Ural Motorcycles: Tale of the three-wheeled Russian

1 Sep
Ural Motorcycles Expands U.S. dealer efforts, marketing push
By Dennis Johnson
REDMOND, Wash. – Ural Motorcycles is one of the more improbable stories in the powersports world.

Here you have a Soviet-era sidecar motorcycle company manufacturing bikes in a sprawling factory at the base of the Ural Mountains in Irbit, Siberia. It’s a motorcycle born in the vacuum of Communism and designed for the rugged roads of Russia — places where draft animals fear to tread.

To build a Ural, components must be procured and shipped to the remote factory in Irbit from suppliers on the other side of the globe. Most other parts are manufactured in-house, everything from spokes to fenders to engines, even the wheel weights for balancing the spoked wheels. The manufacturing process hasn’t been updated in decades, nor has the machinery used, and the factory itself takes up a small sliver of a massive, once self-sufficient facility that occupies about 450 acres.

The bikes are then shipped to Germany, where they are sent by boat to New Jersey and then hauled via truck or rail to the company’s U.S. headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The whole grassroots operation is run by a married pair of Russian expats and their skeleton crew of employees who oversee everything from engineering upgrades and homologation to spare parts supply and distribution.

Listenting to owner Ilya Khait tell his company’s story, a person gets the sense that the once-state-run-company-turned-niche-bike-brand exists in spite of itself. And it’s looking to grow.

Khait and wife Madina Merzhoeva have launched an effort to expand the company’s U.S. network of 65 dealers and increase its audience beyond the diehard gear geeks who’ve always been drawn to the rugged bikes. They are touting Ural’s uniqueness as a big dealer draw, a new way to pull in new customers. There’s also the company’s unique cash-only, no flooring model.

“We believe that in our particular case, traditional flooring model creates more risks than advantages,” Khait explained. “In paying for the bikes with their own money, dealers behave more responsibly as far as inventory planning, less inclined to discounting.” The company has also upgraded its spare parts supply and management.

Then they are reinventing the Ural brand by shedding history for a coat of Cordura. In other words, they’re dropping the long-held World War II and Soviet imagery in favor of a flavor that more closely jibes with the brand’s hardcore and newbie enthusiasts striking out for adventure on a machine reportedly built to beat holy hell out of the road and keep on going.

Off-road is not Ural’s only home, the company said, adding that the sidecar bike has a growing fan base of urban riders who view the extra space as a practical alternative to an auto. And then there are those who just want something different.

“The goal for next year will be no more than 25 dealers … and it’s going pretty well,” Madina said. “We get a lot of multiline stores, and I think that after the recession a lot of dealers started to realize it’s good to have a variety and it’s worthwhile to have a specialty product. It doesn’t compete with any other lines. We hope to bring new customers into Urals. I think for dealers it would be advantageous to have a different slice of customers and a different slice of audience to be brought into the store.”

To meet the challenge, Ural has hired a full-time dealer development director and a dedicated marketing person — work previously done in-house. The team has revamped its website and started the branding transformation. Ural has even secured retail financing through Freedom Road Financial, a first in the company’s history. Ural has signed up almost 40 new dealers in the last two years and began the push to reach newer audiences with unique marketing initiatives, a strong social media push and a new website.

PIVOTAL POINT. The company finds itself at a pivotal point in its storied history. To grow, there are obstacles to overcome. But how do you rebrand a company without losing the core? What’s the best way to change old opinions or subvert a product’s stereotype? How do you update a 70-year-old manufacturing process with little cashflow and few staff? And, chiefly, how do you market a singular product to multiple buyer groups?

But that’s getting ahead of things. Before any of that, some more background is in order.

Talking to Madina and Ilya, there’s no mistaking that they’re Russian. In fact, an interview earlier this year over a table piled high with steaming seafood went a little something like this: We’d ask a question of Ilya, he’d contemplate for a minute and then answer to Madina in Russan, who in turn, would give the answer in English. (After a couple initial rounds of this — and an oyster shooter or two — this circular conversation seemed like the most natural setup in the world.)

