Restoring History can help with historic kitchen and bathrooms

Historic preservation consulting is a multifaceted area. There are professionals who specialize in nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, historic tax credits, research of historical records, and policy administration relevant to historic properties. There are also preservation consultants who specialize in traditional building crafts, architectural plans and drawings, historic landscapes, period lighting, plumbing, tile, paint colors, wallpapers, and other specializations. All of these professionals offer a wide range of services to those wishing to restore a historic house or building.

Two areas that are often overlooked, even by those in the business of restoration, are kitchens and bathrooms.

For a long time, the attitude toward kitchens and bathrooms has been that those two areas don’t matter. The practice of restoring the exterior of a building and majority of the interior rooms such as the parlor, entry hall, dining room, and bedrooms has been a generally accepted approach to bringing back historic buildings to their previous glory.

This practice leaves kitchens and bathrooms as rooms that don’t seem to matter in a historic home. Often, these rooms get remodeled with each change of ownership and are remodeled according to whatever is in vogue at the moment. These serial remodels are not at all “green” as they put untold amounts of building waste into the waste stream, and are non-contributing to the historic context of the home. These contemporary kitchens in vintage homes become quickly dated but are not historic, leading to yet another expensive and unnecessary remodel. Around and around the serial remodeling goes … it is not unheard of for a kitchen or bathroom to go through two or more major remodels in a span of just five to eight years, depending on how often the house changes ownership. And, with kitchen remodels often costing over $100,000 and bathrooms often ranging $30,000 to $50,000, it is big business for remodelers.

Restoring History LLC is a preservation and restoration consulting business with a focus on historic kitchens and bathrooms. Our focus is expressed through the education of building owners, contractors, and anyone else who is open to learning about historic kitchens and bathrooms.

It is hoped that those who engage with Restoring History will come away with a better understanding of historic homes. Often through that new understanding, people transform from the orientation from ownership to stewardship.

Ultimately, there is much more of a feeling of fulfillment to be found in the stewardship of an irreplaceable resource rather than merely considering it a possession.

Each project is unique and comes with its own challenges. Some clients have original kitchens (or bathrooms) that are intact but worn. The kitchen may or may not have modern amenities such as a dishwasher, or adequate storage space, or required work areas. Restoring History assists people with solving problems while retaining the surviving historic fabric. It may be possible to find a creative approach to installing a dishwasher into a shallow set of 1920s cabinetry and completely hide it so that it blends with the surrounding cabinetry. The challenge might be to invisibly integrate a modern refrigerator unit into a historic kitchen. This goal can also be achieved.

There are situations where the historic kitchen was lost to serial remodels, and the existing kitchen looks like a space ship has just landed in an old house. The homeowner and guests can experience cognitive dissonance, a sense of visual unease and lack of harmony, when entering such a kitchen or bathroom in an otherwise historic home. Since there is no surviving historic fabric in these cases, the answer is to design an appropriate period kitchen that looks like it has always been there but just happens to have all the desired amenities.

When a totally new kitchen needs to be designed, it is imperative to understand all the nuances of the period in order for it to “read” correctly. The subtleties of moldings, proportions, layout, finishes, plumbing fixtures, tile, appliances, lighting, possibly wallpaper, and hardware, must all be taken into account and made to be of the period being interpreted. There can be many choices within a stated period, but one needs to avoid mixing different periods based on personal taste. The gestalt of the room is more important than that of individual items in it. Restoring History has a large library of period books and other materials focused on kitchens and bathrooms to research and use as guides. These period resources are helpful in identifying options for the target period.

Restoring History also makes extensive use of salvage materials. Each project is unique and needs different elements. Salvage material helps achieve that period feel. At times reproduction elements are also employed, but only after first seeking period pieces.

Another element that makes these projects succeed is our partnership with other craftspeople who understand period design and elements. We network with highly skilled craftspeople and bring them into a project when their talents are needed. We all work together as a team with the goal of creating a beautiful, functional kitchen or bathroom that is also reflective of a given historic period. The kitchen or bathroom then fits seamlessly with the rest of the house but has the secret of containing all the modern amenities.

