Where do old steel kitchens go to die? Well, nowhere, we hope, because they are rescued by homeowners searching on our Forum! Here’s a tale of how reader Glasgow Rose aka Laura spotted an absolutely classic mid-century modest Youngstown kitchen for sale in New Hampshire, jumped through hoops to get it to her home, and then made it the epicenter of the kitchen in her summer-house cottage. Countertops and speed bumps and all. Click on through for more about Glasgow Rose’s kitchen remodel — no one said this would be easy –>
Laura is a professional editor and author of The Glasgow Style, so sit back and enjoy her tale. She writes:
My summer house, located in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, is a beloved member of the family. (See “Nana’s House,” American Bungalow, Fall 2010.) The guest cottage, though, was more like an ex-brother-in-law, the one you never really liked in the first place. It wasn’t really habitable when we bought the place in 1999. We started to renovate the cottage after we finished working on the main house, but the structure was built right on sand, without a foundation, so we never got very far with it. Overwhelmed with the notion of rebuilding a house I didn’t need anyway, I ignored the place. Years went happily by. I raised my kids, collected antiques, wrote a book, and swam every summer.
Then came the autumn of 2010. The roof on the cottage collapsed. Contractors told me they didn’t think the structure would make it through the winter.
Clearly I couldn’t ignore the cottage any longer.
With a heavy heart, and a light wallet, I began investigating jacking up the house and pouring a foundation. The house mover guy thought it was a fine idea to pick up the house. I’d just need a carpenter to redo all the termite-eaten parts first. The contractors I called asked why on earth would I bother to pay to jack up a falling apart, poorly built structure in the first place. Just knock it down and replace it.
So that’s what we did. Furnishing the kitchen would be cheap, though, as I planned to reuse the very expensive custom maple cabinets that were still boxed up in the cottage for the kitchen remodel we never really went through with. Surely they were still OK, right? Wrong. One cabinet was usable. The rest were beyond hope—rotting and gross.
Well, I just didn’t have the money for a whole set of new kitchen cabinets. IKEA it was, then! I spent some time searching online for “+’vintage style’ +IKEA +kitchen” and got some good ideas, but nothing really made me happy. My sister had mentioned something about new metal cabinets, so I found the St Charles site, along with some sites talking about reusing metal cabinets.
Hm. That might work. What was the deal with vintage metal cabinets? I like the style and the price, and the homely grandma feel to them, but would they last? For info, I of course turned to RetroRenovation.com and even more the forums talking about postwar steel kitchens. I learned a lot and began to think using vintage cabinets might be possible, even with a tight timeframe.
I started looking around. I found some vintage St Charles cabinets and a matching sink unit on eBay. Location: Montauk. Loved them, loved the fact that they were in Montauk already! Clearly these were fated to be mine, so I bid.
But apparently fate had other ideas, because the seller got an offer from a theater company and ended the auction early. I angrily told the seller I would pay what the theater company was offering and was told “too late.” I sent a rather ill-advised email telling the seller to go choke, and steamed a bit.
Then I saw on the Retro Renovation thread that a “perfect” kitchen in “almost unbelievable shape” with 1950 Youngstown cabinets was for sale in Nashua, New Hampshire for only $500. I’d been to Nashua several times before for my son’s hockey tournaments, so I knew it was driveable. I asked my husband, Hero Josh, if he’d drive up to Nashua and get the cabinets for me. Hero Josh said yes, so I contacted the seller, bought the cabinets, and rented a U-Haul! (Josh said that the drive home was nerve-wracking, involving three ferries on the way back to Montauk; whenever he stopped a little short, a van full of metal cabinets clanked to and fro.)
Now what? I had to cajole my contractor into installing the cabinets. He thought I was nuts, clearly. “Why would you install old, rusty cabinets in brand-new construction?” were his exact words. Oh well, visionaries like me always have to deal with the naysayers. [Pam notes: This is exactly what everyone said to me. Or at least, they said that with their quizzical-“I’m-talking-to-a-crazy-woman” eyes…]
I also needed a sink, since the original sink/dishwasher combo was inadvertently destroyed by the previous owner’s contractors. I could not find a vintage sink that would fit at all. This one was $850, new, vintage style, from Signature Hardware. I added the skirt, made by my mom from Cath Kidston fabric, because I thought the sink looked odd without legs.