After hearing the almost unbelievable description of the Soviet-flavored logistics that go into manufacturing a Ural sidecar motorcycle, we asked Khait why he continued to do so. The answer was quite simple, he said. How could he not? There was so much history wrapped into this brand, in this hulking beast of a metal motorcycle, that to let that glory fade would be wrong. Plus, there’s a legion of Ural-heads out there and the promise of more on the horizon, he noted.

Since taking over the brand from the previous importer and distributor back in 2002, Ilya and Madina have been running a full-frontal, grassroots attack at keeping it going. Largely the same motorcycle that rolled off the assembly line in February 1942, the Ural’s undergone a complete transformation under their guidance.

First they had to recertify the bikes to meet U.S. homologation rules. Then came upgrades, many of which from customer suggestions. Other changes were needed to drag the bikes into the 21st century: Brembo brakes. Ducati ignition. Domino controls. Aluminum rims. A transmission overhaul. And then there’s the Denso alternator. Seems the OE alternator on the Ural had a bad habit of destroying engines. So one customer figured out how to adapt a Denso alternator (like you might find in a Toyota) to work on the motorcycle.

“He said, here guys, here’s a solution” Madina explained. “We took his solution to the factory and made it work on the production line. We implemented Densos, and they don’t destroy the engine now.” That prototype adaptation built by the customer sits on a shelf in Ilya’s office.

Building and establishing the brand became a labor of love. They listened closely, via Web forums and groups, to the Ural’s first fans. These were the history buffs, the techie gearheads, the engineers — people who could do stuff with their hands, because the early bikes required a lot of hand work, Madina noted. Ural was one of the first OEMs to have an active online community, probably since the late ’90s, she added.

She and Ilya would find themselves at three in the morning answering forum posts from a guy with a Ural that’s broken down in the middle of nowhere. This feedback was hugely important and likely one of the reasons Ural has survived. Recognizing that the Western market was the future of this Eastern bike, the factory started implementing more of the upgrades demanded by foreign buyers by making quality key.

The huge volumes of the Soviet era were long gone, as was the reality of operating in a factory that at one time had about 1.3 million sq. ft. of manufacturing buildings, including a 360,000 sq. ft. building that housed welding, painting and main assembly operations. The self-sufficient setup also had its own heat generating plant, railway station and depot, fire station and tooling shop. The factory even owned a stadium, a cinema, hospitals, greenhouses and even a pig farm.

Today Ilya is part owner of the IMZ Ural Group, which owns Irbit MotorWorks of America, Ural’s North American distribution arm. He runs Ural during the day and the factory at night via Skype, and travels to Irbit once a month or so. Madina serves as vice president of sales and marketing for IMWA, and takes over the company reins while Ilya is in Russia.

This origin story, the early personal connection with customers, the constant product feedback, the bootstraps building of a motorcycle brand had a huge influence on the current culture of the company. There’s still an unpretentious feel that extends from the physical product — metal, exposed parts, cables, and chunky, mechanical angles — through to its management. “The straightforwardness of the bike kind of translates into every aspect of how we do things, how we talk with customers and our dealers,” Madina said. “We’re not super sophisticated like other OEMs. … We talk. We yell at each other some times, but we still end up working together.”

CALLING YOUR BIKE ‘SVETLANA.’ Many dealers were inherited from the previous distributor. Others have come onboard since. The retail lineup includes everything multiline shops to standalone service centers.

“Ural is very different from any other motorcycle out there because it’s metal. It’s Russian steel. It’s not a perfect bike. It’s not ideal. It’s not a Toyota or a Honda Goldwing, but it’s got character,” Madina said. This is a bike that gets Russian names like Svetlana and Katarina from its owners. A sidecar bike alone comes with its own personality, and one built in a Soviet-era factory Siberia should carry its own biography, but the Ural practically screams with individualism.

“You can fix it. You can touch. You can drill a hole in it. You can do whatever you want with it. You can really fix it in the middle of nowhere with a hammer and sickle, as they say,” Madina said. “It’ll take you anywhere, anywhere you want to go. Around the world. Across the country.”

OEMs typically go after different buyer segments by offering a quiver of different bikes. The industry’s modern lineup includes a motorcycle for just about any purpose. Short of painting it a fat metal flake green, installing hydraulics and doing a tuck-and-roll job on the upholstery, the Ural is still just going to be a singular metal sidecar motorcycle.

