Martha’s new house: Renewing an outdated kitchen

#498 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 2005, Hills Newspapers

Our friend Martha just bought a small, very cute old house that she’s in the process of redoing. She bought the house from a lady who at age 96 has moved to a residential care facility where Martha hears she’s doing well.

Martha loves the house but it does need things. When Anet and I saw it, every room was completely empty, swept clean and almost all original.

At the back of the house is a large and wide kitchen. A long row of cabinets stands mid-room – not against a wall – and the sink is placed to one side. The cabinets and sink face the back wall of the house with windows and a door opening to the back yard.

Counters and a low backsplash are covered in ancient red linoleum. Someone has propped up a square of aluminum behind the sink faucets as a water guard. But the damage to the red lino is extensive. The color is faded and blackened and there are holes in spots.

The cabinets themselves are wonderful, at least to my eye. They are my favorite kind: old and deep and heavy, built of clear fir. The doors, shelves and drawers are more than half an inch thick.

Cabinets like these were installed in just about every kitchen in every old house I’ve ever seen constructed from 1900 to around 1930, possibly as late as 1940. Sometime after that the style changed to wood that is milled thinner giving a leaner, more modern look.

I find the old cabinets so appealing that once I imported them into a kitchen I was redoing. I was able to find discarded cabinets at salvage yards for very little money. I had them lined up and raised to the same level and on top I put a 3 inch slab of pine.

I had to be careful to keep the pine dry but I loved that kitchen, those cabinets and the counters.

The day that we stood with Martha and looked at her kitchen, I went on and on about my love of her old cabinets with the red linoleum top. Martha said she was going to need new ones. I said they don’t make them like that anymore.

Martha pointed out that the drawers don’t open smoothly. I said that could be fixed. She didn’t like where the cabinets were placed. I said they could be moved.

In my current kitchen I have fabulous old cabinets recycled from a hospital chemistry lab. The wood is unpainted fir inside and out and the hinges, latches and pulls are old brass.

I love everything about them. Many of the drawers and doors have round keyed locks on them and there on glass insets on the upper cabinet doors. These cabinets are sturdy and heavy, deep and commodious, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Unfortunately, I also have in my kitchen, around my sink and in a corner next to the stove, cabinets that were there when I bought the house. I never changed them, just ran out of money and time. Probably built in the late 1940s, also of fir, the overall construction of these cupboards and drawers is thinner, lighter than the older ones.

Martha had listened to what I’d said about her old cabinets but I could see that she was unconvinced. I started thinking that maybe she’d give me some of them and I could use them at my house.

I’d have to figure out a way to have my countertop taken off, then put back on. Maybe that was possible. I’d also have to deal with my sink and its drain and the dishwasher. I wondered if any of the sizes at Martha’s were right.

At Martha’s house on another day, the kitchen space had been completely cleared back to the studs and wooden subfloor. Water pipes were stubbed off at floor level and the chimney where once a stove had been vented was uncovered and bare.

We could see the cabinets out the windows standing in the backyard and I went out to look closer up. They’d been removed gently. There were no gouges from a wrecking bar, no splintered wood, no pieces missing. And, just as I had guessed, there were a number of stand alone cabinets ranging from about 3 feet to 5 feet in width, each with its own back and sides.

One cabinet could be used by itself, or two or more could be placed side by side. In her now empty kitchen Martha could line them up and configure them in many different positions and patterns.

And I could have done the same when my kitchen was being worked on, before the layout had been decided upon and the sink, dishwasher and countertop were installed. But not now. Martha’s old cabinets were the wrong sizes for my space.

I was still hoping that Martha would decide to reuse the cabinets. But when I asked she quickly assured me that she wasn’t going to junk them. She is going to use them in her basement or garage for storage.

She’d gone shopping and found new cabinets at a very good price. She’d been able to choose the widths she wanted and door and drawer layout. Also type of finish, door construction style and hardware. She’d moved on to countertops.

What she’d really like is zinc but Martha says that zinc is expensive to form and to install. She doesn’t want Formica or Corian. Wood is a possibility. But although she’s not wild about granite, she might use granite. It’s not too expensive, and it does hold up well.

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