Then I started to think about the rest of the kitchen. Obviously, we were going for a 50s style, and I’d saved a bundle on the cabinets and counters. That meant, of course, that I could afford to splurge a little on a range hood. I knew nothing of scalloped hoods until I saw a 50s NuTone, and then I had to have one, of course. But no vintage ones were available. OK, time to start searching for a custom hood that wouldn’t cost the earth. Vent4Less promised to deliver scalloped goodness to me for only about $300 more than a regular boring hood. Sign me up!
I found a 1959 Westinghouse Ambassador stove in a luscious mint-aqua on eBay. It was rewired and ready to go and they would accept $450 for it. Sold! Uh, except that it was in Florida! We found a shipper who would send it out to Montauk for $300. Hey, that’s still not very much as stoves go, and this one was aqua, my favorite color!
Now, what about fridges? Vintage fridges are fantastic. But electricity is sky-high on Long Island, and I didn’t fancy paying so much extra to run a vintage fridge. Also, what about defrosting? Who would be in charge of that, my cleaning lady, as if she didn’t have enough to do? Whoever would rent the cottage? Me? I remember Mom defrosting the fridge when I was growing up. It’s the worst.
So vintage was out. Now what?
There’s a phrase in software development, where I worked in my previous life, called feature creep. You start out with the best of intentions. You will stick to a tight budget (or a lean software design). But wouldn’t the kitchen be even more fabulous with this item? Just a liiiiittle bit more? Before you know it, you’ve got a room (or piece of software) with all the bells and whistles and the budget is blown.
I think you know where I’m going with this and yes, it’s an express train to Pink Fridgeville. You need to know that I am a British shelter magazine addict. For twenty years, I have eagerly devoured articles about appliances I can’t have or that aren’t practical here. I am now sadly resigned to the fact that I will never own an AGA in heather or pistachio, or, best of all, the Emma Bridgewater polka dot.
So for more than ten years, I have lusted after a Smeg fridge. The adorable retro styling! The colors! Which would I choose if I could? Maybe the Union Jack print! But again: not available in the U.S. Not practical either! I already have a Sub-Zero, for heaven’s sake!
But then in 2008, Smegs were introduced to the US. Sears carries them, for heaven’s sake! SEARS!
This is my only chance to own a Smeg, people!
Next question. What color? I love the blue, the green, and oh, PINK. I need to emphasize that I am not a girly girl. I’m not a pink person. I never wear pink. Nothing in my house is pink. But pink appliances have a strangely compelling appeal to me. For us 70s girls, raised on avocado and harvest gold and black….there really was a time when appliances really came in pink?
The other factor was of course the aqua stove and the green counters. I didn’t know how a green or a blue fridge would work with those, so pink it was! (Sure, white, silver, or black would have worked too, but what a waste. Go big or go home.)
As for a dishwasher, I chose a plain old new white Maytag. Sometimes you gotta know where to stop. I bought a cabinet from IKEA to house it in, which came with a butcherblock top, which nicely covered the gap in the vintage counters. Besides, old freestanding dishwashers often had butcherblock, so that’s authentic too.
The renovation chugged along. I bought some vintage small appliances: a completely darling aqua blender, the cutest 50s toaster, a robin’s egg blue Mixmaster. I ordered some lights from Schoolhouse Electric.
For the rest of the cottage, I found more old stuff to furnish. I decided my color scheme would revolve around the incredibly cute Annamoa crab fabric at IKEA. Well, it is a beach cottage, after all! My dad painted a sign for the house that reads “The Crabby Cottage.”
The Formica table and set of three diner chairs with original vinyl upholstery was only $85 on eBay, although I had to drive up past New Haven in Connecticut to pick it up. (The Tom-Dixon-knockoff vintage-style light I got from Menard’s after it was posted on Retro Renovation!)
I got vintage chests of drawers on eBay, too, which were less than $50 each. I particularly like the “Starlite” Basset set, which I painted pale blue because I didn’t feel like refinishing, and I already had an old queen mattress and iron bed from the main house before we upsized to a king.