How do you rebrand a bike that’s practically tattooed with its own history? This is the challenge the company now confronts with a new marketing effort that doesn’t go after any particular buyer with any particular motorcycle. Rather than tell a group of riders that this is the bike they need for XYZ-style riding, Ural is asking its customers to find their own reflection in the product. (With a little help, of course.)

It’s also hard to talk about specs or horsepower or numbers or weight, when none of those are the product’s selling point, said Jon Bekefy, Ural’s director of marketing. The company has retired the Soviet/military theme of the motorcycle and turned toward the then-nascent ADVRider/dual sport market. This is where the two-wheel drive became a strong selling point.

Some of the other options, such as selling its retro or vintage nature, don’t really work, either, as Ural doesn’t have the kind of scratch to compete in these growing segments, Bekefy noted.

“We can’t market it to any one group with alienating the rest of the groups because we don’t have a second bike, a second tool unless we try to market colors and kits,” Bekefy said. “So we market one bike to everybody, create environments for the bike [in advertisements] and let people imagine their place in those environments. We’re talking adventure or escape, which I think can bridge that gap to younger generations.

“You know, we’re not selling track experience or wrenching experience, any of those things that people relate to, just pure escapism,” Bekefy added.

Ural has created partnerships with the adventure travel publication Overland Journal and collaborated with Triple Aught Design, a San Francisco-based company that offers high-end outdoor adventure clothing and equipment, for aFall 2012 Look Book. It also supplied a bike to ICON for a catalog, video and photo shoot and supports custom-bike design house Hammerhead Industries.

The social media push includes a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest — all free forms of marketing. The new website has already resulted in an increase of the amount of time visitors are spending on the site — from less than a minute to now nearly five minutes on average, Bekefy said.

“I’m trying to be really new media about this whole thing and get in front of everyone with exploiting anyone or pandering. I typically put journalists on it when they’re willing to get with the vibe and ride it the way our owners do,” he said. “When I shot the new catalog, I used a lot of urban settings, just to try and play off that Indiana Jones duality of a bow tie and dress shirt from the waist up and dirty khakis and boots from the waist down. Thats the Ural and it’s what I’m trying to show people.”

A new ad campaign is geared toward reaching a younger demographic without taking hipster or vintage route, he explained. It’s an attempt to feature the bike in the kind of timeless, adventuresome environments that call people to the road. The feedback thus far has been supportive — except for the handful of complaints from some old timers and miscellaneous cranks, Bekefy said.

For those Ural fans who fear the company is losing some sort of historical flavor, Bekefy said he knows that the heritage is there, that it can’t be forgotten. But he suggests beyond that Stalin-esque background, the Ural is simply a great functional motorcycle, one that functions just a bit differently than anything else on the market.

“When people talk about losing the spirit or complain about the bike changing, we’re not trying to maintain some sort of 1940s vignette,” he said. “We’re trying to build a motorcycle with a sidecar that’s made of metal.

“We don’t want to obsess with it being an ‘old’ bike. It is what it is. People who buy Urals, when they discover what hey can with one, it’s about functionality, what they want to make out of it.”

DEALER DEVELOPMENT. This marketing push is part of an overall campaign aimed directly at consumers with the idea of creating some pull-through demand for the product at the dealership level. This, in turn, feeds the drive by dealer development director Chuck Schram to sign up more Ural dealers.

One new dealership, Southern California’s San Diego BMW, has been carrying Ural for a little less than a year now, and dealer principal Gary Orr says the whole experience has been a blast. He added the line to his dealership, he said, because no other stores in his area were offering sidecar motorcycles and he wanted to add something to his showroom that was just a bit different.

“The main thing that attracted me is that it’s a sidecar motorcycle and it’s unique and different. There’s also some history that I can appreciate,” Orr said. “Retrofitting sidecars onto BMWs, while you can do it, it’s expensive.”

Orr noted that customers who either purchase a Ural or just come by to look at them really appreciate the bike’s quirky, fun aesthetic. “You can take someone who knows nothing about motorcycles and you can have them enjoying the ride in a short time. People are looking for them for recreation,” he said. “It’s something fun, something different and unique and something they can personalize.”

