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.

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4 Responses to “How not to destroy a kitchen”

  1. ribshots October 23, 2012 at 1:22 am #

    Please read this in the voice of “King of All Blacks” – “What kinda faucets you got in there ..?
    When’s the next Posole party so we can come see it? The pix look great!

  2. nobodywalksinlongbeach October 24, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Thanks. Went a little nuts with the wide angle lens for the iPhone. Need to take some proper pics. Got camera?

    And we got Moen.

  3. ribshots November 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    Sorry – I just saw this reply. Do you want to borrow a camera or want me to shoot your kitchen? Happy to do either. Let me know.

    King of all Blacks would approve of the Moens.

  4. nobodywalksinlongbeach November 9, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    Could you shoot my kitchen? I can pay you in bourbon, wine beer or pozole.

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