Old House Kitchens Part 1

An Edwardian kitchen

An Edwardian kitchen with custom designed solid oak cabinetry.

Redesigning a kitchen in an old house can be scary. There is no other room in the house where you showcase your restoration philosophy as much as your kitchen. To be fair, no one is prepared to go back to the basic kitchens of the past (no one in my circle of acquaintances anyway).

So what to do?

Some people remove every last trace of the old kitchen and create a new modern kitchen that looks and feels much like what it is: a contemporary kitchen. We have all seen these kitchens. They have no connection to the rest of the house. They scream 2011.

On the other end of the scale are the purists. These are the folks who will revamp, restore, and reuse every single original item in a kitchen. I am always in awe of these people – of the patience they need to have to find exactly the right product and their willingness to spend sometimes large sums of money in making the present go away. This often means hiding contemporary appliances behind expensive custom made woodwork.

In order for a kitchen to look authentic it is important that the layout of the kitchen be original as well – not something most of us appreciate or really want today. Styles in layout go in and out of fashion. Consider that every one wants an island today yet not so long ago a U shaped kitchen was the embodiment of efficiency.

A "Turn of the Century" Kitchen

Most of us have kitchens that are somewhere in the middle. We arrange the room in a way that suits our lifestyle. We use materials that suit old houses and we design our kitchens so that they connect both visually and in feeling with the rest of the house. Those of you who read “This Old House” subscribe to this way of thinking. I enjoy that magazine but occasionally I am saddened by the work that has been done. Having a big open concept kitchen is a what people want today. Anyone who is old enough or knows a bit of history knows that this too will change. The houses that have had their walls removed will never be the same. Perhaps I’m the only one who feels like this….

I have to admit that I am very partial to the kitchen you see in the image ( bottom left). This turn of the century home has been restored completely by the owners. So successful was the result of their project that the house has been used for several movies. The kitchen includes all the features of 21st century living but the way it’s been done makes you feel like you have time travelled more than 100 years into the past. I’d have to say it’s one of the best kitchens I have ever seen in an old house.

What do you think works in an old house kitchen? What do you like to see and what do you hate to see? What have you done with your own kitchen? I’d love to hear from you.

4 responses to “Old House Kitchens Part 1

  1. I frequent a very popular kitchen forum, http://ths.gardenweb.com/forums/kitchbath/, where this very question comes up almost every day. This old video of an efficient kitchen has prompted many, many comments.
    http://www.archive.org/details/StepSavi1949
    Almost all of us have found something in it that we have done/will do in our new kitchens.

    What do I hate to see in an old kitchen? An island, with or without a granite top. An old kitchen should have a table or even two. I don’t want to see an over the range microwave exhaust fan combo! There are some drop dead barrel hoods with an equal price tag! I don’t want to see a microwave sitting on the counter. I chose wood for my cabinets but there are some striking white kitchens there.

    If I had an original old kitchen, I would keep the cabinets. If the cabinet boxes were bad but the doors and facings salvageable, I would use as much of the original as I could and new where I couldn’t. I would consider soapstone counters. I would also stay with the old fashioned faucet, not a high rise restaurant style sprayer. And don’t take walls out! I am not a purest but I would try to keep the “look” as much as possible. Mixers and other modern appliances can be behind doors.

    I would have a vintage look refrigerator and stove. Not real old but something around 1940. I’ve been looking at Big Chill with longing!

    Wood floors. Period. No other discussion.

    This is a subject I could discuss for hours and hours! Aren’t you glad I don’t live next door?

    • Toni – A good post and thanks for sharing your opinions. I am in the process of writing a book on period style in Alberta from the turn of the century to 1940. I have chosen not to include kitchens mostly because i have seen so few kitchens that work really well with old houses.

      To be fair however I understand that no one wants to go back to the past and cook on a wood stove and have an ice box. Hiding appliances behind closet doors is great but it is also extremely expensive. So are appliances that suit the past. A client of mine has purchased a wonderful old style stove (the kind with the side boiler, gas burners in black and chrome). It cost her three times what a modern one does so these are choices a person has to make I guess. It often depends on the pocketbook.

      On the other hand there are choices you can make that don’t cost much more but do help the style of the kitchen. Cabinetry was painted 100 years ago. It was quite plain too but due to its construction it still had some type of panel or it was tongue and groove held together by a crossbar. Even Arts and Crafts kitchens were painted. Paint was the finish of choice because it was easiest to clean and if painted a light colour, it showed when cleaning was required. It’s only today that renovators build massive cabinets in solid oak in kitchens. Kitchens were service areas and as such did not get a lot of respect.

      There are different schools of thought regarding “old” looking fridges. It really depends on how old your home is. If it’s a house that is 1930’s and after then it’s easy. There’s a lot of choice for that era. The challenge is when your home is older. There were no refridgerators period. So having one that matches an old stove may feel good but it’s not authentic. It really is a balancing act.

      It’s the same with wooden floors. Nice hardwood was not used in a kitchen. They used wider boards made of secondary woods that were usually painted. Linoleum had been around since the Victorian era so it is appropriate in most homes. But it must be plain – not patterned to look like tiles or faux wood. Again, having nice hardwood floors in the kitchen says 2011.

      I totally agree with you about islands. What people have to understand is that islands are the style now. In 15 years it will be easy to pick out a kitchen that has been renovated during this period because of the island. It’s no different than us looking with disdain at all the U shaped kitchens that were in style 20 or 30 years ago. When you design to be up to date you will always find yourself being out of date in no time. It happens not only with kitchens but with every aspect of your home decorating.

      Either way I am glad that you are one of those who value an old house for what it is – and not just as something that needs to be saved by interventionist renovations.

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