Dell and Ginger Zehm have been selling Urals since 1994, back before Madina and Ilya took over the brand, out of their St. Croix Harley-Davidson dealership in New Richmond, Wis. Dell Zehm remembers the early bikes as being “terrible” motorcycles that still attracted a devoted following who liked the simple mechanics of a carburetor and a kickstart. “That was the appeal, there were kickstarters and you could work on them yourself,” he said. “The downside is that you had to work on them yourself.”

Zehm said that once the bikes were upgraded, he started selling more of them — about 15 to 20 a year starting in 2006. They’ve been doing similar business every year since and have even sold a handful of bikes to repeat customers.

“It’s kind of a niche. The people usually have a BMW or a Ducati or some kind of imported bike in their history,” he said. “Right now they’re as good as the late ’80s, early ’90s Harley-Davidsons.”

There seem to be big plans coming out of Redmond, Wash., in the lush, green office park where Ural’s new headquarters are located. The dealer push. The new marketing and branding. The efforts at international distribution. There’s even talk about upgrading the machinery and manufacturing process at the factory in Irbit. But that might be a ways off. For now they’ll still be machining the bike’s crankcase through a line of more than 60 machines that are manned by three people, with each machine performing just one operation such as threading the drain hole or boring the space for the camshaft bearing.

“You won’t see this type of process on the modern factories,” Ilya said. “All of these huge machines can be replaced by a just one CNC machining center, operated by one person. This is something we’re working on right now.”

So onto the larger stage goes the motorcycle developed in isolation from the rest of world, a bike now loved by many for its quirks and oddities. Behind it are Ilya and Madina, running a company that seems to exist far outside the powersports industry norm. And it seems to be working for them.

“We’re weird. We’re different,” said Madina. “We’re Russian.”

Continue reading

Behind the scenes at Progressive Suspension

1 Sep
By Dennis Johnson

At Progressive Suspension’s La Palma, Calif., headquarters — it houses corporate offices, R&D, production capabilities and warehousing — the atmosphere hums with the buzz of business.

It is spring, and Dealernews is getting an inaugural tour of the company’s newly expanded facilities courtesy of marketing director David Zemla. “We’re going into the season, so we’re filling shelves,” Zemla said. We passed rows of warehouse shelving stacked deep and high with products.

The company has its roots in Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. It relocated to the California high desert town of Hesperia for a time before returning to La Palma in 2006. Its recently refurbished HQ — home to its corporate offices, R&D, production and warehousing — is located adjacent sister company Performance Machine. Both are owned by Motorsport Aftermarket Group.

As Zemla leads the way toward a new clean room and assembly area, he explains the company’s lifetime warranty on nearly every shock that retails for more than $500. It’s this warranty on a wearable item that is a strong selling point for Progressive products.v The all-white clean room helps keep contaminants at bay during shock building; impurities can reduce life expectancy and performance of the damper. Custom equipment was installed so that the company could expand applications for its Frequency Sensing Technology, which allows for on-the-fly, dynamic damping control. Watching the building process on a 970 Series piggyback shock, one can see the technical nature of suspension and start to understand what Zemla means when he says Progressive is staffed by a coterie of “overzealous engineers.” Seems there’s a lot more to shocks than springs.

We were getting a peek behind the curtain of one of the more unique aftermarket companies in the industry, a company that builds a high-end, premium-priced, highly technical product that is applicable to multiple vehicle segments, including the V-twin, adventure bike and trike markets. Progressive also specializes in an aspect of riding that’s often viewed as the voodoo science of a vehicle’s operation. It’s not that people don’t get the importance of good suspension, it’s that they often don’t know the what and why behind sag, rebound, preload and squat.

Founders Don Rickard and Jay Tullis launched their suspension business with upgraded twin shocks for the Honda Gold Wing. Tullis was also a desert racer, so the company then added shocks for dirtbikes.

“Early on the founders didn’t see in the aftermarket the kind of suspension products they wanted to see on the motorcycles,” said David Shirley, company president. “Some of [the early work] was service replacement parts — they were filling a need. Then that went more into increasing performance and finding a better spring. It then grew from there.”

