During the early weeks of the pandemic-necessitated quarantine, artists everywhere began showcasing their skills by way of the internet. As time passed, many found comfort and creativity in reaching people far and wide with isolation creations. With no live entertainment upon which to report, Broadway World Cabaret dove, face-first, into the waters of virtual programming, eventually creating a (temporary) Virtual TV Guide that would list regular weekly shows for homebound people to check out, and though our pre-pandemic focus was solely on concerts, cabaret, and nightclubs, the scope had to be broadened to showcase all of the talent to be found online. There were open mic programs, chat shows, zoom play readings, lounge hours, concerts live and concerts filmed, and one young woman in England who sang A Song A Day. The online offerings were a cornucopia of fun and fascinating adventures to be had with friends we may or may not have ever met in person.
It’s May of 2021 and vaccinations have been distributed, more every day; the world is re-opening in some kind of a new normal, and audiences are returning to the venues where they enjoy live entertainment. That means the reporters at Broadway World Cabaret must return to those venues, too… and while there is a chance we might be able to continue reporting on the virtual happenings of show business, the time has come for the focus of this page to return to the clubs.
So when this writer heard of a home renovation happening on social media, courtesy of a couple well-known to Manhattan show business professionals, I thought it was the perfect way to segue out of one medium and back into another. So I got on the phone with Sean Martin Hingston and Brad Hurtado to get the skinny on BACK TO THE STUDS, and learn a little about something I will, most likely, never, ever do: re-build a house.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Brad and Sean, welcome to Broadway World. How are you gents today?
Brad: It’s a very good day. We live here at the property and we can see the amount of work that happens every day – it’s not like we’re off-site. We’re here, seeing the work that happens day after day. Yesterday, they started putting the walls up inside our bathroom and bedroom area – changes are weirdly happening every day in a wonderful way!
Sean: Right now we’re about 30 feet away, across the courtyard, looking at the back of the townhouse itself, the second floor is completely gone and the guys are going crazy inside.
Brad: Yeah, lots of noises and hammering and saws.
It sounds like a wild ride. Now, for full transparency, this interview is for the Broadway World Cabaret page, where we have spent the last year covering a lot of online content since no clubs were open. We’ve been talking to people who do chat shows and cooking shows, and I could not pass up the chance to talk to you about your do-it-yourself house renovation. Back To The Studs has been presented to me as a DIY show but you’re talking about your contractors so I guess we should start with the question: where do you guys find the balance between the professionals doing the work and you guys doing the work?
Brad: (Laughing) I think you’ve been misled about the project, which is definitely not a do-it-yourself project.
Well, all right then.
Brad: It’s a full gut renovation of an 1881 townhouse, back to the studs, everything out, and craftsmen and professional people helping us build a new house.
Sean: We planned it for ten years, there’ve been various iterations, stops and starts, and we finally got it going right before covid, then we had to stop. We started it up again in December, and we’re about halfway through a 10-month build. The design itself, everything is ours. We’ve renovated apartments in four different buildings before … but we’re leaving this to the professionals.
What kind of experience did your previous home renovations bring you?
Brad: It’s very different for each project because my first house that I bought was a two-family 1920’s Tudor in Detroit, and I did the renovations on that one, but they were small. So, I can change the plugs and I can put in the new faucets and I can do those sorts of things. My second house was another duplex and I did landscaping and painting and trim work and all those kinds of things – we re-tiled the kitchen there. Our Asbury Park house that we bought 20 years ago was a major construction, and I was the general contractor on that, and I hired the carpenter and the painter, and the tiler and we worked together. We’ve gone through many incarnations and each time, it’s gotten bigger. This just happens to be the biggest one so far because we’re completely gutting the house.
Sean: We’ve been together for twenty-seven years and from the beginning, we’ve had a plan about wanting to own a townhouse to live in it – a dream of creating our dream home for our family, there’s three of us, and we’re getting to realize that now, after (essentially) 27 years.
Totally worth the wait, right?
Brad: Exactly. Things happen very fast for some people, and the rest of us slowly work our way to a slightly bigger apartment – it’s a slow process. We’ve owned this one for 11 years and now we’re finally doing the renovation. I think that most everything else that we’ve had, we owned it and we were able to work on it right away, get it done within the first year of owning it. This one being the biggest project that we ever had, once we had these beautiful architectural plans for what we were going to do, we took it to contractors and started getting bids. We realized there was no way we could afford this – we had to put it on hold, start saving some money, and waiting for other projects to happen so that we could afford to do this renovation.
So, every home in which you have done renovations, however big or small, has sort of been like a trial run for this.
Sean: In many ways. You have to make so many decisions when you renovate anything, just a kitchen or a bathroom, for example – you multiply that by a whole home, it’s endless.
Brad: Decisions on baseboard trim, and doorknobs, and light fixtures, and all the plumbing behind the walls, a million decisions that you practice and you go, “Oh, I’m never going to do that again.”. You make all those mistakes and then by the time you get to this point, you’re like, “Okay, I feel like I have some competence behind what I’m doing.”
