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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. [Pam notes, in looking at this story later, I think this edging is actually New York Metals’ Aluminum edging [not stainless steel] — the aluminum comes in this size, profile and with holes, with the stainless steel does not.] 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!

  1. 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.

  2. jane parks says:

    Bill–
    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

  3. Dawn says:

    Um. That is a fabulous idea and you need to sell a series to HGTV immediately called Back Flippers! LOVE IT! I love the Property Brothers but am so tired of people saying the want character, but open concept and bland everything!

  4. 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!

  5. 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 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Lasta Drachkovitch says:

    Hi Bill,

    Would love to get in touch with you. Glorious reno! Is it a really a reno or is it more a restoration? Either way, MAD love!!

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