Mies van der Rohe apartment gets Retro Renovated with a “new” GE Wonder Kitchen

“…Finding replacement parts and coming up with ways
to solve problems was way more exciting to me
than just getting a new kitchen.” — Chris
kitchen in mies van der rohe apartmentlove the house you're inWow, here is a wonderful renovation: After purchasing a condo apartment in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, reader Chris — an architecture graduate —  completed a kitchen remodel worthy of this historic architectural space. When Chris moved in, the kitchen featured nondescript 1980s cabinets. He started his search, and found a vintage General Electric Wonder Kitchen on our Retro Renovation buy/sell Forum. He had the steel cabinets re-enameled, the stove re-wired, and then installed the revived Wonder Kitchen alongside a vintage GE refrigerator he found on craigslist. What an extraordinarily beautiful space. And: Perhaps it could be yours? Yes, Chris is now moving, and the apartment is now for sale. Click on through for more photos, and for Chris’ Retro Renovation story.


mies van der rohe apartment chicago

Creating a kitchen worthy of Mies van der Rohe

Chris and I had several ‘conversations’ via email, and I edited them together for flow. Chris writes:

Hello Pam,

I just wanted to thank you for your awesome site! I have always loved vintage kitchens, and your site is a fantastic resource. I graduated from architecture school a couple of years ago, and when I bought a unit in a Mies van der Rohe designed building in Chicago, I took out the not-so-great 80s kitchen and found an original steel GE all in one kitchen center on your forum and a vintage GE fridge on craigslist.

The only problem was that the kitchen was located on the east coast and I was in Chicago!  My brother and his wife, who live out there, picked it up and took it to someone he knows in Providence to get it powder coated (I owe them!).  He took all of the hardware and trim off, disassembled the oven, dishwasher, stove and washer/ dryer and dropped it off.  They sandblasted everything and then put “arctic white” coating on it.  It was fairly inexpensive as they do huge runs of stuff there, and they just did this between runs.  When they fired the coating it burned the material in the doors, which I think I remember reading on your forum.  So the doors don’t have the same kind of “thunk” that they once had when closing, but they still work well.

mies van der rohe chicago kitchenWhen we got the stuff to Illinois, we reassembled it in the unit (minus most of the old electrical elements).  One of the sliding glass doors was missing but we found an exact match at a glass store in Chicago. The washer/ dryer wasn’t needed so we took the entire front and hinged it on an Ikea cabinet to make more storage space. The dishwasher is not hooked up so we use it to store trash and recycling.One of the biggest challenges was that nobody wanted to re-wire the push button stove! I ended up buying a cheap stove on Amazon, removed the casing and made a panel for the knobs. So now the buttons are just decorative, but it works now! Because of code, we couldn’t use the outlets on the backsplash so we raised the cabinets up a bit and put a stainless steel plugmold strip with outlets.  The appearance is not perfect, but it works well.

I have always loved modernism and especially kitchens.  When I was young I liked looking through magazines from the 1950s and was excited when there were ads for appliances at the time.  When I look at pictures of the Case Study houses and other period houses, the kitchen is usually my favorite part.  I’m not much of a cook but I love the look of vintage kitchens!  I also really liked the challenge of adapting the kitchen to code and to modern needs.  Finding replacement parts and coming up with ways to solve problems was way more exciting to me than just getting a new kitchen.

I’ve only enjoyed it for a short time, and now I am moving, but I am excited to use your site to get ideas for my next place! I hope my story can help inspire someone else in their vintage kitchen project!

Here are a couple of photos.  I also attached the link to the listing in case you know anyone looking for a vintage kitchen with a condo attached!  😉  If it seems like the future buyer is going to rip it out, I will plan to take it with and maybe re-list it on your forum!  www.880nlakeshore6g.com

It is so great to know there are people out there that share my passion for modern kitchens! Thanks again and keep up the great work!

Chris

mies van der rohe kitchen remodel

Wow, Chris, what a spectacular space. When I lived in Michigan, I took a weekend course in “Architecture and Poetry” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The course included a study of the famous apartment complex that Mies van der Rohe designed in Detroit adjacent to the downtown core. What a fascinating place, what a fascinating man — and you have done him proud.