As the fledgling company moved into building and designing dampers and springs, the work started getting more technical in nature, Shirley said. As the company moved into new markets and expanded its product line, it made a conscious decision to design and build shocks that would outperform stock. Today, ride quality and performance are the primary considerations of any product Progressive develops, Shirley noted. “If we don’t see the performance at our [required] price point, we won’t do the product. It always needs to be an upgrade in performance, aesthetics and longevity,” he said.

The company has a product development process that often starts with a simple customer request and then winds its way from the drawing board to high desert and mountain test rides. Progressive also test rides new motorcycle models to determine the needs of a particular machine. This aspect of development sometimes leads to new technologies, Zemla said.

The process is an exercise in determining at what price point the shock should be offered, which features it should or shouldn’t have, and whether it meets market demand. It’s also a constant push-pull of making suspension parts that need to be not only technically superior, but also look cool.

The initial development process is almost always technology based and a purely engineering-centric endeavor. The shocks are generally designed from the inside-out. Once the damper is created, the focus turns to aesthetics. “The challenge for us — really any suspension company — is the minimal opportunities on a shock for visual changes to create a unique product,” Zemla said.

It’s definitely a case where form follows function — of all a motorcycle’s moving parts, its suspension takes a licking. It’s up to the R&D process to make sure it keeps on ticking. As part of the testing process, suspension components are subjected to a barrage of tests designed to find their breaking points. This fatiguing of shocks happens both on-road and through testing on Roehrig shock dynamometers, the same equipment used in NASCAR. Every damper the company builds gets dyno tested, but it’s the on-road portion that’s of particular note.

“Progressive North” in Hesperia still handles application work such as fitment and measuring, computer modeling, dyno cycling, and road testing for both on- and off-road suspension applications. The high desert offers plenty of trails and access to twisties and elevations in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains where much of the pavement is beat up to suspension testing perfection.

“Product development for us is a combination of lab testing and real live on-road work,” Zemla noted. “Having the opportunity to ride the same roads for decades keeps the data collection very consistent from bike to bike.”

The La Palma HQ houses the main R&D room. Two motorcycle lifts take center stage. In the corner is one of the shock dynos and related test equipment. Parked near a metal roll-up door is a fleet of test bikes. Sitting astride one of the lifts is a secret Sportster project featuring products that merely mentioning them in this space could put one on a certain watchlist. It’s out of this room that much of the local test riding happens. One of the current bikes is a “Sons of Anarchy”-style Harley-Davidson Dyna, which is sporting a set of the company’s “take-apart” shocks, which are built for easy tear-down and quick retuning so they can get the bike back on the road for testing.

“Every shock is torture-tested beyond what the OEM piece would survive,” Zemla said. “Everything we do has to be superior to the OEM offering.”

The fact that suspension remains one of motorcycling’s black arts presents a particular challenge when it comes to marketing and retail sales. Although moto-journalist David Hough explains in “More Proficient Motorcycling” that any motorcyclist who wants to be serious about riding needs to understand suspension, few are in the general riding public.

Progressive Suspension addresses this dynamic by using social media channels and participating in many online forums. The direct-connection approach allows consumers to learn about the products and get direct technical feedback, which in turn drives more pull-through sales and dealership inquiries. Continue reading

Exhausts and iPhones: What you probably didn’t know about Two Brothers Racing

13 Jun

Two Brothers and Rokform: Exhausts and iPhonesEarlier this year I had the chance to sit down with Two Brothers Racing founder Craig Erion and president Joel Albrecht. The meeting was the result of an encounter with the exhaust company’s erstwhile marketing guy.  The guy, whose name I can’t remember, turned me on to what turned out to be a little known fact about Two Brothers. While we were talking, the guy pulls out his iPhone to look at a text. I notice the crazy strange cover he has on his phone and ask him about it. Oh, we make those, he says.

With this, I learned about Rokform, a company formed by Erion and Two Brothers CEO, Jeff Whitten, that makes full-on utilitarian (yet stylish) covers and accessories for iPhone, iPad and other smartphones. Some of the product line is made in the same Santa Ana, Calif. facility where Two Brothers makes its exhaust slip-ons and systems. Both — pipes and covers — are designed by Bernhard Leitner.

