From the pages of
Renovation Style® magazine
Kitchen for All Ages
A dated kitchen is a structural old maid an antique house may have many suitors, but few fall in love with an ancient kitchen. No room denotes the times as much as the kitchen; it is the one space that we all want up-to-the-minute. But reconciling that wish with the architecture of a historically significant house can be a challenge. Such a mission faced Michigan kitchen designer Doug Heilman when he tackled the kitchen renovation of one of Detroit's most notable houses in the historic Boston-Edison district.
Heilman blended architecture and function so masterfully that this project won first place in the 1998 National Kitchen and Bath Association Design Competition, and it won the NKBA's prize for best of show the James Foster Memorial Award. "It's remarkable, that's for sure," says Kathleen Donohue, a fellow designer and an NKBA judge. "The metamorphosis from a kitchen originally built for servants into a wonderful family kitchen was tremendous."
The 75-year-old, 30-room mansion was built by Edward F. Fisher, one of the seven Fisher brothers who founded Fisher Body Company, which later became part of General Motors. Recognizing that history, the new owners allowed the house to be used as a showhouse to benefit the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Although the kitchen was designed as part of the showhouse, Heilman aided by interior designer Phyllis Berg worked closely with the homeowners. Their requests were simple they wanted a kitchen where their children and grandchildren could gather. The sociable couple also needed space to accommodate caterers for big parties and a multitude of friends for informal gatherings. The one structural element they wanted to keep a dumbwaiter proved the most difficult for Heilman in terms of design because it's in the center of the kitchen.
When the current owners bought the house, the dumbwaiter was the only part of the 1923 kitchen that remained. The rest had been replaced during the 1970s. Heilman gutted it, keeping only the windows and the dumbwaiter. He decided to make the most of the large dumbwaiter and treat it as a partial wall and island. "Having to work around that big shaft led to the idea of double-sided islands, and of keeping the entry section (into which the dumbwaiter opens) as more of a butler's pantry/bar area to service the dining room," explains Heilman.
A kitchen is a room for many tasks, so Heilman organized the 520-square-foot room into five distinct spaces: The cooking area centered around the cooktop, with pullout cabinets for spices and oils; the cleanup area, with a double sink, trash compactor, and dishwasher; the wet bar at the end of the butler's pantry, with a wine rack, a second dishwasher, an icemaker, and storage for liquor and crystal; a desk with bookshelves and file drawers; and an innovative mini-kitchen on the back side of the dumbwaiter.
The mini-kitchen features everything needed for a quick meal or snack. A pocket-door cabinet holds the microwave, toaster, and bread, cereal, and dishes. An undercounter refrigerator chills snack foods, and a sink and countertop offer room for food fixings. A television is tucked into the cabinet for viewing from the island and the breakfast room.
Such functional beauty swayed the NKBA judges. Says Donohue, "I loved how Doug Heilman created little zones that operate almost independently from the rest of the room. That's exactly how we use our kitchens these days. Most of us need kitchens within kitchens just like this."
After Heilman determined the layout, he turned to the aesthetics, which, in a house like this, proved to be difficult. Beginning with the cabinetry, he chose a mix of custom-designed poplar cabinets that match the architecture of the house. Some of the cabinets are painted and carved to resemble stone. Others, stained a cherry hue, look like antique cupboards. "The concept is that there are some furniture pieces and some architectural pieces," says Heilman.
The architectural cabinets fit so seamlessly that it's difficult to tell where cabinets end and architecture takes over. "We painted trim to look like stone," says Heilman, "so that it would blend with the cabinets. Otherwise the room would have looked too busy."
Elaborate details give the faux-stone cabinets a strong presence. Some are carved with columns, others with arches or scroll designs. Perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of the cabinetry is the quoining effect on the corners the look of stepped stones mimics the house's exterior corners.
Heilman softened the kitchen's sharp planes and eliminated angles wherever possible with graceful arches and curves. He turned the soffits into shapely arches, put arches on the wall above the bar/pantry area, rounded the island, and gave the granite countertops an ogee bullnose edge.
Because the architectural detailing was so lavish in the kitchen, Berg kept the colors there pale, painting the walls with a blush of peach and the ceiling and woodwork with faint coral. Heartier hues brighten the clean-lined breakfast room. A paprika shade warms the walls there, complemented by apple-green cushions on the wrought-iron chairs.
Gutting a kitchen is expensive, but it actually can be more economical than trying to salvage an out-of-date space. "You wind up spending so much time and money, patching, and trying to make the old and the new work together," says designer Doug Heilman. "It's usually a case of throwing good money after bad." Significant architectural features an 18th-century hearth, for instance, or a 19th-century tin ceiling should be preserved, but antique electrical work has little charm. If redoing an aging kitchen, consider these key elements when deciding what to salvage:
- Electrical. There is little point in redoing a kitchen without updating the wiring. Houses built before the '60s weren't designed to handle today's appliances and electronic gear.
Some equipment, such as a computer or security system, may need its own circuit. Also, a new electrical system allows you to add appliances down the road.
- Floors. Nothing dates a room faster than well-worn flooring. Sometimes you can save money by installing a new floor on top of the existing one, but the floor will not be level
with adjacent surfaces.
- Cabinetry. Old cupboards were usually shallower than today's cabinets. Deeper units increase storage without taking up much additional space. If your cabinets are deep enough, are in sound condition, and you like the layout of the kitchen, you may consider having them refaced.
- Plumbing. According to Heilman, plumbing usually doesn't have to be replaced, unless the house is exceptionally old or you are adding a new sink.
- Insulation. A big plus to gutting a kitchen is the chance to put in up-to-date insulation especially where none exists.