Yes, readers, GE Wonder Kitchens were another derivative of steel kitchen cabinet sets sold in the 1950s and 1960s. I am not sure of the exact dates for this design — GE experts … Patrick ? — do you have any definitive information? These were marketed as one-piece, space-saving, space-age kitchen units. The cabinet modules were united by a long single piece of stainless steel counter top, which also had a sink and electric range engineered right into it. As you can see from Patrick’s GE Wonder Kitchen, there was also a built-in oven tucked in at one end. I love the height of that oven — so ergonomic, I would think. I believe that the Wonder Kitchen also usually included a three-door refrigerator that was designed to look like a wall cabinet — yes, the refrigerator was up where the wall cabinets go. People’s eyes always pop out of their head when they see these for the first time. Finally, it looks like with the GE Wonder Kitchen you get a lovely array of cabinettes, too. What a delightful design!

Challenges with powder coating  — do your own thorough research — consult with your own professionals

Note that in this story, Chris also mentions one of the challenges to powder coating vintage steel cabinets. I recall hearing before from a reader or two who said their metal cabinet doors warped as a result of the final baking process used in powder coating. This is the first time, I believe, that I have heard of the backing inside the cabinet doors disintegrating during the bake process. Yes, vintage cabinets may have some sort of backing inside the doors — I *think* they were added as sound deadeners… as, Chris mentions, to ensure a nice clunk. To cut to the chase: If you are restoring these cabinets, take note of the risk of using refinishing processes that require high heat… and, we don’t know what’s in that backer material… and, oh yeah, and the original paint may contain lead. Precautionary Pam repeats: Consult with your own properly licensed professionals to assess what’s in the materials and layers of the stuff in your old house so that you can make informed decisions how to handle. Be Safe / Renovate Safe.

You can repaint without heat: I have never had to refinish metal cabinets. Mine are original finish. But, when Shaun refinished and repainted the steel bases of my Burke tulip table and tulip chairs, he used auto body-quality paint in a dust-controlled spray booth in his shop. He did the stripping in his shop, as well. I think my table base and chair bases turned out beautifully. If I were to refinish steel cabinets, I think I would find someone like Shaun who had the equipment, space and patience to spray the cabinets by hand using paint that did not require baking. I think that personally, I would not want to risk my cabinet doors warping — the cabinets are too precious. I might then try to finish off the top coat with a clear gloss or something like that  — to get an even richer look mimicking baked-on enamel best I can. All this said, I continue: This is not a DIY site. But, I have featured stories from a number of readers with steel kitchen cabinets and some of them have shared a bit of their experiences. You can read these stories to begin to get a sense of the refinishing options. But then: Do your own research — consult with your own professionals. Make your own decisions. And: Be Safe / Renovate Safe.

We see GE Wonder Kitchens for sale fairly often. But as Patrick suggested, the thought of trying to rewire them and get them working again is likely off-putting to most folks. So, I fear, this should be added to the Endangered List.

Nope, we don’t do things the easy way around here. That’s no fun. Nope. Not at all.

