This house flipper goes retro — with immediate success

vintage-style-kitchenWe’re now — often painfully — accustomed to house flippers whose first step is to strip charming original features to create a ‘blank slate’ that they believe will appeal to today’s potential buyers. But reader Bill, who fixes up and resells old homes in Memphis, Tennessee, recently took the opposite strategy — with immediate success.

He recently completed the remodel of a vintage cottage style home, drawing his inspiration from the one remaining bit of character in the home’s empty kitchen — a model A Vent-A-Hood. After some research, Bill transformed the space into a fun 1950s style kitchen space using white thermofoil-door cabinets, red laminate countertops with chrome edging, a checkerboard VCT floor and vintage Tappan stove.

Bill writes:

I renovate old houses for a living in Midtown Memphis, primarily Victorian cottages and Craftsman bungalows circa 1910-1930. My latest project was a 3 bedroom, 1 bath (actually no bath at the time) frame cottage. I made the middle bedroom into a master closet and 1 1/2 “Jack and Jill” bathrooms. I added a ventless fireplace off Craigslist, new plumbing, etc.

But the star of this show is the kitchen. When I bought it it was a mess with no style whatsoever, but what it did have was a circa 1950 model “A” Vent-A-Hood — a 42″ white canopy with chrome trim and backsplash. The motor sounded like it wanted to work but the “squirrel cage” was clogged with decades of grease, food, lint, and who knows what. Just a few years ago, I would probably have pulled it out and set it on the curb for scrap, but I’ve begun to appreciate old appliances, sinks, etc. more, in part due to Retro Renovation. So I decided to design the kitchen around this great old hood. (Incidentally, Vent-A-Hood makes a modern version of this hood priced over $1,000!)

retro-kitchen-vintage-stoveThe next piece of the puzzle was, of course, a vintage range. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a Chambers for several years, looked at a few, but never pulled the trigger. Of course, when I really needed one they were nowhere to be found. But on Craigslist, I did find a circa-1953 Tappan DeLuxe not three miles from the house that was in decent cosmetic and good working condition for $100. I bought it, took it home to my garage and cleaned it up, did some rewiring, freed up the frozen clock gears, and plugged it in. The clock works – and keeps good time! This is not the place for a range renovation story, but I would recommend to anyone with or contemplating a Tappan, to check out the blog called TappanTalk.

retro-red-countertopsWith the perfect appliances all set to go, I then set out to make sure they were in a good place, so to speak. I scoured Craigslist for metal cabinets but could not find enough in the right dimensions. What I ended up doing was getting white KraftMaid Thermofoil flush door, full overlay with 30″ wall cabinets. They look uncannily like metal. KraftMaid wanted $400 for wall and base curved bookshelves so I just made my own and had paint matched to the exact cabinet color. I also wanted authentic boomerang pulls but, as you may know, they are hard to find and expensive – about $25 each. Although there are reproductions out there, I found some readily available (not boomerang) curved chrome pulls from Amerock. Under $2 apiece. (footnote – a few months later I bought a large set of Youngstown cabinets for less that the 22 pulls alone are worth!)

retro-kitchenFor the countertops I went with red Formica “self edge” laminate and added 1 1/4″ stainless steel edging from New York Metals. If you do this, make sure the fabricator makes the slabs 1 1/4″ thick, which is not the usual size. After installing the edging I think I now know why you see so many curves in these old kitchens — the edging is easily bent around curves but is a pain to miter for corners. I used a Dremel tool with 1″ cutoff wheels, but it is hard to keep it straight and get clean joints. I opened the wall into the dining room and installed a breakfast bar that looks more like an old time drug store counter.

I would have loved to have a cast iron sink with drainboards but could not find one at the right time, so I just went with a white porcelain over steel double sink. The faucet is a chrome “Classic Series” Delta. Rounding out the retro look are mint green walls, black and white checked VCT floor, “atomic age” ceiling fixtures, and a white GE Artistry Series dishwasher.

The house sold immediately — because of  the kitchen. I’ve done some nice kitchens in other houses but, other than one in Craftsman style, they have not been as stylistically coherent as this one. I’m not going to be doing 1910 kitchens and most of the ones I find in my houses are not worth saving, so I’m beginning to think that what’s appropriate for these old houses is to do the kitchen in any period of their lives. After all, the kitchen in a 100-year-old house may have already been redone several times.

Bill, you did a fantastic job on the kitchen. We’re so glad that you found someone who appreciated your hard work so quickly, too. And, we are so glad you found Retro Renovation helpful in your search for materials and that you chose to go against the ‘beige and granite’ trend. Kudos to you for a job well done, and thanks so much for sharing your story here with all of us!


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  1. TNTrish says

    AWWW SHUCKS, BILL!! I am in Memphis, too and have not only a spare drainboard sink, but a spare vintage roper stove as well! Please feel free to contact me because I either have and or run across all kinds of goodies, in various and sundry places. I am fixin’ up my home as well (I I usually find them dirt cheap!)

  2. Bill says

    Wow, I’m overwhelmed by this response! Thank you, everyone, for the kind comments. I will certainly be alert for any houses that have potential to do another retro kitchen. I will also expand my house search to include mid-century modern in which I can do kitchens that are actually contemporaneous w/ the design of the house.