This is a business model that’s pretty unique to the powersports business. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another aftermarket company that also produces a consumer goods product that’s quite so different from its core product line. The reason for all this, Erion says, is the company was looking to branch out into a product that appeals to a broader audience than the motorcycle market — an itty-bitty tiny percentage of the overall population. Everybody has a smart phone.

Read all about it in this story over at Dealernews.com.

Leatt’s Full Disclosure: Co. gives media behind-the-scenes scoop

19 Mar


Turns out there is a whole mess of misinformation out there about Leatt’s flagship neck brace. Knowing this, the company hosted what Leatt GM and lead marketing man, Phil Davy, called the company’s “full disclosure” tour of its HQ in South Africa. Here’s a story I did for Leatt’s blog and newsletter about the tour that saw eight magazine editors from around the world, representing several different publications, get a behind-the-scenes look at the R&D Leatt puts into its products.

It was a pretty fascinating insight into how Leatt does business, but I don’t suppose it helps to have me tell you this. Read the story and find out for yourself. Apologies for any typos/grammatical errors — I don’t get to give it any final edits before its published.

Tara Llanes is a kick-ass athlete and human being

19 Dec

Tara Llanes rules. Leatt Brace

I had the good fortune of interviewing downhill MTB legend Tara Llanes for the Leatt newsletter and blog. What an amazing freaking story and a really neat person. A little background on Llanes: In 2007 she was paralyzed from the waist down in a horrible MTB accident. She’s since gone on to work to raise money for spinal cord injury research and is the name behind the annual Tara Llanes Classic. She was extremely gracious the dozen or so times I pestered interviewed her for the story. Glad to be able to tell it.

Have a read. This was one of those stories that makes me very happy with my chosen profession.

Anybody know about the Valleymen Motorcycle Club?

21 Nov

Valleymen M.C. sign

A couple years back I picked up this sign at the Long Beach antique swap and have been looking for info about the Valleymen Motorcycle Club ever since.

Valleymen M.C.A Google search turns up some info, such as this page from a 1965 issue of American Motorcycling. The Valleymen M.C. out of Reseda, Calif., are listed as newly chartered AMA club. Another result is from a V-Twin Forum in which someone posts that his parents rode with the Valleymen in the 1960s. Still another is an obituary for Pauline Clarre Jennings, who, along with her husband Dean, rode with the Valleymen until he died in 1988.

I would love to know more about this sign and about the Valleymen. Anybody know anything?

Motorcycle history: badges, tanks and logos

6 Nov

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

The history of the motorcycle business is filled with brands that have come and gone, and then sometimes returned only to go away again. Along with each of those brands is a logo, a design that often reaches the level of high art, while others are more pedestrian. Motorcycle enthusiasts, being the sort of passionate, whacked-out group that they are, make sure that these brands never really disappear.

One of those obsessive gearheads is Virgil Elings, the owner of the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum. His collection is a broad selection of bikes both odd and rare, motorcycles he’s been collecting for more than two decades. Had a chance to visit the museum in early October. Here’s a gallery of tank badges, brand names and logos on the selection of motorcycles — they are rotated out each month — that were filling the space of the former Brooks Brothers store that houses the museum when I visited.

If you’re ever up in Solvang or headed to Santa Ynez wine country, it’s well-worth a visit.

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I know who is getting my vote this year.

26 Oct

Malcolm Smith for preident

How not to destroy a kitchen

20 Oct

Kitchen Remodel

There’s a certain smell, a presence, that permeates a kitchen after 80-plus years.

It seems to seep into the paint, the plaster, the redwood 2x4s — into the very physical space occupied by the room — and is easily released at the slightest physical disturbance.

It’s the smell of living, of dietary habits and food. It’s simmering soup, frying meat, coffee, roast, and baked potatoes. There’s caramelized onions and liver, cocktails and conversation, kids eating breakfast, winter stews, snacks, laughs, and moms yelling about hands that need washed.

Dirty dishes. Lemon soap. Floors scrubbed clean and cigarette smoke.

