HGTV series unveils renovation of former village hall

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Photo by Stephanie Munguia for “Cheap Old Houses.” Ethan and Elizabeth Finkelstein, the producers of the HGTV show “Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House,” pose in front of the former Whitehall Village Hall on the corner of Saunders and North Willliams streets in this promotional photo from the network. Renovation of the building will be featured in the show’s premiere episode, which airs at 10 p.m. May 14.

By EJ Conzola II

The Village of Whitehall will have its turn in the national spotlight May 14 when the HGTV home renovation series “Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House” makes its season premiere with an episode focusing on the makeover of the former village office building on the corner of Saunders and North Williams streets.

The episode will be one of three focusing on projects done in Washington County. The others will follow the renovation of a former church in Middle Granville and a house in Cambridge.

In all, the show is scheduled to showcase eight renovations projects in the greater Capital Region and the Schoharie Valley.

The show’s Washington County focus is no accident. Producer Elizabeth Finkelstein grew up in a “cheap old house” in Queensbury and she and husband Ethan, the show’s co-producer, are currently renovating their own home – an old farmhouse – in the area.

Whitehall has “always been a place that fascinated me,” Elizabeth said, recalling many trips she made through the community while growing up. She said she was always entranced with the architecture and potential of the village, making the opportunity to be involved in renovating the 1872 building – which began life as a firehouse – “very, very personal.”

Elizabeth said her interest in old buildings came from her childhood home, which she described as a “project house” that had all the members of her family involved in the renovations. The work left the family with the feeling they were “stewards of this house,” she said.

The togetherness engendered by the renovations is something the Finkelsteins hope can be somewhat recreated through the rehabilitation of buildings in a municipality.

“We firmly believe in developing a community based on its unique architectural project,” said Elizabeth, who has a master’s degree in historic preservation.

Ethan said he too has a passion for preserving old, often neglected buildings and reviving them. He said he first got involved while working with real estate agents who tended to ignore the historical aspects of a building that make it unique and “not factoring in any character.” He also was saddened, while living in New York City, by seeing older buildings with unique artistic elements being razed to make way for plain modern structures.

The couple’s desire to remake old homes while retaining their character was “forged in a ton of passion and love,” Ethan said.

The Whitehall renovation project allowed the couple to make their mark while celebrating the past, he said, noting the renovations involved saving many of the special features of the building – including the hammered tin that covered the walls and ceiling of the main room, which had once housed firefighting apparatus.

The couple works with researchers and designers to preserve or restore the historical elements of the property, Ethan said. In Whitehall, that involved scraping away exterior paint that was causing the brick walls to deteriorate and repainting the building with a paint that would not only preserve the brick but return it to its original color, he said.

While the exterior renovations are visible to anyone driving down Williams and Saunders streets, the interior renovations won’t be revealed until the show airs.

The renovations began just over a year ago and were completed in September.

And while the title of the show references “Cheap Old Houses” – the title of the Finkelsteins’ earlier HGTV show – the first episode features a building that was a firehouse and a municipal office building, as well as a residence in its more recent past. The Middle Granville renovations converted a former church into a home and the earlier show involved turning an old one-room school into a residence.

“We love the unconventional houses,” Ethan said.

“Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House” will air at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, May 14, according to the HGTV website.