    A few replies:

    Yes, the buyer is already looking for a dinette, barstools, etc. I’ve strongly recommended the GE Artistry fridge. I gave some thought to putting a vintage one in the kitchen but chickened out. 🙂 There is actually room in the adjoining laundry room for a small fridge or freezer and the idea was to put the old one in the kitchen mainly for looks and have a modern frost-free one w/ icemaker hidden away.

    I thought about some retro accessories but I don’t usually “furnish” my houses. I wanted one of those black cat clocks. There was and is hanging on the wall an old wooden match dispenser for lighting the stove. This Tappan has standing pilots.

    The bathrooms are not strictly vintage – I’d call them more transitional. I do use white subway tile w/ dark gray grout and chrome fixtures, though. One of these days I’ll do an authentic vintage bath w/ tile wainscoting, footed tub, etc.

    The green walls are a color from a local paint co. so the name/formula would not be of any help.


  3. leslie l says

    This is so beautiful, I am so jealous!
    That is the kitchen I have dreamed about for years.
    Fantastic job, Bill.

    BTW, Are you married.
    Can’t let these men with the insite and skills get away. 🙂

  4. KakiMack says

    Beautiful job, Bill! We used a similar color scheme in the redo of our 1957 kitchen, except the two walls we have in there are painted Sherwin-Williams Aloof Gray. The lower cabinets are green (Topiary Tint) and the upper cabinets are white. The backsplash is glass painted that same green on the back. Counter top is Silestone Stellar Fire, floor is Lapponia Marmoleum. Appliances are white except for the stove which is stainless (we couldn’t find the one we wanted in any other color). I was afraid the red/green combo would be too Christmasy, but it’s not—it’s actually very cheery!

  5. Kelly Montano says

    🙂 Bill did an awesome job! I was married to a fix and flipper here in Denver and he was only concerned about what the beige crowd liked. I was able to salvage some treasures from a few of the houses for myself, including a great turquoise oven and range top, which he would never let me install in our 1955 ranch, and eventually threw away behind my back. He even threw away a contractors box of vintage cabinet pulls I had bought on eBay! He was a heartless bastard. I had given up on the idea any fix and flipper would respect the period design of a house. This story makes my day!

  6. says

    >> I’m beginning to think that what’s appropriate for these old houses is to do the kitchen in any period of their lives.

    I think this historical style worked particularly well because of its location in Memphis. This rock-and-roll kitchen is at the heart of the history of Memphis.

    • Dawn says

      I liked this comment as well. I think die hard renovators try to be by the book historically accurate. And really, when dealing with 50-100 year old houses, I think its OK to pick one period from the house to tackle. The one that speaks to you and makes sense in the home. My 89 year old neighbor, original owner to her 1958 ranch allowed us to tour her home recently and her husband and her did NUMEROUS updates through the years, for one, breaking down a wall and having a semi open concept before the concept was cool! Yet her home still feels original, and it has worked for her for 50 plus years. Pretty sure if you asked any early 1900’s house wife if she wanted a more modern kitchen she would have said sure!

  7. Joe Felice says

    I love it! The colors aren’t what I would have used, but this reno turned out totally period-appropriate. I especially like the hood & stove.

  8. Cynthia says

    Bill, I think you did renovators and buyers a great service when you did this project. The blah-beige is so hard to live in, much less feel any excitement about. By showcasing the retro possibilities of the home, you created excitement that is lacking in many homes today. I hope to see more of your work posted on !

  9. says

    As a realtor, I would LOVE to walk into a flip like this! My name for 99% of flipped homes is “Home Depot Special.” So bland. But this…THIS is wonderful.

  10. Marilyn Crady says

    I applaude you for taking this initiative to make an older home’s kitchen fit the era from which it was born…..There are still many folks who love the vintage look ..and prefer it over the more modern look. I am one of those…..I enjoyed reading about your choices and how you made it all come together….thank you for sharing.

  11. jane parks says

    I have a 1927 Craftsman on Mignon that I am having some work done on the kitchen. I have some of the original black countertops with the heavy metal edging and backsplash. I am missing a 4ft piece. Any suggestions around Memphis?
    Jane 3205848

  12. Lesia says

    Fantastic! Love it! It makes me ‘feel at home’, just looking at the photos. Absolutely you should have your own show on HGTV, I’d be a forever viewer 🙂 With my old late’70’s flooring, people are ‘taken aback’ by them, watch their face change when I tell them how long I had to wait for my custom order for retro flooring 🙂

  13. Jan says

    I love it. To me it can be anything from 20s to 50s, depending on what you put in it. My collections tend to be 30s-50’s with as much 40s as I can find. The last kitchen I could really decorate was red, blue and yellow – white walls (apartment) but I did have a checkerboard floor. I love 50s red Lustro ware plastics and 50’s Decoware metals.
    I’d love to see pictures of the Craftsman kitchen you did – my dream house.
    I’m so glad you took the time to put thought and feelings into this wonderful kitchen. Someone is really lucky.

  14. Sara says

    I think what a lot of flippers do is try to appeal to a mass market, essentially destroying a home of its character and charm just to make a buck. But there is a market for home with all of their original character- as I call it a “numbers matching” home- and people like us know that those houses are hard to find, so when they come on the market we pounce like leopards. I think you should put period appropriate finishes in old homes, put that 1910 kitchen in the 1910 home for goodness sake! Maybe a lot of people don’t care about the details, but the ones who do will pay what it’s worth without hesitating.

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