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Crafting Historically Sensitive Kitchens
Professional Insights on New Kitchen Work in Historic Buildings
Old House Journal

by Anthony Lefeber

The modern kitchen is the product of an impressive design evolution. Instead of preparing meals with a black iron kettle over an open fire, a six-burner Viking range now stands ready to cook at the turn of a valve. The kitchen space itself, once a service room occupied only by hired staff (or designed family cooks and preparers), is now the primary room in the house for most homeowners and their families. With this transformation, the kitchen has become a focal point of the home and the singular most important and costly room in many renovations.

We will look at ways to get the most out of your new old-house kitchen, from both a homeowner's and contractor's perspective. I will also point out specific areas where I find not enough attention is given in the early, planning stages, and offer tips to make the entire process of creating a kitchen compatible with a historic building more enjoyable.

Develop a Design and Budget
MOST OLD-HOUSE OWNERS HAVE ALREADY begun a written "wish list" of their kitchen priorities. They've listed the practical and aesthetic features that appeal to them in catalogs or in other kitchens, and they've identified what didn't work in their current kitchen. I recommend meetings in the proposed space with the owners, the architect or designer, and the builder to get everyone's input on these ideas.

The goals are to establish a floor plan, basic cabinet elevations (drawings of the vertical face design), and locations for fixtures and appliances. You should also formalize an idea of the types of materials (wood, tile, stone, metal, synthetics) to be used, as well as the fixtures and appliances. Cardboard mock-ups of counter heights and samples of tiles, trim work, and finishes can help put a concept or sketch into three dimensions.

If the kitchen space is already defined - the situation in most old houses then many of the planning issues will be moot. While it is always physically possible to move walls, such changes may be complicated (if the walls are load-bearing) or prohibited (by a co-op board in an apartment building, for example). You may also have to work with the existing service lines. With existing walls, don't assume that electrical, plumbing, gas, and heating connections are anything but live.

Establish a budget early on-nothing does more to expedite the planning and bidding process. A solid budget avoids wasting design time on, say, a $100,000 kitchen when you have only $50,000 to spend. (In addition, it doesn't become the contractor's burden to save money, which invariably happens when budgets are exceeded.) Bear your budget in mind when selecting finishes. Specialized materials or custom designs will have substantial cost implications. Are you willing to pay for marble counters or will stone-pattern Formica do? Custom-cast hardware is not unaffordable, but off-the-shelf designs may be just as good. With appliances, there may be no need to specify an $8,000 Traulsen refrigerator when a $1,500 Amana will satisfy every need. Be realistic about budgets. Whatever the figures, build in an allowance-20% is typical, maybe more on small projects-to cover the changes, upgrades, and unforeseen conditions.

It's In the Details
WHEN OUR COMPANY WORKS ON A PERIOD style kitchen, we custom-build the cabinets, often reproducing details and profiles from existing architectural elements. For example, in two of the kitchens shown here the client wanted to match the original cabinet style and room layout. For these reproduction kitchens we used wood species identical to existing cabinetwork in the butler's pantry (see page 32) or sister kitchens in another building, and copied all the molding profiles.

Look for any characteristic materials, designs, or dimensions when copying kitchen cabinet details, including:

- materials (wood species, cut, etc.)
- construction methods (face-frame cabinets, mortise-and-tenon doors, dovetails)
- panel profiles (for doors and drawers)
- muntin profiles (for glazed doors)
- hardware
- finish (stain and varnish, paint, etc.)

When choosing samples of millwork, look for a piece of molding or cornice that is free from wear and paint buildup. If there is paint, strip it carefully before tracing the profile or sending the sample to an architectural millworks.

There are many modern cabinet materials available that, if used carefully and selectively in conjunction with solid wood, can look the same as traditional frame-and-panel construction. Their advantage is they can reduce the cost of replicating historic details. Even better, they will improve the seasonal stability of parts like doors and panels that tend to warp or split. Plywood and other sheet products coated one side with melamine (a synthetic resin) are ideal for, kitchen cabinet interiors because they create surfaces that are durable and washable.

For example, we used oak- and ash-faced plywood for the backs and sides of the I reproduction kitchen cabinets. When built into frames of solid wood, there is no clue these are not solid boards. In a third kitchen, the client asked for traditional-style cabinets in a completely new space. Since there was no original kitchen to copy, we worked with medium density" fiberboard commonly called "MDF." There is no end-grain in MDF to deal with in panel edges, and the material takes paint better than wood.

Prior to demolition, this kitchen had frameless cabinets and drop ceilings - all the hallmarks of 1970s remodeling. The new quarter sawn oak cabinets copy existing details found in the original 1904 pantry, down to the face-frame construction, glazed doors, and recast hardware.
Original flush drawers and simple, rectilinear door muntins are characteristic of early-20th-century cabinetry. Once carefully restored the cabinets provided all the details for creating the 1904 kitchen.
Decades of moisture had badly stained this original ice-cooled refrigerator. Six coats of spar varnish, plus carefully bleaching the white oak woodwork and re-nickeling all hardware, revived the larder to 1904 conditions. When used for framed flat panels, oak-finished plywood was undectable; obvious, traditional details, such as support brackets, demand solid wood. The new marble was fitted around original wall tile.
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