My Kind of Job

Garden on Blackstone Ave May 2014

I recently returned from a visit out of state to finish up some kitchen cabinetry. Spring had just sprung, and the neighborhood gardens were a soul-stirring riot of blooms.

My customers, a pair of Egyptologists, had recently bought a flat in a 1915 apartment building. Luckily for them, the flat retains many of its original architectural detail–not just its windows, doors, and trim, but also features such as a barrel-vaulted ceiling in the dining room

Barrel vaulted ceiling

and stained glass windows in the sunroom.

Stained glass

The kitchen has been spared the usual  sort of “improvements” wrought upon such spaces–the removal of walls to enlarge the room, the replacement of original hard maple floorboards with something purportedly more durable…in short, the transformation of an historically simple workroom into a lavishly appointed, grandiose showpiece. Instead, this kitchen retained its swinging door between dining room and kitchen, along with a spacious pantry illuminated by an exterior window. Completing this kitchencentric suite are the original servant’s room and a compact bath featuring a tiny clawfoot tub.

Another original feature is a pair of floor-to-ceiling cabinets flanking the doorway to the dining room, which proved an excellent resource for planning the new cabinetry.

***

Based on this lovely description you may be forgiven for imagining that my customers were met with a fully intact original kitchen. Instead, they found this:

IMG_0115

Melamine-coated particleboard cabinets. The realtor is sitting on a strip of butcher block counter that someone cut at an awkward angle in an effort to conceal the original steam radiator.

and this:

IMG_0116

The modern cabinets, less than 30 years old, were falling apart. The original cabinet, which is 99 years old, has experienced some movement that affects the fit of the door but is structurally sound and in good working condition.

In other words, the kitchen had been cheaply modernized in at least two stages: one most likely dating to the 1940s, the other to the late 1980s.

***

The discussion of this job has been as intense and protracted as any I have ever experienced–not surprising, given that one of the customers is an archeologist who reads about a dozen languages, from Dutch to Chinese, is currently augmenting her linguistic repertoire by taking classes in Georgian and Armenian, and spends her summers meticulously sifting through the soil on days when temps reach well into three digits. What most old-house pros call a tune-up of old cabinetry, this homeowner calls an unbearable defilement of original fabric. To have a customer who genuinely appreciates the misalignment of a surface-mounted cabinet latch due to nearly a century of structural movement in her home is a beautiful thing.

If you look closely at the image concluding this post you will see numerous details that would have many homeowners, let alone kitchen designers and contractors, shrieking in horror. Trust me; I provided many a single-spaced page of pros and cons, to which my customers gave the kind of rigorous consideration you might expect from people who spend their lives examining ancient papyrus and piecing together shards of sixteenth-century celadon pots.  No detail–and I do mean not a single one–has escaped scrutiny. Again, this is a truly beautiful thing.

***

For example, you may not consider solid wood counters practical, but having weighed all of the options, and given the way these customers use their kitchen–and use it they will; these are real cooks–solid counters made the cut.

The nine-foot mahogany counter in clamps

Nine-foot mahogany counter in clamps

Before you dismiss solid mahogany as impractical in a kitchen, and especially around a sink, consider that many of the exterior entrance doors and sidelights of apartment buildings in the area where this kitchen is located are made from just this material. Do they require occasional maintenance? You bet. But if solid mahogany can withstand prolonged contact with piled-up snow, wind-driven rain, and summer’s beating sunshine, I’m confident that it will fare perfectly well in the hands of respectful homeowners.

1980s tile begone!

Duncan Campbell, retired director of the graduate program in historic preservation at Ball State University, was my helper in the first part of the installation. Here he is after having removed the modern tile from the walls on our first day.

Duncan repairs the wall

Duncan repairs the wall

Not surprisingly, the floors, walls, and ceiling–even though most have had their original plaster covered with drywall–were far from flat or plumb. I had to scribe each section of crown molding, which I patterned after the original cabinets’ example, to conform to its adjacent surfaces.

Look closely. The shop-made crown molding has been painstakingly scribed to conform to the undulating ceiling. The same painstaking treatment was applied to all elements that

Look closely. The shop-made crown molding has been painstakingly scribed to conform to the undulating ceiling. The same painstaking treatment was applied to all elements that meet the walls, floor, and ceiling.

Crown molding part 2

Another bit of scribery, this one even more dramatic

When complete, the kitchen will have a salvaged sink and a restored Wedgewood stove, a backsplash of celadon subway tile, and a wild fridge. In the meantime, here’s how it looks:

I know.... It looks so simple. And it is. But getting to such simplicity is a challenge, and

It looks so simple. But doing “simple” well, especially in an historic context characterized by radically irregular surfaces, takes far more skill than hiding gaps behind fancy moldings and other trim.

4 responses to “My Kind of Job

  1. Nancy, Just your latest post about the kitchen rehab. It’s great to see that you are working again! I haven’t tried to e-mail you recently because I didn’t want to bother you. How have you been and other then the kitchen, what have you been up to? I hope Mark is doing well. My two days with Alan Lacer was great. He and his wife (also a wood turner) are wonderful people. We went out to dinner the first night, and I found them both delightful. I haven’t done much downstairs lately, trying to do stuff outside. Well, I have to go, write when you can.

    Best regards, Jim and Peg

  2. Can’t wait to see the finished kitchen. The scribing is incredible, Nancy. What a transformation and graphically described. Do you get an honorary degree with payment on completion?

  3. Wow! What a beautiful job!

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