A TV Handyman Brings His Work Home

If you ask George Oliphant’s wife, Zoe, what made her
fall in love with her husband, she’ll cite the biggest reason in no uncertain terms: ”He’s a doer.”

Indeed, on a cold day in mid-December, Oliphant has just come back to his home in Montclair for a few hours between trips into New York City; in the morning, he appeared on NBC’s Today Show in a segment about home heating, and in the afternoon, he’s scheduled to go back to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for meetings on his home-improvement program, George to the Rescue. But in between, he figured he had some time to do a little work on the exterior of his own home, a 1914 Tudor that has been in his family since his grandparents bought it in 1943.

Oliphant has been a doer ever since he can remember. He spends most of his time nurturing his burgeoning television career, or working on the house that carries a lot of sentimental baggage for the 35-year-old. ”I’ve never not spent Christmas Eve here my entire life,” he says.

Working for NBC’s LX.TV division since 2006, Oliphant has traveled all over the country, repairing and upgrading homes for people who write the show for help. Usually, those individuals are viewers who are trying to fix a part of their home that they haven’t been able to get around to or that they don’t have the skill to repair—whether it’s a disorganized closet or a kitchen that looks like something from a distant decade.

Oliphant’s career as a TV handyman started with a leap of faith. After a three-year stint as a video jockey for MTV’s college-oriented station, where he handled everything from a video countdown called the Dean’s List to a college football show, Oliphant was hired by LX.TV to host segments on simple home repair and maintenance tips for a show called OpenHouse.

”They thought I was the sporty, handyman’s man, a guy’s guy, your prototypical renaissance man,” Oliphant says. Despite his lack of experience with hammer and nails, Oliphant wasn’t about to argue. ”I’m like, hey, I need a job.”

The repair segments did okay, but Oliphant sensed that viewers wanted more. Watching the competition on HGTV, he realized that home-improvement shows worked best when “there’s a transformation, a before and after.” He shared that thought with the show’s execs—then headed back to his native Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to work on a documentary. Soon LX.TV enticed him back to New York for a new segment that he helped develop, called OpenHouse to the Rescue.

In no time, the segments became the most popular on the show, helping to take OpenHouse from a program that was aired only in New York at 5:30 am on Saturdays to one that has been nationally syndicated to NBC affiliates and beyond. ”It was set up to fail, but people watched,” Oliphant says. Those segments led NBC to launch George to the Rescue, which allows Oliphant to work on larger projects. The show is currently in its second season.

”George is an everyman,” says Kristin Kropp, Oliphant’s segment producer and camera operator for both shows. ”George doesn’t play a character when he is on TV. He is who he is and I think our viewers realize that. He’s the kind of guy that you could see yourself being friends with.”

Oliphant’s house sits on a secluded street in the hills of Upper Montclair. His grandfather, a Scot who was also named George, bought the house because he thought Montclair ”had the best squash courts,” says Oliphant, which was important to the champion squash player. The senior George lived there with his wife, Sarita, and their family until his death. After Sarita passed away in 1993, Oliphant’s father, James, a lawyer, who by then had long ago moved to Steamboat Springs, decided to keep the house—for the sake of tradition, including all those Christmas Eves—and rent it out.

Even while the house was being rented, the lease had a clause that allowed the Oliphants to use the house during the holidays. The younger Oliphant has been the home’s primary caretaker since 2000, when the last long-term tenant moved out. When he returned to the house, he found that it needed a lot of work, including repairs for water damage that had occurred over the previous winter.

”It was drip, drip, drip,” Oliphant says. ”The bathroom window on the third floor was left open, and a pipe burst. There was a good two or three inches [of water] on the third floor and it came straight through all of these rooms, into the pantry and the dining room.” The extent of his construction knowledge was as a set builder, so having to deal with this mess was new to him. Taking care of the house became a trial by fire that would serve Oliphant later in his career.

Oliphant continued to work on the house while his father and some short-term tenants moved in, and as he started building a family with Zoe in Brooklyn. After marrying in October 2008—he’s been so busy with house rescues that he and Zoe couldn’t go on their honeymoon until this past winter—the Oliphants and their then-18-month-old son, George, moved into the Tudor in November 2009. Their second son, Bode, was born in May 2010.

”We’re hundred-thousandaires in a millionaire’s neighborhood,” says Oliphant standing in his home’s main foyer, with its dark wood and fixtures still intact from when his grandparents owned the place. ”It’s just so much house,” he says, ”we could never afford it,” if it were on the open market.

”It was a little overwhelming, but once I got pregnant, I thought it was a fantastic idea,” laughs Zoe, 31, about the prospect of moving into the Oliphant family home.

The three-story, 17-room house befits the well-heeled types that have populated much of Upper Montclair for more than a century, and Oliphant is determined to complete his renovation plans in time for the house’s 100th anniversary in 2014. Leveraging the contacts he’s made and the skills he’s learned on his shows, he has already spruced up the entrance foyer and dining room, transformed a second-floor room into a bright and fun bedroom for his son, George—complete with paintings from Tommy Tune—and has plans to renovate the bathroom in his master suite.

Other plans include creating a larger master suite on the third floor and an overall updating and clean-up, which means rehabilitation of the lead plumbing and the knob-and-tube electrical system. Of course, all of this has to take place in between the usual upkeep and care involved in owning a century-old house.

”Ever since George began renovating his home in Montclair, he began taking a greater interest in all the rescue projects,” says Kropp. ”He began asking our contractors better questions and really paying attention to how to go about completing certain projects. This, in turn, has made the rescue segments even better.”

It’s a huge undertaking under an ambitious timeline, something Zoe didn’t anticipate at first. ”It was scary. I had it in my head that we were going to move in and gut then renovate the kitchen, and that’s what we needed to do,” she says. ”Then we got here, and I realized it’s plumbing, it’s electric, it’s insulation, it’s windows.” It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the family, considering how much work needs to be done. At times they seem to be making progress, Zoe says, ”then three things go wrong.”

Still, she’s confident they can bring the house back to its original glory while making it their own. ”George takes on every project with a full heart,” she says. ”He loves his job and loves helping people. He loves this house.”


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