We may use and occupy the other rooms of the house, but the kitchen is where we do our living. And in an old home, these layers of living cling and build and absorb right up until you take a hammer to a wall and start knocking out plaster.

Puncture the patina and that presence starts oozing out.

From the moment we started what would eventually become a full-blown kitchen remodel, there was the presence of all those years of living that permeated the kitchen of our 1931 Tudor-esque home. I’d done some research a few years ago and found that for many years, our California Heights house had existed as a rental with a revolving roster of tenants. It’s always seemed kinda neat to me that there were so many lives lived in our house, the role it played in the timeline of those tenants’ lives.

Setting out to revamp the kitchen brought all that history to the present and it all started with removing some horrible plastic tile. I’ll never begin to understand the odd changes and tweaks folks make to their homes, and with older homes these “improvements” are like a catalog of What Not to Do. Someone, at some point, decided that the walls of our home’s kitchen would look better covered in crappy, thin plastic tiles that somewhat resembled the classic green ceramic tile on the counter’s backsplash.

There was no thought given to placement, alignment, symmetry or anything else that might go into a tile job. And the best way to install all this lightweight, plastic tile was to use about 50 gallons of thickly caked on mastic. It was during the removal of these plastic tiles that we started giving more thought to keeping the historical integrity of the kitchen.

I’ve been through too many historic homes and witnessed the horrors inflicted on kitchens. Seems these are the rooms that most suffer the pain of decorative fads and handyman projects. The drop ceilings and fluorescent fixtures. The oak-y, home-improvement store cabinets. The collections of rooster-themed knickknacks.

Poor kitchens.

While architecture and history have always been a love, my wife and I didn’t jump into our house with our hearts set on saving things. Our house was affordable and stunning and in a pretty neat area, so we bought it. That’s why. The love of “historical integrity” and “historic neighborhood” came later.

kitchen remodelOnly after living here a while, learning the beauty of thick plaster walls, of mahogany moulding and wooden casement windows, did we start to realize just how special (and a pain in the ass) an old home could be. Luckily most of the integrity of the home had been preserved through years of benign neglect. The Bakelite doorknobs and escutcheon plates were still intact. Lots of paint had to be removed, but all that mahogany moulding was still in great shape.

It became our charge to restore as much of the house to its original state as possible, while being practical about modern living. This is where the kitchen work comes in.

As the project morphed from a weekend task to professional design work, we gave more thought to how we would want our own kitchen, not one dictated by a 70-year-old design. It’s hard to argue historical integrity in the face of a galley kitchen that simply doesn’t work.Yes, the California Cooler is a freaking great feature of a home, but a cabinet that vents from top to bottom isn’t so important in the age of refrigeration. Do away with it and we’d gain counter space and cabinets that weren’t 20 in. deep and 15 in. wide. Honestly, there was stuff on the upper shelves that hadn’t been seen for 9 years.

Kitchen remodelIt went from kitchen to bare studs after a couple failed attempts at DIY wall and tile work. There it sat, the bare-ass kitchen reorganized to allow for the prep of regular meals. But then the itch started, call in the experts, the wife said. So we did. Thank god. I sucked at whatever it was I was trying to do.

That’s where it moved forward, doing away with the California Cooler. Cabinetwise, the first plan was to hang new flush, Shaker-style doors in place of the doors that had been installed on the original cabinets sometime back in the 1960s. But then our contractor, the great Lou Gaudio, consulted with on installing new, paint-grade custom built-ins. So we opted for custom cabinets, a soapstone countertop, new sink, Fisher Paykel dish drawers and tile work. It’d come a long ass way since wanting to trash the crappy plastic tile.

I didn’t so much watch those layers peel way during demo as I did smell them. It went from kitchen odors to ancient grease, to the accumulated layers of a thousand meals prepared for countless people. For about two weeks the house — and kitchen — smelled like history.

It always feels like archeology working on this house, unearthing the covered over or finding the shadow of something no longer there. There are tell-tale signs of past projects all over the house. We once were going to consult with an electrician on having some wall sconces wired into the living room walls. While we were waiting for him, we stood there eyeballing the spots where the new lights would go. Something looked odd about the spots, something with the plaster. It looked like two completely round plaster patches dead in the spots we were going to wire. Yep. There were electrical boxes in the wall, plastered over when a previous owner took out some old sconces. There’s been a lot of that.

