City Paper is not for tourists
Dean Henney hasn’t had a functional kitchen in a month. Electricity at his three-story 13th Street abode is unreliable, and the red-brick row house looks years away from full restoration. But Henney, like a lot of the newcomers who have changed Logan Circle from an emblem of big-city squalor to a magnet of cutesy Victoriana, has big dreams. He can see beyond the holes that dot the floors and walls of his new home. And, now, so can Home and Garden Television (HGTV).
The Today Show peeks at passers-by in New York. EDtv exposed a movie version of an unassuming San Franciscan. And six months ago, HGTV latched onto Henney. The cable network is shooting his renovation angst for its sixth Dream House seriesa cross between MTV’s Real World and Bob Vila’s This Old House. “It’s real people, real houses, real problems,” says executive producer Peter Finn.
But standing in his living room amidst piles of miscellaneous junk, where classic pictures of Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo tacked on a wall do nothing to downplay the dusty disarray, Henney offers a slightly more biting assessment: “It’s a story of how Dean chose crack and never looked back.”
Part restoration renegade and part romanticist, the 41-year-old documentary producer is functioning as the general contractor and designer of his first house despite minimal carpentry experience. “I’m great at demolishing things,” says Henney, who is also a former Marine captain. He has knocked down six walls since he moved in nine months ago, and with helpful buddies, personal sketches, a chance crew of carpenters, and a hefty portion of his own sweat equity, Henney plans to complete his upper-level 1880s Victorian dream and lower-level 1930s art deco English garden apartment.
“The story is, how is this guy going to get it done, and we don’t know if he’s going to get it done,” says Finn. For 11 years, Henney lived in apartments throughout the city before capitalizing on the recent District real estate revival and purchasing his diamond in the rough, across the street from a car wash. “They’re watching somebody struggle with champagne dreams on a beer budget,” says Henney.
Until now, most of the Dream House shows have been in “suburban Beaver Cleaver areas,” says Finn. Henney’s renovations, then, mark as much of a departure from HGTV’s ordinary fare as they do from Logan Circle’s recent past: There used to be an after-hours bar in the basement. To the left of the doorway, there’s a hole that Henney thinks came from a shotgun blast. And the liquor store across the way was shot at twice last month. The neighborhood “has some grit to it,” Finn emphasizes.
The kitchen ceiling will be gutted this morning. Barry Baron, Henney’s housemate, lops off two sheets of heavy dropcloth and nails them to the kitchen archway to block dust from the living room. “Barry, can you just hold on?” says producer Joy Roller. “I want to see you putting that up.” He takes it down, and the cameraman and sound technician get into position to film Baron’s shadow through the translucent material. He puts it back up. The camera moves to the right. “One more time. OK,” says Roller. “Speed.”
Two carpenters arrive. They chisel at the edges of the kitchen ceiling to separate it from the wall. Baron places wooden boards on top of the holes in the floor so the carpenters don’t lose their footing. One false move and electrocution becomes a possibility. The carpenters gently dislodge the ceiling fan and the track lighting.
Meanwhile, scrunched on the steps to the garden apartment, Henney is distracted, flipping through Metropolitan Home magazine. He’s anxious to get to the interior design details, like selecting wallpaper and deciding whether to get a tin ceiling for the kitchen or just redo it in Sheetrock. But now, it’s show time.
The cameraman affixes wireless mikes to Henney, and Roller announces his entrance. “OK. Dean’s going to come in now. Walter, just be yourself,” says Roller to carpenter Walter Malone. “Start rolling.” Malone steps off a ladder. The furry boom mike dips down into the shot.
Later, they will repeat a portion of the dialogue for the cameras. Roller wants to capture the ceiling crashing to the floor, so the crew is on standby. “Make sure you get that medallion coming down,” she shouts from another room. The century-old medallion cracks and swipes Malone’s shoulder. As clumps of plaster shower from the ceiling, the cameraman maintains position.
Without the round-the-clock surveillance methods popularized by other reality-based television shows, HGTV attempts to strategically plans its shoots, interspersing humdrum roof and chimney repair with local colorfrom eavesdropping on Henney’s how-to-create-a-Japanese-koi-pond lessons at the M&S Grill to filming his former housemate’s accelerated departure following wardrobe damage caused by a leaky roof.
“Sometimes, I get tired of being filmed,” says Henney. “I know that years from now, when I look back, it’ll be worth it.” Besides, he says, “We’re all sort of voyeuristic.” And voyeurism is exactly what Dream House thrives on.
One cold January evening, Henney heard a hissing sound in the basement. A water pipe had burst. He called Roller, his friend of two years, for a flashlight. Within 20 minutes, an HGTV crew had arrived to shoot the fix.
A hodgepodge of less film-worthy setbacks also expanded Henney’s original eight-month renovation time line to at least a year. For three months, Henney waited for rehabilitation refinancing. Meanwhile, two of his carpenters went on to other gigs, he overextended his credit, and the shooting schedule went on hold for a month.
When Roller interviews Henney on camera to discuss his refinancing woes, Henney gets a tad heated. “Before, it was lawyers, but now mortgage bankers have become the lowest life form,” he says. Of the interview, he adds afterward, “It’s like being a war veteran and having to relive some horror.”
There’s little payoff for reliving it, either. Whereas Real World participants can use their experience as a launching pad for other pursuits and even become household names, HGTV veterans get a measly stash of VHS tapes of their own 13 episodes. Henney himself had never even seen Dream House before he got drafted. “One of my friends bet me a bottle of champagne that I’ll get a lot of fan mail,” he says. One previous profilee was once recognized in a grocery store, says Finn.
Henney’s success or failure, meanwhile, will be broadcast to more than 52 million homes in January 2000. And Finn says it’s not a hard sell for people to commit to six months to two years of their lives to be followed around with a video camera during an already agonizing renovation and restoration process. “Everyone wants to be on TV,” he says. “Didn’t you know that?” CP