Commonly asked questions:

“What periods do you cover?”
We cover everything from the late Victorian to the Mid-Century Modern periods. The Victorian Era can be fairly challenging, in that the kitchens were what we refer to as “unfitted.” They generally contained kitchen furniture rather than built-in continuous cabinetry. But Restoring History has been able to solve such challenges. And not all kitchens necessarily have to be the same age as the home they are located in. Some early houses still have their first “site-built” kitchens. Those are the kitchens that were built in to replace the “unfitted” kitchen. They were often built during the decades between the 1920s and 1940s. So it is not unusual to have a Victorian or Craftsman home that has a 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s kitchen in it. Kitchens are considered historic once they have existed for 50 years or more. So even 1950s kitchens are now considered historic and should be given due respect.

“Can I cook with a vintage stove?”
I generally recommend gas stoves, as they are easier to restore than electric stoves. However, if there is a specific electric stove, or a client that needs an electric stove, it is possible to have it restored. Vintage stoves often have a standing pilot light, or have an oven that needs to be lit with a match. For some clients that is not a problem. For others, it is necessary to have the stove retrofitted with electric ignitions and other safety features that may not have been available when the stove was created. Some of the very early stoves were gas/wood combinations. They can be retrofitted so that the wood ovens become electric with a gas cook top.

Most people love vintage stoves once they use them. But the stove must fit the needs of the client. There are also reproduction stoves that provide the basic look, but are contemporary in function. Clients have many choices that match their priorities and lifestyles.

“My old kitchen is small. Should I take out walls to make it larger?”
I generally discourage making dramatic changes to the footprint of a kitchen. While I know that people consider the kitchen to be the new “living room” of the house, removing walls to achieve that “living room” in the kitchen is destructive to the historic integrity of the home. There may be other creative ways to address this issue, but irreversible alteration of the historic character of the building is not historic preservation. If it is important to have a kitchen that also functions as a large entertainment space, perhaps finding another home that was designed with those elements might be recommended. Destroying historic fabric to make a historic building be something it was never meant to be is strongly discouraged.

“What kind of counters should I have?”
The answer to this question can be challenging, as many homeowners are not accustomed to traditional counter top materials. What is generally seen in showrooms and marketing material is stone, stone, stone. But, traditionally, stone was rare in historic kitchens, and when found was generally an east-coast phenomenon.

The type of counter top material that is recommended is determined by the period. The Victorian Era often had kitchen furniture with a few built-in “dressers” for holding dishes and with wooden work areas. Starting with the “Sanitary Period” of the late 19th century, tile was considered far superior to wood as it was not porous and held up better around the sink and stove areas. Sometimes these tile counter tops would have a marble drop-in for working pastry dough. Tile was a very common counter top material used in the 1920s. But Monel (an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc) was also used on occasion.

Moving into the 1930s, tile was still very common. Tile was still common in the 1940s, but people also used inexpensive materials such as linoleum. Formica was becoming increasingly common toward the mid-century. And by the 1950s, stainless steel had replaced Monel as the metal counter top of choice; thus stainless steel would be period appropriate for a Mid-Century Modern. The issue of counter top material can be complex, as the expectations of the homeowner and the limitations of what was available during a specific period can sometimes conflict. We try to find the balance that will work to reflect both the desired period and the needs of the homeowner.

“Where can I find period elements for my project?”
Restoring History has salvage connections both locally and across the nation. When an item such as a specific sink, hardware, lighting, cabinetry, or appliance is needed, we can locate the pieces and parts needed to provide important period details that will truly make the difference.

Restoring History is passionate about restoring or re-creating period kitchens and baths. Even if a historic home lost its original kitchen or bath long ago, it can be brought back. And a period kitchen or bath is one that, with the right details, never needs to be remodeled again. The kitchen and bath can once again be “Period Perfect” and in harmony with the home.

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