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Power to the people

October 28, 2002

Power to the people

The foundation of a D.C. museum exhbit is built on an American pasttime - do-it-yourself home improvement

By Kevin Clapp

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Julie Welsh is a fixer-upper. She wasn't born that way; she just grew into the part.

Dressed in jeans and a faded orange smock - with bright orange fingernails painted as much for her employment as the approaching All Hallow's Eve - Welsh is the newly transplanted store manager at The Home Depot in Hagerstown.

But 11 years ago, she was just another all-thumbs individual looking for a job. Heck, she didn't even know a 2-by-4 isn't really 2-by-4.

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Hired as a cashier, she began soaking up home improvement lessons like particle board does paint.

Taking advantage of daily workshops offered at the do-it-yourself mega store, she began to dabble in projects at home.

Faux finishes begat borders begat installation of a hardwood floor.

Heavy duty trial by fire, and no one was more surprised by the development than Welsh.

"I didn't know anything about the home-improvement business when I started as a cashier. But you work around the stuff, you take the classes and you think it they can do it, I can do it, too," she says. "I would never have thought I would use a pneumatic nailer and a saw in my life and here I was cutting the boards."

Welsh is among the most recent foot soldiers in a more than 50-year movement toward self-sufficiency in home repair and do-it-yourself projects.

It is, after all, sexy to be hands-on, with a sawdust foundation and elbow grease for eye liner.

And despite 20 years of Bob Vila, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor and TLC's "Trading Spaces," the DIY craze is nothing new, as illustrated by the newest exhibit at Washington's National Building Museum.

"Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th-Century America" unfurls a blueprint of how homeowners have rolled up their sleeves to put their personal stamp on the living space since a late '80s - 1880s - infatuation with foot-powered scroll saws.

"It's the kind of show we do. It's not about the architects who design the house or the contractors who build the house," says museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos. "It's what happens once you live in the house. It's about the homeowner and what they choose to do."

Separated into six sections designed as a home under construction, Broikos has assembled a Mr., or Ms., Fix-It's dream. Countless tools are under glass; pop art by the likes of Andy Warhol shows the influence of home improvement on the mainstream; and shelves of pamphlets and how-to manuals reinforce how easy it is to get started.

The message? That DIY may be big news now but it is hardly revolutionary, and has taken incremental strides since before The Great Depression.

As early as the 1930s, bank loans were made available for home renovation.

"What happens is the home is becoming a hobby. You're beginning to think of the home as something to update and modernize," Broikos says. "Not that a lot of people could afford it, but it is coming out."

Post World War II, Rosie the Riveter returned home but retained her tool belt, as men and women set out to make houses homes.

Even "Time" magazine got into the act, touting do-it-yourself as "The new billion-dollar hobby."

In 1954.

"It is the leisure activity and it is a way to individualize your home, to break away from the corporate conformity," Broikos says. "If you do live in suburbia you do live in cookie-cutter houses and how do you individualize it?"

The difference today is in access to information. Time Life books or Good Housekeeping guides alone aren't the sources of information.

Home Depot's workshops aside, Internet access has flooded the Web with a stream of data.

Not surprisingly, www.doityourself.com exists to serve the happy homeowner with a yen for more power.

Begun in 1995, the advice and ordering Web site has more than 80 moderated chat rooms ranging from pet care to plumbing and all points in between. In the last 18 months alone, traffic to the site has increased from 500,000 unique users a month to that many each week.

"You don't want to take a day off from work to wait for someone to show up and fix an appliance. After awhile, you ask 'Why should I pay as much as $100, $125 to come out, diagnosis a problem and fix it,'" says site founder and president David Goldsholle. "Is it worth it? Not when the part's $28 and I can do it myself in three minutes."

The result is a sense of empowerment, a feeling of satisfaction at having accomplished a task.

Welsh sees it in the enthusiasm of visitors to the daily workshops. Seasonal sessions about deck building might attract 20 or 40 people. Monday night tutorials geared toward women while men are home watching football have attracted as many as 50 eager would-be do-it-yourselfers.

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