Emily & Drew create a charming 1940s style kitchen — on a budget

kitchen-before-afteremily-and-hubbyReader Emily and her husband Drew fell in love with their 110-year-old Victorian house immediately, even though it needed a lot of work. With a small budget that had to stretch to cover remodeling expenses for several rooms, they had to get creative.  With their latest project — the kitchen — they worked with the plain Jane stock kitchen cabinets already in place, made a few strategic investments, styled to give of a colorful vintage vibe — and rolled up their DIY thrify sleeves. Months of hard work painting, building upper cabinets, installing a vintage drainboard sink and loads of other projects paid off for the couple. Their kitchen is so sunny and happy.

kitchen remodel

Emily made the time-lapse animation above to show how the kitchen sink area progressed over time.

Emily writes:

The house is a 110 year old Victorian, and was literally falling apart when we bought it (think: plaster chunks falling out of the walls, electrical cords duct-taped around doorways, peeling paint, etc.) But it had great bones and lots of details that reminded me of the house I grew up in – maple floors, decorative trim, tall ceilings… I was smitten. Honestly, even the disrepair seemed like a not-altogether-bad thing – it meant we’d get the house super cheap and that we’d make it our own.

kitchen-beforeWe got a housing rehabilitation loan in conjunction with our mortgage. Our budget was $30K, which we stretched to cover moving one bathroom, adding another, and creating a hallway on the second floor. Anything we could do ourselves, we did…. The house was in bad shape when we moved in (110 years old, with virtually no maintenance done in the last 30 years), so we’ve gut remodeled almost every room now, but on a budget, doing most of it ourselves, and using salvaged wood/trim/fixtures whenever possible. The ReStore is my friend. I re-plastered and painted every room in this house (plaster as in lathe and plaster, not drywall repair). To anyone doing the same: I’ve tried every plaster compound known to man. Quickset45 is the only way to go. Trust me. [Editor’s Note: Precautionary Pam reminds: Remember, readers, vintage houses can contain vintage nastiness like lead paint and asbestos — get your own trusted properly licensed professional to help you determine what’s in your house and its layers so you can make informed decisions.]

kitchen-beforeThe hardest part of that initial renovation was being without a bathroom. For a shower, we connected a hose to the basement slop sink and hung it from one of the rafters. You had to stand in a cement mixing tub to shower, and then run across the concrete floor to turn the water off. Did I mention this was December, in Wisconsin, in a 110-yea- old house? Yeah, that hurt.

kitchen-beforeSince the kitchen and back room were fairly new, those weren’t part of the first remodel. That turned out to be a good thing, because it gave me three years to figure out how we used the space and what really needed changing. Retro Renovation has been my morning read with coffee all that time, so you can imagine how it affected the final outcome. Super helpful!


The kitchen and back rooms were a remodel/extension done in the 90’s (the architectural equivalent of bachelors buying a new pack of tee shirts instead of washing the ones they have?), so those were last on our to-do list.

kitchen-cabinetsWell, we finally tackled these last two rooms this spring. Our big goals for the spaces were to make the kitchen brighter, the cabinetry more practical, and the back room warmer. It had a Mediterranean style tile floor, which made the space look and feel cold, and we really only used it for storage. We wanted to make it a family room.

vintage-kitchen-stovethe-1940sMy favorite kitchen photos on this blog are always from the 1940s, and I wanted to capture that bright, clean, cheerful feel in the kitchen without it screaming ‘retro’ so loudly that it’d clash with the Victorian elements of the house.

porcelain-drainboard-sinkvintage-roosterI think we managed that, using a farmhouse sink from the 40s, a 1954 Universal oven (yay, craigslist!), beadboard, school house light fixtures, and jadeite knobs. But we broke with the period by opening up the wall between the two rooms, installing butcher block counters, and keeping the wood floor.

