Should Karen replace her original ceramic tile kitchen countertops?

Hey, tortured by being raised in a small, unrestored 1950s house, Karen’s three girls (Karen on the right) sure look like they turned out just fine. Better than just fine!

Here’s a good one — and a good followup to yesterday’s story discussing “when is it *okay* to let go of something original?” and introducing the Retro Renovator’s Creed. Karen wants our help. She wants to brighten up her 1954 kitchen … should she replace the ceramic tile countertops with something more sparkly? Read on for her entire story and question… then let’s confuse her some more with all our ideas and opinion –>

Pam, You ROCK! Thank you so much for hosting this retro reno PARTY!

I’m throwing my hat in the ring. While my dilemma is not new or particularly unique, I could sure use some help from all your retronistas. The simple problem is whether to replace a perfectly good, original, 1954 tile countertop with one that will add pizzazz.

We bought the house 20 years ago from the original owners. It had not been touched since a year before, and sneaking into it late one night, we were truly caught in a time warp. Back then, we were too busy raising three daughters to make any changes to a perfectly usable pink bathroom and all original everything else, apart from new carpet and the addition of a dishwasher. When I began to breathe and look around, I had no idea what I had or what to do with it.

brown saltman sideboardThen, I found this Brown Saltman sideboard in a dirty old junk store. It had amoeba handles and the glass top, and I HAD to have it. After we squished it into the dining room and I saw the flow to the corner fireplace, it truly hit me as an epiphany: This house was one of those fifties retro houses! Seriously, this is 15 years after we moved in.

Then came a year of mad ebay, yardsale and junk store shopping. I’ve settled down on the buying, but still pass the counter tops with a sigh. While replacing them seems sacrilegious, the grout is a germ magnet, and the colors are drab next to the gorgeous ash cabinets, well, they will be gorgeous once I steam and refinish them.

I have my eye on some of that new glass tile for the backsplash and maybe a black formica counter? So, help. What do you think?

Any suggestions are soooooo much appreciated.

Thank you, Karen. But no: You ROCK. Your house is just lovely!

What do you think, readers? 
Should Karen replace her original ceramic tile countertops?
If yes, with what?
If no, how to add the ‘pizzazz’ she seeks to this kitchen?

I will hold back and see what you say… but I for sure have some ideas.


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  1. Clare says

    Hi,I am an interior designer and a set designer. You have a very retro house in good condition. I don’t think you ought to replace your tile counters, they are original and they still look like they are in good condition, they have a lot of character and work well with the rest of the house. Instead, to me it looks like you would be better off in refinishing all your cabinets with a slightly darker stain or just renovate them to the original oak stain. The cabinets could use a lift which will in turn make your tile look great. On the kitchen walls, you could paint just up to the height of the maroon edge with a maroon stripe (matching the ht. of the tile edging) and the tile color underneath it, to create a wains-coat made of paint. Above, paint it white. Be sure to use high gloss or semi gloss paint. You could wrap this around to the breakfast area as well or just paint that whole room white, or the light pinkish color of the tile. In my opinion, the green clashes with the maroon-pinkish theme. By adding the white, you tie into the white appliances as well. That’s my cost-effective solution.

  2. jen says

    wow, amazing house. i think all that tile in your perfectly preserved bathrooms gives you some freedom to change these out. what really sells me on a change is how they are so close in tone to the cabinets, it just was the wrong color choice from day one. if those were aqua i’d be all about keeping them.

    that said, if you update – don’t use glass tiles or something trendy and contemporary. dig through pam’s archives and find something from/inspired by the era that works for you. a fun color/pattern laminate (counter and backsplash) seems like a great fit here. my kitchen is not as time capsule, and i used a recycled glass and concrete solid surface that looks like terrazzo. it’s modern but looks retro. i even made a table to compliment it (on a fake saarinen base).

    a white or black quartz could be lovely if you are looking for something more modern. i think you can get thinner pieces cut for a backsplash, or you could bring in some retro with tile there – maybe that eBay seller pam found has something you like?

  3. marji says

    Keep countertops.Re stain cabinets and change wall color, put your $$ toward new retro friendly light fixtures and change flooring,but not black – think muted sophistication, like a Doris Day movie.As mentioned above a darker richer stain on the cabinets would be perfect plus a new coat of urethane.Wood gets more & more orange and yellow as it ages so back when the kitchen was new the colors might have worked together.Make those knobs disappear , replace them w/ plain (budget friendly) wooden knobs stained the same color as the new updated cabinet stain.Pizazz, not cozy right? Remove the ruffles from the window and sliding glass door.Next , lights .All w/ white glass and nickel trim (like the silver trim on your stove and your white appliances).You need one over the sink(can’t tell from the photo),some general lighting in the actual work area that’s flush mount and something jazzy over that dining table.Also paint the ceiling white .Walls should be egg shell not gloss finish (tiles are already glossy) and an oyster greyish shade to show off your copper molds (and stove hood? couldn’t tell from pic), perhaps paint the clock copper to group w/ the molds..or silver to match the stove trim and faucet…I’d wallpaper the dining area with a coordinating paper w/ skinny textured vertical stripes. Change out ’70’s chairs to something closer to the table.Install open shelving on the dining area wall (remove art) to accomodate the things on the table and the shelves in the corner.(remove the low lying shelves). Ususally pizazz comes from changing more than just one thing. floors would look nice in the base trim color w/ accent tiles of white,grey,rosy brown(counter) scattered in a few places…Good luck , you have a nice kitchen that just needs tweeking.