When you first became a couple, did these renovations happen out of necessity or did either or both of you actually have an interest or passion for this kind of work?
Brad: I grew up in Ohio on a lovely farm that my parents purchased that had three cottages on it that they rented out. So I grew up in a place where renting to tenants and being a landlord was a normal part of our daily life, since I was four years old. I learned how to rent to tenants, how to clean apartments between tenants, how to fix up and paint and do all of that kind of stuff, with my parents. My first purchase, in my twenties, was a two-family, so I could rent out half of it to help pay for the mortgage. And Sean and I are both freelance artists and, like a lot of people in our industry, the paychecks come and go, so I made a decision early on that real estate and having rental apartments was a steady income that would make being in between jobs easier. My intention was always to buy property with enough space to rent out half of it and let that help pay for the mortgage, so I did that with my first house and my second house. Then I met Sean and we did that in Manhattan for a couple of years while we saved the money. Then, in Asbury park, we bought a big house that had 18 rooms, and it was already split up into apartments, like a townhouse, and we kept it that way and fixed it all up. As landlords, we kept upgrading the apartments and making them nice so that we would have rental income. This house was built as three families, three floors, three apartments – we’re taking it to two apartments – the ground floor’s going to be a rental, and upstairs is the owner’s duplex. So our entire process has been based on having something that had rental income from the very beginning, and getting bigger as we kept going.
Tell me about the history of this house that you’re working on, and what about acquiring that property appealed to you?
Sean: I had several prerequisites: It had to be within a hundred meters of a subway station. It had to have a driveway. It had to be for at least three families. Those are the three main points that I was looking for in a home – that sort of whittled it down. Then I decided it had to be in Williamsburg, which made the options few and far between. I saw this house online, I called and it wasn’t available, it was already in contract. Then, I was out of town, I was in Moscow, and it came up again online, and it was available. So I told Brad and our daughter Grace to go and have a look at it and they loved it immediately. It had everything we wanted.
Brad: It was built in 1881 right when this neighborhood was really packed with families and it’s not a very spectacular house, it’s not a beautiful brownstone with beautiful stonework on the front of it. It was a house that was built with wood siding, like all of them in that neighborhood 140 years ago. It had three floors, each one of them had an apartment, there was a stable out in the back, which eventually became a workshop, which eventually became a carriage house, which eventually became an apartment. So it slowly morphed over the years.
Sean: So there are two buildings – that was another appeal.
Brad: There’s the front house and the carriage house. And then, over the years, like so much of the property in our neighborhood, the old wood started to wear away and look awful, and somebody came through and said, “Hey, there’s this thing called the aluminum siding. Here’s this thing called asbestos shingle – you could cover all that ugly wood up.” Most every house in Williamsburg that was wood has been completely covered by asbestos shingles and aluminum siding. That’s what gives Williamsburg so much of it’s sort of odd character. There’s a lot of houses in here with unattractive, unusual siding from 60 years ago.
Sean: It wasn’t actually the house … it was at the bones of the house we were looking for.
There’s specific mention in the trailer of the staircase, and your insistence on keeping it. How do gut a house but leave a staircase standing?
Sean: Before we started renovating, as it was in the house, it was extremely sturdy, it felt so solid – and it’s the only existing piece of the original architecture from the building. We wanted to pay homage to that, and we liked it; and we could imagine it done the way we wanted, painted the color we wanted, finished, how we wanted – we knew it had the potential to be beautiful again.
Brad: A lot of families have lived in this house over the years and made it work for them. And everything, every piece of trim, every piece of original floor, all of it was just gone over the years… except for the staircase. When we asked our contractor if it’s possible to save the staircase, he was like, “Of course it is” and when they did the demolition on the house and they took apart the underside of the stairs and started to look at it, they realized it was in very good condition. It only leaned less than an inch off of its’ level over the years. They unhooked it from the house, they slowly straightened it over the course of the day, quarter inch by quarter inch, and then they repositioned it. It is now perfectly straight and ready for another century.
Alright… you have this hundred-year-old house, you know you’re going to renovate it… at what point does that become an online show?
Sean: Eight weeks ago!
Brad: In early February, we were about three months in. We started demolition in December and we were coming through the new year and I was like, “Well, I’m a television producer… and I’m also a family guy”… so I always shot lots of home movies of our family, and I edit them and put them together because I’m a professional – I can do it quickly and easily. I knew that I wanted to document the experience of our renovation… I decided to start telling those stories.
and I made a TikTok – which our daughter had introduced us to -and I knew enough to tell a good story. In one minute, I knew how to tell everybody what we’re doing. Here’s who we are. Here’s this cool old house. Here’s what we’re about to do. As a Coda to the video, I had Sean on camera doing a triple pirouette in the garden rental apartment. Everybody who was watching the video was like, “Okay, here’s another gay couple doing…OH! What the hell was THAT?! Wow!” So there was a little bit of a surprise there for everybody, and overnight like 300,000 people had seen it and 140,000 people subscribed and were asking to see more. So we woke up that next day like – there’s an audience for this, let’s keep making them.