Kitchen remodel picsSee that pic to the right? The contractor unearthed that from behind the old California Cooler. It’s an opening through the wall to our driveway. It’s The best we could figure that given its size it was an old ice delivery door or grocery deliver door. Too big to be a milk door.

In an attempt to rebuild something that matched the flavor of the home, we went with simple cabinets with Shaker-style doors and surface mounted hinges. White Subway tile with oyster gray grout would cover the backsplash and the entire wall behind the range, offering a somewhat institutional look.

So why soapstone? Interesting. Originally we wanted a tile countertop, but tile’s just not practical. So, how to match Old Skool without tile or shitty marble? Even butcher block was an option, but not tile. Our contractor extolled the virtues of soapstone and we bit. No regrets. I like that I can take oven-hot pots and place them right on the counter. The original pine flooring was kept as was the small mirror above the sink, the only original piece left after construction.

kitchen remodelThere are a few schools of thought on owning an old home. One is to upgrade the crap out of it, draining and squeezing out of it every simple last bit of history and style. Another is to meticulously restore every nook and cranny until it is period specific right down to the owner’s wool, herringbone jacket. Still another is to leave everything alone in a calm state of benign neglect. It’s somewhere between these where I dwell.

I want a house with a sense of history, that holds its past aloft, not hostage. I want to hear the echoes of past residents, but not their ghosts, in the sense of knowing that another person, in another, stood in that same spot by the range hundreds of times tasting a few bits of dinner. It’s that presence that gives a home depth, I feel.

details kitchen remodelWhen we decided to call in the experts, we searched around California Heights, our historic neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., and got hooked up with Lou, our contractor. He was the perfect person for the job. We’d seen some of his work around the ‘hood on the annual historic home tours and knew it was clean and period specific. What we found out was even better. Lou is obsessive over details, the kind of details that really helped our kitchen come together. He helped us vet everything from hinge details and faucets to tile liners and paint colors.

Even more, he listened to me when I told him how I use the kitchen and what we expected out of the space. During the process, we decided to get an estimate from another contractor just as a benchmark. The guy who showed up proceeded to TELL US what we wanted, what we should be getting, and how horrible most other contractors are. He barely listened to any of our input. Not exactly what we were looking for.

kitchen remodelWhat we ended up with looks as if it could be the original kitchen from back in 1931. It’s functional and bright (the under counter LED light strips are insane!), has tons of storage space, much more counter space and feels more open than a narrow galley kitchen should feel. It’s retro-modern, to steal a phrase from the motorcycle world.

Sometimes I just stand there in the kitchen, looking around, thinking that someday someone is likely going to be doing the same thing. Only, will they be thinking about those who came before or will they be planning to tear out all our handiwork to put their own touch on their home.

If they do, for god’s sake I hope they have good taste. Our presence will be watching them.

Past Stuff: Morning on the Hermosa Beach Pier

11 Oct

The sun replaces the moon as the city awakens

By: Dennis Johnson, Daily Breeze staff writer

6 a.m., Hermosa Beach Pier.

A semi-solid moon still hangs high in the sky. The deck, railing and seating of the pier are dewy-damp with condensed fog. The air is chilled crisp with autumn.

Lee Boll is out for his morning walk, a little exercise and a brief communion with God.

This is Boll’s time for meditation, the silence of morning easing the gregarious Hermosa Beach man into a rapport with his Higher Power. He laughs easily as he praises the earliness of the day.

It’s a good routine and he says he’s losing weight. He thinks it’s the diet and the walking.

“I’m 53 and handsome, but that’s obvious. I’m a master of the obvious,” he says before slipping down the pier’s slope toward The Strand.

To the east, the rosy-gray light of dawn is welling up and over the solid roofline of buildings that demark the horizon, turning the city’s thick pile of housing into a silhouette.

In nearby Redondo Beach, lazy columns of steam rise from the AES Plant’s towering smokestacks, dissipating into nothingness as they gain altitude. To the north, Manhattan Beach is bathed Continue reading

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