought in squab, so we’re going to have squab. I’m not going to go out and buy lobster.
This interview has been condensed and edited.