    • Karen says

      Hi Marji! I’m seriously looking for wall colors now, and so, I’m revisiting this blog. Your suggestions are right on. I’m totally on the hunt for chairs that work with the table and shelves for the wall. I was thinking about wallpaper for that wall. What do you think?

  4. says

    I would definitely re-stain the cabinets before I made any decision about the counters, they may look a lot better once you’ve painted the walls and re-stained the cabinets and if you do the counters first you might regret it in the end. IF in the end you decide to redo the counters I think I would stick with the same tile pattern and look but maybe in a different color that is still in keeping with the feeling of the house. As far as germy grout goes a good fix for that is picking up an old fashioned grout saw (they cost about $8-10) and mucking out all of the old grout and re-grouting with a modern epoxy grout that is more impervious to germs, we did this with the moldy grout in my parents old leaky shower and it made all the difference in the world and really gave the 40 year old tile a facelift all on its own! Its time intensive and a pain, but not difficult to do and saves money and great vintage tile work at the same time, ^_^

  5. Mary Elizabeth says

    Sarah is a girl after my own heart. I agree that you need to do the cabinet refinishing first and try some different wall paint. Then clean up the old grout as she suggested and see whether you like the tile counters better.

    It’s difficult for me to tell if they are maroon and pink or maroon and beige. If the first owners left you any leftover tile, take pieces with you when you shop for paints. Or bring home a bunch of chips and look at them in every light.

  6. Mariam says

    What an awesome footprint you have to work with! I agree with some of my fellow opinionaters, that changing out your countertops is no big deal! I would suggest staying with the period of the home (which means staying away from black) and choosing possibly a formica countertop in a fun color with a great subway tile backsplash or a really great quartz countertop. it’s a solid super durable material and there are some really fun colors to choose from. If you do a quick google image search of “Colored Quartz Countertops” a bunch of awesome options will pop up. Don’t feel guilty for wanting to get rid of the germy grout fest on your counters! It’s your home, and though I have to admit that I’m a stickler for trying to salvage period pieces as much as possible, I also believe that you should enjoy where you live and if the brown is getting you down then get it out! Good luck and please update us on what you decide to do.

  7. Lorie says

    I too am going through a countertop dilemma. I finally found a countertop I liked, and it has been discontinued! I love the retro look, but am having a hard time finding much choice, retro or not, in shades of dark blue.
    This may help you make your decision, if you haven’t already done so:
    That gorgeous cat would look fabulous on a black or slate countertop!

    • Karen says

      Oh she was a gorgeous cat, and so full of herself. We miss her every day. We went away on vaca and came back to a very sick kitty. I gave her shots daily, but she just couldn’t rally. She still sprawls in the garden sometimes.

  8. Linda says

    don’t replace the tile, have a tile guy, or The Grout Dr. come in and remove the old grout and replace with new grout. I did this to my kitchen and bathroom, built in ’48. They counters looks new now.

  9. Karen says

    Hi Pam and Everyone, It’s been a little over a year, and I’ve been on a mission. I think I’m done for now. Here’s the list, (pics to come as soon as it stops raining.)
    Replaced floor with commercial vinyl in mostly gray and black tones (I hope you agree that it makes the wood pop)
    refinished the wood cabinets
    replaced the light fixture with same as original
    painted walls turquoise
    wall-papered accent wall in dinette area
    recovered chairs in red
    replaced island cabinet doors with plexiglass
    replaced hinges and knobs with same as original chrome
    installed same as original, but in turquoise (both found on ebay) stove top and oven,
    replaced faucet with shiny chrome, and finally,
    totally dug out and re-grouted the tile countertops.
    Can’t wait to see what you all think of the difference.

  10. Technicolor says

    I am so glad you reported back. Have read half way through comments and didn’t post.

    My take was not to do anything with the tiles. Am so pleased you are embracing the history.

    Easy cleaning of grout is using an acrylic/epoxy. It can be wiped on over existing grout and creates an impervious water/ stain, etc. bond. My bath/shower surround was done myself over 5 years ago and haven’t had to touch up or clean other than a wipe down as one would for tile.

  11. Eunice says

    Wow, glad I came a cross this thread because I have the same dilemma. We purchased our 1955 Modern Ranch almost 4yrs ago and we’re finally ready to start some work. 1 pink bath (which will stay) needs paint, flooring, 1 yellow bath (needs most work) but will also stay with the yellow tile and just needs new shower pan, paint and flooring. So my issue has been with our kitchen counters that are also yellow tile and I have thought about replacing to laminate because I too think about the germs in grout. But after reading all the readers suggestions, I think I may just keep, regrout and refinish cabinets. Thank you!

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