I guess I’m just lazy about refinishing. An 80-year-old friend of mine gave me the coffee table in the living room from when she set up house in 1954. Again, it needed refinishing, but I decided it would be more fun and less work to decoupage old “Living for Young Homemakers” covers from the 1950s on top. (I scanned in some copies I have and printed on photo paper to decoupage.)
To finish the living room, I made a side table out of a suitcase I bought on eBay for about $15, adding modern-style legs from Ace Hardware, which I painted. [Pam says: BRILLIANT!] (As soon as I make one, I’m going to put one of those cool coffee percolator lamps featured on Retro Renovation on top.) I bought a new slipcover for a couch I already had, and bought the incredibly comfortable Danish modern chair on craigslist for only $80. I also scanned in a vintage postcard which I then had printed on vase for over the sofa. (I’m still waiting to make curtains for the windows over the sofa.)
For the TV, I bought a completely funky midcentury Lane bureau, long and low. This also works for linen storage, as the linen closet is mostly filled with a stacked washer and dryer. The Fish Grotto picture was redrawn by me in Adobe Illustrator from an old matchbook, 99¢ on eBay. Hey, who can resist shellfish wearing little hats? Certainly not me. The Vitamin C poster was another thing featured on Retro Renovation and is from Etsy. It was only $20.
Next, it was time to work on the bathroom. I am crazy about colored bathrooms. White: totally boring! Ideally, I would have liked a lavender bathroom. My nana had one when I was growing up and I’ve always thought it was the last word in style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any for sale in the narrow time period I had. Mint green, ditto. Pink would have been nice but this is going to be primarily a rental cottage for now, and a lot of people hate pink. Apparently some men won’t even use a pink bathroom. Blue it was, then, in this case American Standard Regency Blue. These were also off eBay. For tile, I went with the simple option of white subway (I love that look and never tire of it) and hex on the floor. I got some vintage Meyercord decals to put on plaques on the walls and an old wooden medicine cabinet. A funky 60s style paisley shower curtain from Target for $13 and the bathroom was complete.
As with any building work, there were bad days. One day the contractor told me—ooops!—the kitchen was several inches too big to fit in the space, so we had to rejigger the layout from the original, but it works, I think.
Plus, I had to keep buying and buying, as this is my third house and there was pretty much everything to buy. I got a set of pastel Mel-Mac off eBay. I have a terrible weakness for multicolored dinnerware. I also found some old Youngstown brochures on eBay which I put in a cheap frame for over the counter and a pink dish drainer on Amazon. The vintage headboard I bought for the twin bed didn’t fit on the frame, and I just couldn’t deal with finding another one, so I bought a headboard decal from Blik.
What have I learned from all this? Let your freak flag fly. This idea is the antithesis of those decorating shows that rate people’s renovations based on resale potential. Homeowners get dinged if every single aspect of their renovation doesn’t appeal to the greatest number of people, even though they have no plans to sell. Well, to heck with that! Sure, I could have decorated in maximum bland beige, but if something like a scalloped stove hood makes your heart sing, go for it! It may not appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to lots of people who will love it.
Save money, save the earth, and save style! Old things have more soul than new things. Sure, it cost as much as a new toaster to get the 1950s one rewired, but how much more flair does the old toaster have? Plus, that’s one fewer thing in a landfill.
I love the way the cottage turned out. I love that I spent so little money furnishing and decorating it, and I’m thrilled that so many people seem really to like it.
The cottage is available to rent at http://www.vrbo.com/358150
Wow, Laura, great story — many thanks for this wonderful and detailed report – and all the beautiful photos, too. You are in the finals, too, for The Hard Way Award for 2011 – goodness, I think there may need to be co-winners.
And, I learned a bunch from you, too. Including:
- A new retro-reproduction sink for our product arsenal…
- Make an occasional table from an old suitcase…
- Decoupage a coffee table top…
- A headboard decal?
- Scalloped stove hoods!!!!!!
- And, Go Big or Go Home! Let your Freak Flag Fly! But, we knew that already, didn’t we 😉