Generations of islanders have preserved the vintage homes on Nantucket, an island east of Martha’s Vineyard.
“Nantucket’s appeal is that it’s more than a place, it’s a state of mind,” said Russell Morash, executive producer of ‘This Old House.’ “The quaint, gray-weathered cottages, the fences draped with roses and the small-paned windows that typify the island’s architecture create a harmonious look that has a calming effect on those who’ve left behind a more hectic world in America... as the locals prefer to call the mainland.”
Master Electrician Sally Bates Hall, owner of Bates Electrical Contractors Inc., has rewired many of these historic homes, including an 1887 Victorian cottage for the 1996 season of “This Old House.”
“They called me because it’s unusual that a female has her own electrical business,” Hall said. “Our company has a very good reputation. We turn away like 90% of the phone calls that come just because we can’t do them all.”
The homeowners hired the team of Nantucket tradespeople to transform the summer cottage into a year-long retreat. Because they wanted to save the plaster walls, Hall and her electricians had to snake a lot of the wires.
“It was a very difficult job to work on, but in the end, it looked great,” Hall said.
The electricians put in a new 200A service, ran wires to the receptacles and light fixtures and put in new switches. The crew didn’t save an inch of the old wiring.
“There isn’t any old wiring left anywhere in that house,” Hall said. “It was knob-and-tube and BX, the old metal cable. It was just nasty.”
The team pulled out all of the old wiring and then snaked the new wires. Hall said the most daunting challenge was trying to snake a wire from Point A to Point B without ruining the old plaster walls. It takes a lot of expertise and a lot of patience to work in an old house, she said.
“A lot of people look at your bill when you give it to them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ because they don’t know how hard it is to snake wires. You really have to have a talent and a knack for it. You could be a real hack, get the saws all out and cut a hole in the wall but we try to avoid doing that.”
Hall and her long-time employee, Billy Humphries, used to work together in Cohasset, Mass., a town with virtually no new construction and all older homes. During her five years in Cohasset, she gained a lot of hands-on experience snaking wires. She remembers one particular project—a huge mansion on the harbor in Cohasset—where she worked with balloon framing.
“One day we were trying to snake a wire from the basement to the third floor attic,” Hall said. “I was in the basement snaking the wire up, and my helper was in the attic and then all of a sudden, I felt him grab it. That’s when we started jumping up and down and yelling, ‘Yahoo!’”
Hall said it’s always easier when the contractors decide to gut the house, but it’s not always possible. The crew didn’t gut the front room of the Nantucket home because an old gas pipe ran to the chandelier. She had to run a new wire to the light fixture, and the cameramen caught her on tape.
“I had to do seven takes because I was very nervous,” she said. “I was shocked. I thought it would be really easy. I sang ‘Mustang Sally’ at my wedding in front of 250 of my friends, but when I had a camera in front of my face, I was like, “Whoa!”
She said she hadn’t eaten lunch that day.
“On the fifth take, I was like, “You know what?,” she said. “I need some water. Give me some water, please?”
Hall said she has never seen herself on “This Old House” because her family doesn’t get cable.
“We’re not big TV watchers around here,” she said. “I’m dying to see it. I have friends from high school call me out of the blue and they said, ‘I just saw you on This Old House.’ My mother said I looked very nervous.”
She said the camera crew, director and producer all helped her feel at ease.
“I can’t say enough great things about them,” she said. “They were like, ‘Sally, we’re all friends here. C’mon. Relax.’ I was like, ‘Friends? I hardly know you guys.’ They were very sweet and they really loved me.”
Her late father, who passed away the year that Hall worked on the project, also came by the job site to see his daughter’s handiwork. “My dad was very proud of me,” Hall said. “He would come on the job and check it out, and everyone loved him. He was a really sweet, cute little guy, who was also in the construction business for a long time.”
Hall’s father got to witness the transformation of the home from an aging summer cottage to a year-round family home. The construction crew tried to make the 1887 cottage look like it did when it was first built. One of the former homeowners brought in some old photos of the original home so the woodworkers could recreate the entrance.
