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
and stained glass windows in the sunroom.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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: