Perseverance wins in Broadway star’s quest to renovate historical Great Barrington Home, documented in MAX series

Great Barrington — Homeownership is, for many, a major part of the American Dream.
For Broadway star Robert Hartwell, his dream of homeownership became a reality in Great Barrington.

Hartwell has performed on Broadway in several musicals and in two national tours, including the musicals “Dreamgirls,” “Memphis,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” He founded the educational project The Broadway Collective in 2016 and has also worked as a director and choreographer for performances at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and the North Carolina Theatre.

However, he has never owned a house before, and his trials and tribulations in fixing up a 200-plus-year-old home are the subjects of the new MAX series “Breaking New Ground.”
In June 2020, Hartwell purchased the colonial-style mansion on Castle Hill.

“This is a renovation story 200 years in the making,” Hartwell said in the trailer for the series. “When I bought this house, it struck a nerve because here was a gay Black man owning a plantation-style home, saying that we can include ourselves where they have worked so hard to exclude us.”

Hartwell points out that the house was built in 1820 when slavery was still legal in many states in America. While the Commonwealth moved to abolish slavery in 1783, the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1865, and the last enslaved people in Texas did not learn they were free until June 19, 1865, a date celebrated as Juneteenth.

“There are rooms in this home I would not have been able to step into [many years ago],” Hartwell said in the trailer for the series. “How beautiful that we get to wake up this space. That’s life to me.”

Home renovation, however,, takes a lot of time, money, and effort, especially when it comes to a 200-plus-year-old home in a dilapidated state, which Hartwell learns first-hand over the course of the six-episode series.

The Berkshire Edge spoke to series Design Producer and Construction Manager Heidi Richter, along with local contractor John O’Brien from the company Berkshire Elegance, about the series and renovating the house.

O’Brien said that he has worked as a contractor for many years, but the renovation of the Castle Hill house was the toughest project he has ever worked on. “It’s not my job to judge what a client wants to do,” O’Brien said. “Anything can be renovated, repaired, and refilled. My job is to get as much information as possible and bring it to my chief, who is the client, and tell them, ‘This is the things that we know; these are the things that we don’t know.’ Robert is the captain of the boat, and I’m just kind of steering it, so to speak, with his direction.”

As O’Brien said, part of his job was to break some of the bad news about the house to Hartwell and explain what was needed to rectify its problems. “When you walked into this home, there was not a single functional pipe, bathroom, or any kind of plumbing,” O’Brien said. “There was no heating system. There was electricity in the house, but the way it operated was super shady. My electrician told me, ‘Listen, don’t plug in that table saw! You’re going to burn the whole neighborhood down if you do!’ You had active leaks in multiple areas of the house coming in. You had some windows that were smashed from some vagrant activities and were all boarded up.”

O’Brien said that, while the house has been standing for over 200 years, “she’s got some scars because she hasn’t been cared for.” “She had some strong bones and beams, but it was bad,” O’Brien said. “You had animals in the attic, both live and dead. Everything you could imagine if you had let a home sit for too long.”

Despite all of the problems, Hartwell, O’Brien, Richter, and the others who worked on the house and the series decided to push forward. “Robert was very much in love with this house,” O’Brien said. “It has history and there’s a reason why so many people were drawn to this house.”

“So many walked away from this house because of what they saw,” Richter said. “But we all saw and anticipated what this house could be. When you watch this series, you have to remember that Robert has never owned a house before in his life. He’s from New York City, and he’s a Broadway star.”

The whole process to renovate and fix up the house took over three-and-a-half years, longer than any project O’Brien or Richter had ever worked on. “Usually, one of my projects lasts anywhere from eight to 12 months, and 14 months would be pushing it,” O’Brien said.

“Normally, I would work on multiple television productions at a time, but I had to dedicate myself 100 percent to this one,” Richter said. “It was just so big and had so many complications. Robert didn’t know what he wanted at the start, and we would have to change things around. Sometimes he would change his mind part way through.”

Richter added that she has worked on renovation-based television shows for 25 years. “What I’ve learned is that you have to learn to roll with the punches, then you have to be a problem solver,” Richter said. “You have to be a problem solver and anticipate the problems. I think my 25 years’ worth of experience in renovation television all culminated into this one show.”

Richter said that the main theme of the show is perseverance. “There were times that Robert wanted to give up, but he kept pushing forward,” Richter said. “We all went above and beyond to do this. I think part of it is that we all love that old house. It’s beautiful and it deserved to be restored.”

Broadway star Robert Hartwell in front of his renovated house.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Hall Productions Inc.

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