“The guys are amazing woodworkers and they did a fabulous job,” she said. “It’s time-consuming to make the wood like they did in the past. Back in the old days, they built all these gorgeous Victorians and now everyone just tries to get it done fast. It costs more money to do that, but in the end, you get a nice product.”
For example, Hall’s company does a lot of electrical work for a Vermont couple, who renovates old homes without digging into the plaster or ripping out any walls. “Nowadays, everyone wants a great room and big bedrooms, but they like to keep all the small rooms and old light fixtures in their Victorian home,” she said.
Like many of the other Victorians on the island, the Nantucket home’s walls were made of horsehair plaster and lathe.
“The old horsehair plaster actually has horsehair in it to keep it together,” she said. “It’s like plaster and lathe and has little straps. When you cut in an outlet, you have to find where the slots are. It takes a lot of patience.” Horsehair plaster is fragile, Hall said.
“On Nantucket, where we have damp and foggy weather, it’s not very nice to work with,” she said. The new plaster is much harder and holds up a lot better.”
While Hall prefers working with the new plaster, she would rather work with old light fixtures. The lighting consultant, however, included many modern lights in her design.
“I love old lights and believe that if you’re trying to restore an old house, you should put in old light fixtures,” Hall said. “I guess I’ve hung way too many recessed lights. I like wall sconces and overhead surface-mount lights.”
Bruce Irving, the senior producer for “This Old House,” said the house had been stripped of almost everything original before the team arrived on the project. Hall said the original chandelier was nowhere to be seen.
“I bet that house back in its day had some really gorgeous light fixtures,” Hall said.
Hall has rewired antique lights and now has a small collection at home. Because of her interest in lighting, she often designs a lighting plan for her clients.
“My normal customers can’t afford to hire an architect to do the lighting plan, so I do it for them,” she said. “If you go in and lay out a house, it’s easier to get the real feel of it.”
While she didn’t get to design the lighting on the “This Old House” project, she said she enjoyed the experience of working on the show and meeting some of the finest tradespeople on the island. “The Nantucket builders and tradespeople are all gentlemen and there to give you a helping hand,” Hall said. “To work on an old house like that and make it look the way it did in the end, you have to know what you’re doing and be talented.”
Sally Bates Hall and her husband, Brooks, were married the same year she appeared on “This Old House.” Both now work as electricians on the bustling island of Nantucket, Mass. Their three-and-a-half year old son, Parker, also helps on the job site from time to time. “He knows the difference between a Phillips and a slothead,” Hall said.
BUILDING BOOM IN NANTUCKET
Master Electrician Sally Bates Hall, who founded her own contracting firm in 1984, said the summer is the busy season for her residential electrical business.
“There are a ton of renovations in Nantucket because there are a lot of beautiful old houses here that need to be rewired,” Hall said. The tradespeople in Nantucket are faced with a daunting challenge—preserving the historical charm of the vintage homes while updating them to modern codes. Hall said she loves the work, but not the pressure.
“This time of year it’s very hard for us,” she said. “You try to do the electrical and the office work and handle all the phone calls. Out here, it’s a great trade to be into—any kind of construction.” New homes are also popping up all over the island, Hall said. “There is so much building going on out here, it’s unbelievable,” Hall said.
To manage the heavy work load, Hall employs a small, but hard-working team of electricians.
“We have a lot of work, and I have a very small crew, and I don’t want it to be any bigger,” she said. “I want to have a good handle on my business.”
Her licensed electrician, Billy Humphries, has been with her as long as she’s had her master’s license, which has been about nine years. She also has two other apprentices, one of which is her husband.
“My husband wasn’t an electrician when he met me, but once we got married and he realized how much help I needed, he became one,” she said. “It’s hard to find good help out here.”
Despite the slowing economy plaguing the rest of the country, Nantucket’s construction industry is still going strong. “We have not been affected whatsoever,” she said. “The economy is bad, and we haven’t even seen any of it because there’s a lot of wealthy people out here. I feel very lucky.”