When we bought our co-op apartment in a historic 1927 building on Madison's near west side, we knew something had to be done with the kitchen. The main issue was that the stove and refrigerator - both relatively new - were far too large for the narrow galley-style layout as it had been designed in the 1920s.
The original kitchen had been updated sometime in the '50s, when the lower cabinets were taken out and replaced by sleek Geneva steel-and-enamel cupboards and drawers. Above, the original wood cabinet bodies had been preserved, but new painted plywood doors replaced the Shaker-style panels. We wanted to bring back the feel of a 1920s kitchen but wondered if that could work with the '50s cabinetry. A second dilemma arose from my attachment to the ease and efficiency of modern appliances.
Luckily our goals and challenges were reconcilable, in large part because we were willing to live with a smaller space than most of today's homeowners prefer.
"Old kitchens were just small," says Denise Clearwood of Pine Clearwood Architects. "We don't start seeing the large kitchen centers we're used to in modern homes until the late '60s and early '70s, when people began to do more casual entertaining and everyone wanted to be in the kitchen."
It's easier, she says, to keep old elements - whether original maple floors, diner-style metal cabinets, period light fixtures or celadon-glazed tiles - when the spaces are more confined. "You want to honor the scale of the house while improving function."
Clearwood recently designed an Arts & Crafts-style kitchen for Derek Aimonetto and Glenn Rowe in their 1920s home on Commonwealth Avenue. In the spirit of houses from that period that typically featured smaller rooms, she and her clients decided to create zones in the new, larger kitchen, giving it the feel of several small spaces rather one large one. They also tapped Ray Shultis of Heartwood Products in Plainfield to build custom Arts & Crafts cabinets inspired by the design of that period.
But how do you know when old features are really worth keeping in your updated kitchen?
"Old kitchens that were not maintained just got old," says Tim Felt of Felt Remodeling. "It's hard to keep cool older features when they've fallen into disrepair."
Felt says that while linoleum has made a real comeback as a green and attractive flooring product, he often ends up starting a kitchen remodel by taking out old linoleum that has been worn down, broken or chipped over time. Often he'll find a good hardwood floor beneath that's worth refinishing. Likewise, it's rare to find the bright-colored, stainless-steel-trimmed laminate countertops from the '50s and '60s still in good enough condition to be rehabbed.
Cast iron and enamel sinks from the 19th and early 20th century can definitely be worth saving, says Felt, who smiles recalling the farmhouse sink with a molded drainboard he was able to save in an Arboretum-area remodel.
Cabinetry, he says, depends on the period. Old, solid wood cabinets from the 1920s and '30s were simply better built - usually on site - using higher-quality wood products and hardware. "You can actually save a lot of money restoring cabinets from this period, moving or repurposing them if necessary for the design."
Denise Clearwood echoes that opinion when asked what design items might be worth saving in kitchens from more recent periods.
"Not much," she laughs. She elaborates by saying that in the 1970s and '80s, kitchen design became much more formulaic, with cabinets mass-produced off site, using oak, cheap veneers and painted particleboard. Formica countertops became the standard, and they mostly don't hold up to hard use over 20 or 30 years. Some '80s homes, she asserts, were designed to create interesting geometric spaces, but because of the cheap finishes used to cut costs in that period, there tend to be few details worth saving.
Brett Allaman of Allaman Carpentry finds that "most people want to get rid of all the old stuff. They may try to design their kitchen with a retro flair, but certainly
not by reusing old materials."
One way that people can do that, Allaman says, is to build the design around a retro detail of the house, or a piece of furniture such as a Hoosier cabinet - the 1940s version of a kitchen center with side board/workspace, storage cupboards and bins for flour and sugar - as one of his recent clients did.
"The owners wanted the feel of a farm kitchen," he says, "with wood finishes and no upper cabinets." But in reality, aside from the Hoosier cabinet, it's all completely new.
Most people prefer what Allaman calls "retro flair" - new components made to look vintage - over rehabbing authentics. And as more customers insist on greener appliances and finish materials, more companies have come to specialize in making new appliances, plumbing fixtures, lighting and hardware that reproduces the look and feel of their antique counterparts. Linoleum flooring and laminate countertops have come back in style with fresh new colors as well as vintage patterns at a cost that often beats granite and stone options.
For our kitchen remodel, we never seriously considered removing those metal cabinets installed in the '50s. For one thing, we sort of liked them. They were also in amazingly good condition, with some scuffs but no chipping or rust spots. Their color - a milky white - was neutral, the doors all latched properly, and with one exception the drawers slid in and out as well as when they were new. Besides, the cost of removing them and building new cabinets would have been absurd.
Once we'd decided to keep the lower cabinets, it made no sense to change out the sleeker '50s-style door replacements on the uppers. We debated switching out the cabinet hardware for something more reminiscent of a '20s kitchen, but as with the plain upper cabinet doors, its simplicity and anonymity of style made the expense seem unnecessary.
So with '50s cabinetry and the energy-efficient appliances I'd coveted (and had the budget for, thanks to our decision not to replace the cabinetry), that left us only the finishing details with which to evoke the spirit of the 1920s in our otherwise modern kitchen. We decided on a black-and-white motif after researching homes from the period. Subway tile was commonly used in kitchens and bathrooms, so we decided on white subway-tile backsplashes, accented with an Art Deco geometric pattern, and black countertops. We kept the original maple floor and painted the walls a shade of sea blue that was used in homes of the period.
The result is a kitchen that feels compatible with the architecture of the apartment without pretending to be an authentic replica of the period, and one that we love working in.
Rehabbing, repurposing and reusing older materials is probably a labor of love more than anything else, notes Tim Felt. He advises those contemplating a rehab of an older kitchen, or even saving the significant features of one, to live in the place a few months before deciding on anything. Talk to several contractors, he says, and pick their brains about what they've worked on before, what they think are the challenges and potential rewards of the project. With some thoughtful planning, you can end up with a new kitchen that honors the beauty and durability of its original design.
Allaman Carpentry, 608-516-5396, email@example.com
Pine Clearwood Architects, 608-833-7446, firstname.lastname@example.org
Felt Remodeling, 608-334-6264, email@example.com