Renovating Historic and Older Homes – Always an Adventure!

September 24, 2015No comments

My favorite challenge as a designer is to renovate the kitchen in an older home, creating a space that works for the 21st century family while respecting the original architectural style of the house. There are two approaches to working in an older house – create a kitchen that reflects and reinforces the home’s original architectural style, or introduce contemporary elements for a transitional effect. Whichever direction you take, flexibility and creativity are key ingredients to a successful project. Think of surprises as opportunities and know that, as veteran of a renovation project, you will have great stories to tell!

kitchen in brownstone row house viewed from dining room
In this 100-year-old brownstone, classic Shaker cabinets provide an uncluttered look that enhances rather than competes with the home’s wide millwork and elaborate crown molding. Design by A.J. Johnson

When blending new with old, a common mistake is to try too hard to match the older home’s custom millwork and cabinets. It often works well to base the kitchen design on a Shaker cabinet such as our Dayton, Rockford or Austin. Their clean, simple lines provide a stylistically neutral backdrop that blends well with almost any architecture, from 19th-century farm homes to turn-of-the-century town homes and mid-century-modern ramblers. With the right selection of crown molding, decorative trim and hardware the cabinetry will complement rather than compete with the home’s original style.

kitchen with white glass door cabinets in buffet and black shaker cabinets in island
In the 1888 home above, a newly opened kitchen conceals sink, dishwasher and range in the island, and cabinets in a buffet wall, gracefully integrating kitchen and living spaces. Design by Sammi Lindemann

A typical challenge is to create an open kitchen in a house designed for complete separation of spaces. When taking out a wall, I will often use a furniture-look feature such as a built-in buffet or custom island to make a graceful transition between the kitchen and living / dining rooms.

picture of kitchen wall with windows, open shelves, black countertop, farm style sink and shaker cabinets with cup pullsIf your kitchen is small, forego wall cabinets in favor of open shelves for a light and spacious feel. Recover storage potential by optimizing lower cabinets with a careful selection of storage units. Look for an adjacent hall or closet to convert to a walk-in pantry.

Integrate existing features such as antique light fixtures or a wrought-iron floor grate into the final design. For a rustic effect, consider an apron sink, cup pulls on cabinets, wide-plank distressed flooring and industrial-style fixtures.

Do not expect a renovation to be simple – some renovations are more like resurrections. An older home will have been built with non-standard dimensions, and the new kitchen may wrap around bumped-out walls and mechanical chases. Cabinets may have to accommodate low windows, high ceilings and a shortage of countertop space. The original home may be divided into awkward apartments. With CliqStudios semi-custom cabinets, a wide range of modifications allow me to create a graceful line of cabinets across an irregular wall or shallow hallway.walk-in pantry behind refrigerator has open shelving sotrage

Those walls hold mysteries! Tear-out is an adventure. Build some flex into your budget for unforeseen structural and mechanical issues. Electrical and plumbing systems are unlikely to be ready for modern appliances without major updates. On the positive side, your walls may yield up time capsules – in my home’s walls I found a 1930s pack of Lucky Strikes with a girlie cover and a mysterious keyhole slot.

The skills of the finish carpenter will make or break a renovation – be sure to hire a contractor with experience in similar projects. Your pro should handle irregular walls and floors and surprises such as unexpected vents, rafter tails and radiator pipes with creativity and grace. It’s best to have your pro check all measurements before you order cabinets. The installer should be prepared to modify a cabinet on site if necessary, and it may take serious artistry to cut crown molding and base trim to fit perfectly.

Browse historic renovation stories in our gallery:

Do you have a renovation story? Share it with our readers in a comment below.

kitchen designer julia o'halloran, woman with short sandy hair and glassesVisit Julia’s LinkedIn Profile

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