Giving Modern Life to An Old KitchenPublished 3:50pm Monday, August 12, 2013
Our 1880s kitchen has remained the same for over a century. The modern appliances of the world rarely made a landing in this two and one half story Victorian. Stoves came and went, a refrigerator replaced the icebox and the wood countertops had linoleum applied to them, but beyond the occasional fresh coat of paint, nothing else changed. Because of the low, shallow countertops that featured in period kitchens like this, there has never been a dishwasher. No garbage disposal, no stove vents. The refrigerator stuck out halfway into the room and competed for floor area with a small table that was used for more workspace. After living here for over 20 years I knew I had to remodel the kitchen. With my interior design background and remodeling experience I knew how it needed to be done.
I have always looked through a historic preservation lens when remodeling this house. I never felt too guilty about making gentle improvements, as I knew from old floor plans that the original owner, my great, great grandmother Lemyra Wright was making changes all the time. In fact my kitchen and butler’s pantry was originally her master bedroom and bathroom. So I sat down and made peace with myself for the terrible thing I was about to do. I would remove an outdated and nonfunctioning room, the beautiful butler’s pantry, to expand the small kitchen. I cried over it but I had made the decision. I will retain the other things I love, the extra tall cupboards with the old wavy glass and the sweet breakfast nook. And if done right, I will gain so much more. I would gain a parquet floor (that I knew was under the layers of linoleum and vinyl), lowered windows that offered a better view, a French door out to the patio, a hefty farmhouse sink, new soapstone countertops and a recessed refrigerator.
We found a contractor that could put up the beam to replace the retaining wall. He also lowered one window so it was at the same level as the breakfast nook one and put in a door in place of the other window. We did the removal of the cupboards and all the demolition. Cathy, a retired shop teacher, was the only one that told me my precious cupboards could be saved. Most of the contractors and carpenters that I encountered were more interested in building new, as it is easier. As a person who is deeply interested in historic places, I knew no matter how much you try to replicate something there would always be telltale signs that it is not original. I am a big advocate of reusing and repurposing and keeping my cupboards was a deal breaker. Cathy helped me peel away layer after layer of the elaborate wood trim. The barebones of the cupboards were attached basically with a few screws and a couple of nails. Easy enough to remove if you are patient and are willing to find the key sticking point.
After the beam went up, all the re-plumbing and wiring was done, I started to peel off the layers of vinyl and linoleum off of the floor. I figured out that scrubbing with vinegar water melted the adhesive right off. My dear friend Abby came over and helped with that and several other odds and ends like taping and mudding the walls. She even let her husband Terry help with the stove vent and island. Cathy cut some flooring strips from old oak table leaves and installed those. After the floor was sanded, stained, and sealed, I started piecing the kitchen back together. Every drawer, cabinet and cupboard was carefully considered for placement in the final design. All the cupboards were originally custom built in place and so no two were alike. It was quite the puzzle, but the kind that I enjoy. About half of the sections went back to their beginning spots but may have been shortened or lengthened by me in some way. All were stripped and repainted. The wood countertops in the pantry were refurbished for new life over the old sink cabinet. Reclaimed oak from gym locker room benches was used to create the new addition, an island.
In the end the kitchen looks like it has always been here but more deliberately planned for modern life, which is what I intended. We have all our cupboards, with original hinges and knobs, and any left over doors are being refit to use in the back pantry. We have this fabulous original parquet floor and retained all the original lighting. Our breakfast nook is still here and in better condition. We have a beautiful oak island with a hidden dishwasher, apron front sink and hidden trash/recycling containers. The icebox is outfitted as a refrigerator and we entertain ourselves by asking guests to “Find the frig”. All this beauty was already here, just hidden. And the only crying I do is in joy over this great treasure and the great friends I have that helped make it happen.
article & photos by Jona Brown