The show itself, do you have a mission statement for it? Do you want to appeal to people who are at-home DIY-ers? Do you want to appeal to people who might want to learn how to flip apartments as rentals? What is your ambition with the show itself?
Brad: This is not about how to do it yourself. The show is not about how to flip the house. What this really is about is an in-depth look into how you take a classic old Brooklyn house and turn it into a modern family home. The reason that we’re doing that is because all over the world, people who have been watching us, from Brazil to Norway to Ukraine to Australia, are enjoying the fact that they’re getting to see something from the beginning. A lot of times these (types of) videos are “Here’s the renovation I did” and in one minute you get to see the bathroom renovation from ugly to pretty. Ours is completely not like that – we’re not going to have pretty for six months. What we’re promising is a behind-the-scenes look at what amazing craftsmen are doing and what this gay couple is doing in Brooklyn.
And Sean, are you doing dance tricks throughout the series?
Sean: Essentially, yes. In fact, he said to me yesterday, “We’re running out of dance stuff, so we have to get you back up there.” I’m doing lots of dance tricks… well, it seems to me I’m doing lots of dance tricks. (Both laughing) I just do it every now and then amidst the debris or amidst the destruction or wherever there happens to be a clear spot that day.
Brad: Stephen, you know that famous photograph of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of the Roxy theater in 1956?
Every gay man knows that photo.
Brad: That’s my homage here when I put Shawn up there dancing in the midst of the wreckage – that’s what I’m referencing. (Laughing)
Let’s talk about the name of the show – what does BACK TO THE STUDS mean?
Sean: Taking a house back to the studs means renovating it back to the bones.
Brad: When you look at a wall in a house that’s being built, the studs are the upright vertical two by fours that you eventually put your drywall onto.
Sean: That you put your insulation in.
Brad: So that’s the frame of your house is called “the studs” and when you do demolition the term, “Take it back to the studs” means you take all of the walls off and all the ceilings off, everything goes back so that you start fresh again with just the naked wall. That’s what the term actually means.
Sean, is grace involved in any of the process at all?
Sean: (Laughing) To the extent that she’s had to put up with all of the planning for all these years, since she was ten, expecting to get her brand new room – that didn’t pan out so well, she’s still waiting for it. She’s fairly involved in her corner of the third floor, and in choosing tile and deciding on various things. She’s also, in her life, trying to work out in what direction to go, she’s talking like “Maybe interior design, maybe I could help with the interior design!” and I’m like, “Well, honey, there’s lots to do in this room, get started!” (Laughing)
Brad: But like a normal teenager, she is so not interested in picking up the paintbrush or the hammer or actually being a part of the process.
Sean: Unless we’re not there.
Brad: Yeah, unless somebody else asks her and then she’ll do it. She’s a typical child who will not help us with anything, then when we say, “Hey, we’re going to do this in the garden, or do you want to do this in the house?” “No. I’m busy.” She’s just waiting for it all to be done.
It’s been a couple of months since Back to the Studs debuted. What has the response been like for you guys so far?
Brad: So we started with TikTok on February 12th, or something right before Valentine’s day, so it’s been a little over two months now and the response has been just outstanding – huge amounts of love immediately from people going, “I love you guys. This is an amazing story. I’m going to follow along.”. So there’s huge amounts of that from all over the world, which has been thrilling and exciting. And that first video, over 4 million people have watched it. it’s lovely because the reaction is instantaneous and people are really kind and loving and are supportive and are not at all shy about offering their design tips as well. You get a lot of people who watch HGTV who have plenty to say,,,
Sean: And we definitely discuss some of the tips along the way… “Oh, let’s take a look at that!” and “That’s a good idea.”
So tell us where our readers can find the show.
Sean: Search BACK TO THE STUDS on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. On YouTube, there’s a series of much longer videos – 10 minutes and longer, that goes into certain details about that particular subject of the renovation..
Brad: On TikTok they’re small one minute stories of the renovation.
Sean: Followers are also interested in how much things cost because people are also doing their own thing, they’re matching their own renovation – how much did it cost to do the stairway… so we’re trying to help there.
Brad: That was one of the things that we were concerned about early on because people immediately started asking things like “How much are you spending? How much is this going to cost? What did you buy the house for?” – those are all super personal questions that you don’t tend to ask people, but people were asking us. So we made a decision early on that… I know that when I watch other people’s videos like this, I am curious, I’m always very interested in knowing how people pay for things and what things cost. So we made the decision to start talking about money on our YouTube channel. So that’s where we do that because we have more time to talk about money over there.
So it’s sort of like a one-stop shopping thing for people interested in renovations. You know, you got the short form videos, the long form videos, just anything that they’re looking for, they can find with you guys
Brad: Plus the triple Pirouettes.
See the Back to the Studs TikTok video collection HERE
Back to the Studs is on Instagram HERE
Visit the Back to the Studs YouTube channel HERE
Back To The Studs has joined forces with the Smart Health Green Living streaming service to further their storytelling. Visit the SHG Living website HERE.