Be-Safe-graphic2.3

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Comments

  1. Lori Tevis says

    Hi There! Love the kitchen remodel. And the fact that another one of these rare GE kitchen centers has been saved. I was fortunate to pick up one of these kitchen centers about six years ago on EBAY. MIne’s in PINK and it’s still has the original paint. Pam was so kind to feature my entire kitchen on the site here last year titled Lori’s Whole Lotta Lovin’ Fun kitchen. The date on my GE KITCHEN CENTER is Oct. 1956. I have the combo washer/dryer, dishwasher, stove and cleaner container compartment. My husband is an electrical engineer so he rewired the entire center and brought it up to code so that I could use it. I have the sliding doors for my center but when I put them on I couldn’t see my vintage figurine display so I opted to leave them off. Also I have in storage the matching stackable ovens. I have an original 1957 GE CALENDAR and the month of JULY features the GE KITCHEN CENTER. The bottom of the page reads: “GENERAL ELECTRIC KITCHEN CENTER. New, Deluxe Package Kitchen. Available in five, beautiful Mix or Match colors. Four time saving, work saving appliances, range, dishwasher, Disposall (copyrighted), and combination washer/dryer all under a seamless, long-lasting stainless steel counter. Many deluxe features – cabinettes, fluorescent lights, retractable cord center, custom radio, and cleaner container compartment – gives you more glamour…more utility…more beauty.” When I was looking for my GE KITCHEN CENTER I found some manuals for 1955, 1956 and 1957 so I’m not sure if those were the only years but I’m pretty sure that the first centers were either 1954 or 1955. And I know they didn’t have a long production run. They were designed to be used in a small space giving you all the appliances you need at your finger tips. So I’m thrilled to see another GE KITCHEN CENTER being reclaimed and displayed so beautifully! GREAT JOB!!

    Lori T.

  2. Steve H says

    Wow! Just beautiful! The kitchen fits the place perfectly – it has a very “machine for living” look. I’m sure Mies would approve. I love the idea of re-purposing the washer/dryer as a cabinet. The whole apartment is just gorgeous, and in a wonderfully preserved building too, right down to the Barcalona chairs in the lobby. And in lovely downtown Chicago! It just couldn’t get any better!

  3. Jay says

    Wow! What a great job, so much effort. That is a sharp looking kitchen unit. So much design and engineering went into these wonder kitchens. All that appliance goodness going on in such a small space. Wish GE still put some thought into their lower end products these days. Five years ago I bought a new GE cook top with coils and it’s so cheap (made in China) the numbers for the burner controls were sprayed on and they are all peeling off. The old stuff was made to last.

  4. Lisa says

    Great job, Chris! My dad used to live at 910 N. Lakeshore – awesome apartment and building. And the neighborhood is ideal.

  5. Mark says

    Very nice!
    I’m currently restoring a GE fridge much like that one. I would love to find a GE logo like the one above the fridge!

  6. Marta Kwiatek says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS! Nice work and it’s given me the inspiration to find and salvage old MCM kitchen cabinets for our renovation later this summer! I can’t wait to add it to our 1953 Homeplanners Inc. home we purchased last September.

  7. says

    Wow, that’s just beautiful! It’s a shame about the washer/dryer, dishwasher, and stove though. If Chris ever needs help getting things back in working order, he should check in at http://automaticwasher.org. Guys there are really helpful, and a couple of them have restored these GE Wonder Kitchens.

    • Steve H says

      I’m not so sure a vintage washing machine would be a good idea in an upper level condo. I did see an interesting article (can’t remember where) that detailed how someone saved the front from a vintage Kitchen Aid dishwasher and attached it to the front of a modern dishwasher – the kind that accepts custom panels and with the controls on the inner door edge. It appeared to turn out quite nice.

      • Joseph says

        The dishwasher story (vintage front put on a contemporary unit) is in the Spring 2013 issue of Atomic Ranch. Really neat solution.

  8. James says

    My office is a few blocks from this Mies van der Rohe building, which (along with its twin next door) I have admired for years. Interesting to see the inside of the unit in the real estate ad. The kitchen seems perfect for the unit with its utilitarian but likeable vibe. In the far western suburbs of Chicago, in Plano, there is Mies’ Farnsworth house, which features a St. Charles kitchen.

  9. Rebecca Kalinowski says

    Wow! What a labor of love! Your kitchen is fantastic and a great tribute to Mies Van der Rohs great sense of design and use of space. He would be proud!

  10. gsciencechick says

    What a perfect apartment in a fantastic location! Love it! Living in such a great space would help me weather the cold Chicago winters.

  11. Scott says

    As much as I love vintage advertising art, I generally don’t care for it in a MCM room as it, I don’t know, throws off the vibe. Not that it isn’t period correct, but because its just not something that would have likely been done back in the day.

    Now that I have that dissertation out of the way, that big beautiful translucent red candy-like GE logo is why its good to never say never. Wow. 🙂

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