vintage-modern-kitchenturquoise-kitchen-knobsWe couldn’t afford new cabinets, but the existing uppers were making me crazy (I found the corner cupboards really annoying – you have to take out half their contents to get to anything in the back). I’m an art teacher, so I took advantage of my spring break to build new ones. We kept the lowers, but painted them and added knobs.

vintage-kitchenI’d fallen in love with the jadeite knobs offered by Rejuvenation, but they were pretty pricey. I ended up finding nearly identical ones online at D. Lawless Hardware. For the lights, I dreamed of milk glass with painted stripes, but these Schoolhouse Mini-pendants were close enough and a better price.

pot-rackIt really does feel like a whole new room now.

kitchen-vintageYou’ll notice in that last shot, the kitchen is finished, but the family room to-be isn’t quite. We put in a wood floor to match the rest of the house, but have yet to paint the trim and walls.

[Precautionary Pam notes: Readers, please consult with local building codes — with properly licensed professionals — to ensure your stove placement conforms with local building codes.]

retro-modern-living-roomretro-modern-dining-roomorange-wallsretro-modern-officeretro-officeAs you can see, we’re not afraid of color in this house 🙂

Well, that’s our story! Thanks for letting me share!

emily-and-hubbyEmily, you and Drew did a fabulous job. We also want to underscore to everyone: You waited three years to remodel the kitchen, and were happy you did. This affirms a key piece of advice we have here: GO SLOW, people, in making big remodeling decisions. (Unless the changes involve environmental or safety issues, of course.) Take the time to study and learn how you use the space… how you could use it more effectively… and what style of retro speaks to you.

Mega thanks for sharing your story and inviting all of us in to take a peek inside your cheery and colorful home.

Read more about Emily and Drew’s kitchen remodel on Emily’s blog, prairie loon.


Get our retrolicious free newsletter.


Get our retrolicious free newsletter.


  1. nina462 says

    Cute! I do prefer doors on the cupboards however. (Just to keep the dust off of the dishes).

    You could do like my grandparents did in their old kitchen….they had curtains instead of cupboard doors. It was a great way to add color/texture. Even though the house is long gone, I still remember the curtains for doors 🙂

    Simple to do – just use a spring rod to put them up.

  2. says

    Absolutely stunning. I love it when people use existing cabinets and just jazz them up. You wouldn’t even know that they’re under there. They look that good! I also really love that floating island counter next to the stove. And the colors and the light fixtures and the cabinet knobs….

    : ) What a beautiful house too. And kitty! : )

  3. says

    Hey Emily and Drew! Whoa, that desk is KILLER! Is it vintage or new retro-style ? Hard to tell. My spidey sense is telling me it’s vintage.That’s exactly the type of desk I’ve been in search of for months. If it’s new, would ypu please let me know who makes It? Thank You!

  4. nancy says

    Looks great , I probably would not have sacrificed the top cabinets on the sink wall just took off doors on sink side and put on glass doors on the corner cabinets for display and nice dished.

  5. Joe Felice says

    I would like to know where you got the fabric for the ding-room table runner and chair cushions. Also, I wish I had a yellow Cosco serving cart.

  6. George says

    Since I’m a real 1940s nut…

    ….I LOVE your kitchen….and the rest of the house, too. You did a very nice job. 🙂

    I can honestly say that the only change I would have made would have been to add that linoleum with the geometric patterns in the kitchen that was all the rage back then. (But then again, they probably don’t manufacture it anymore.) And of course I’d want that vintage Philco radio console. 🙂

    But besides those two minor details, I could just move right into your house and feel completely comfortable. 🙂

  7. Bonnie says

    LOVE that kitchen sink! I want one really bad for my 1935 craftsman style house! I keep looking for a really good price. Sometimes you can find them on craigslist! Found one once that I really wanted but I didn’t have the $$ at the time. Love the stove you found as well. You guys did a great job. Congrats to all your hard work! It’s paid off! Enjoy your ‘new’ house!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *