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Restoring & Updating a Vintage 1950s Kitchen


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This is the kitchen of my current house:

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The only substantial thing that we've changed since those photos were taken is that we now have a large white/stainless IKEA cabinet where that wood and granite thing is (plus a bunch more knives, a new vent, blah blah). More mish added to the mash; no prevailing design at all.

Also, the room is tiny, has no counter space and wee storage space, and certainly nowhere for other humans to sit -- or even lean -- when I'm in there spending my usual 1-2 hrs per day cooking. It is, in short, a cooking-only kitchen.

For several years, we've been looking for a home that can accommodate our family (2 adults, 2 kids, a dog), tastes (midcentury modern design, open floor plan, more space), and habits (I cook, my wife bakes, and we have a ton of kitchen stuff). Ideally, it would have been built with great care and quality and maintained over the decades in its (more-or-less) original state, not "updated" with this or that horrorshow.

Well, if all goes as planned (knock wood), in the next little while we will be moving into a truly fantastic home, built in 1958 and kept in pristine shape for over 50 years. And the kitchen? Take a look:

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You can't see it, but on the other side of that counter extension is a very large EIK area that leads to a three-season or Florida room.

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There are two original Thermador ovens.

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Some of the appliances -- refrigerator, dishwasher -- aren't original.

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However, there are lots of features that are original, including a ton of built-in storage space designed for the original family by the architect:

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There are other aspects of the kitchen and house that are quite remarkable. The family saved the original architectural and contractor planning documents, which detail nearly every aspect of the room. Some of what's not there is contained in the original owner's manuals to many of the appliances. When I get over there next, I'll take some more detailed photographs of some of the other aspects of the kitchen that I'll want to share with you and discuss.

Over the coming weeks and months, I'm going to be preparing to move into this kitchen by dealing with a few different issues: handling some repairs; considering replacements for different elements, arranging equipment and supplies; doing some cleaning; you name it. I'm hoping to stimulate discussion on any/all issues related to the new place.

I'll also have specific concerns and will need your help! My first question is: what resources are out there for people interested in midcentury kitchen design and maintenance? I'd be particularly eager to know about replacement parts for vintage appliances; one of those ovens has a broken broiler, and the other one has a working broiler but not a working oven. Who knows what the thermostats are like....

Of course, we don't have to stick to items only in this particular room. Let's use this topic to discuss any/all issues related to these glorious 1950s kitchens. I'm dying to see yours, for example! :wink:

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Chris, I love it. Of course it looks somewhat like mine. Are the cabinets birch? They look exactly like mine--same style, yellowed varnish. My kitchen is also quite spacious; we moved to our 1911 Craftsman in 1986. The kitchen was completely remodeled in 1962 with birch cabinetry. The hardware was copper--but actually I like your pulls better, with that jaunty swoosh. My kitchen wasn't in quite as good condition as your pix indicate. The counters and backsplash were formica, but a hideous color and worn out, and the floor was linoleum in woeful condition. We eventually remodeled, but kept all the original cabinetry, and tried to clean it up as best we could. We spent our money on a new tile floor and tile backsplash, but ultimately it still has a mid-century look.

We replaced the counter formica with new formica (blue boomerang pattern--like my memory of an old NYC bus) since we didn't have the $$$ for any other type of counter at that point. I'm not sorry; the formica counters are easy to maintain (FYI a great trick: use Johnson and Johnson spray wax periodically on glossy formica to keep it protected.) It's amazing your sellers were able to keep the formica in good condition--and luckily it's a lovely robin's egg color. All our appliances, including a beautiful but dysfunctional turquiose electric oven and range needed to be replaced as well, ultimately. We had a nasty time with the refrigerator when it finally gave out. The space allotted was very narrow, since older fridges were not as well insulated as they are today, and it was exhausting trying to find something that fit.

We have a counter extension (not like that one!) that we had built to match, and that is the divider between the main kitchen and what is now a sort of eat-in solarium and used to be a screened in porch. I will keep my fingers crossed your deal goes through as planned. Looks fantastic.

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Start here:

Old House Journal

Back when I lived in a Revolutionary War-era house, I read this regularly. At that time, the focus was mainly pre-WWII houses, but as time has gone on, houses from the 1950s have been getting more coverage. They have a pretty strong orientation to historically-sensitive restoration, not just the sort of gut-and-renovate you see on This Old House.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Check out Bungalow Kitchens by Jane Powell, it is a fabulous read and will help you preserve and expand upon the period of your kitchen. I also like Rejuvenation Lighting for examples of period lighting and hardware. They are very customer centric and the website pictures match the items perfectly. I had a 1950's kitchen just like yours and when I remodeled it I tried to stay true to the period as well. Kenmore has a 5 burner gas range w/ two ovens that might fit the space where your stove is now. Be sure to bring your favorite cookware to be sure you can use it side by side if need be. Looking forward to more pics! Have fun with your project...

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Oh my gosh -- you have my cabinets...even the same hardware. Only mine are NOT in pristine condition. You cannot imagine how foul that plywood can get. But we just haven't had the money to replace them, and they seem impossible to paint or upgrade.

Your kitchen looks much bigger and better designed than ours. Of course, ours was built in 1963, when cooking was all about convenience foods.

Love the ovens!

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First, congratulations! This looks like a great find -- it reminds me of the kitchen (built at roughly the same time, I suspect) where I first started learning to cook. The ovens in particular are stunning.

Second, I'm sorry, but I have no resources to suggest as yet. But --

I do have questions:

  • What's the flooring? Vinyl, vinyl asbestos, linoleum?
  • The cooktop appears to be a spacious 4-coil unit. But the hood extends to the left to cover something else. What is it?
  • What's the door-like thing on the wall to the left of the cooktop?
  • Vent to the outside (I hope)?

Dave Scantland
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dscantland@eGstaff.org
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Eat more chicken skin.

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Thanks, everyone! I'll do my best to answer, though I'm definitely not able to address some of the questions yet and have gaps in my 50s materials knowledge. I do have some handwritten notes and measurements.

Are the cabinets birch?

We're not sure. Once we have access to the design document, we may be able to answer some of those questions.

We replaced the counter formica with new formica (blue boomerang pattern--like my memory of an old NYC bus) since we didn't have the $$$ for any other type of counter at that point. I'm not sorry; the formica counters are easy to maintain (FYI a great trick: use Johnson and Johnson spray wax periodically on glossy formica to keep it protected.) It's amazing your sellers were able to keep the formica in good condition--and luckily it's a lovely robin's egg color.

I love formica and really appreciate the tip.

All our appliances, including a beautiful but dysfunctional turquiose electric oven and range needed to be replaced as well, ultimately.

Were they in that smaller size? These Thermadors are worrying me for the same reason that got you frustrated with your fridge. The ovens are 44" wide, 29" high, and -- eek -- 20" deep. My quick survey of currently available ovens suggests that this is no longer an available size -- or have I missed something?

Oh wow, I'm having serious kitchen-envy. I already have plans for all those cupboards!

Oh, we share storage desire, clearly. Given where I am now, with half of my stuff in the basement... you have no idea.

Moopheus, thanks for the great link. I can see that I'm going to spend a bunch of time on there!

Check out Bungalow Kitchens by Jane Powell, it is a fabulous read and will help you preserve and expand upon the period of your kitchen. I also like Rejuvenation Lighting for examples of period lighting and hardware.

Thanks! Just requested the book from interlibrary loan and will keep RL in mind.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Your kitchen looks much bigger and better designed than ours. Of course, ours was built in 1963, when cooking was all about convenience foods.

And this one was built by someone who took cooking and life in the kitchen in general very, very seriously. (Ditto entertaining: the DR has the liquor cabinet of my dreams in it.) There are some design flaws: the fridge is about 12 feet from the sink, in particular, but that's going to be just fine given the other benefits.

What's the flooring? Vinyl, vinyl asbestos, linoleum?

Asbestos tile. It's in only decent shape, and there are spots that aren't holding up well. a likely project for down the road.

The cooktop appears to be a spacious 4-coil unit. But the hood extends to the left to cover something else. What is it?

We're not sure, but we think that the original cooktop was even bigger. Right now, there's a more contemporary unit that has a 6-8" board as a sort of resting edge at the left. Given that and the hood extension, we're pretty sure that the first cooktop was massive.

What's the door-like thing on the wall to the left of the cooktop?

There are two wall-mounted enclosures for "tinfoil" and wax paper, respectively. No kiddin'.

Vent to the outside (I hope)?

I think so, though the vent seems wheezy at best.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Got over to the house the other day thanks to a termite inspection and took a few more shots. Two angles on the room as a whole.

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The double sinks, neither deep enough:

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The range top:

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On the wall, two pull-down doors on either side of the range --

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-- revealing two slots each for wax paper, aluminum foil, etc.

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A built-in NuTone blender:

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The range hood:

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"At last! The kitchen I've dreamed about!":

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Cutting board/baking sheet drawer:

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Is this a kitchen towel rack?

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Here are some more shots of the Thermador ovens:

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Talked to a local vintage kitchen appliance store, and they had some sobering news. Apparently, Thermador only holds parts for -- get this -- 10 years. In addition, there aren't any available side-by-side ovens available, so the fix will require either finding 50-year-old parts from who knows where or installing an entirely new bank of ovens. Gulp.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Ok, this kitchen rocks in every way I can conceive. A tea towel cabinet -- be still my heart. I don't have any practical advice to give you, but thanks for your shout-out to Formica. Layers of paper, impregnated and sealed in resin. The top sheet is a print. Functional, beautiful, lasts forever, and your robin's egg blue is to die for.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Chris, there are a number of vintage and antique stove restoration places around the country and I know there is one in Mass., but I can't recall the name offhand. They used to advertise in the antique stove collector's journal.

In the meantime, there is this StoveList

where you can post a request for parts & etc. There is even a Thermador double oven on the current listing but it is in California.

And here's the link to the Old Appliance Club where you can order rebuilt parts for vintage ovens, ranges, etc.

I've been a member for years and have almost all of the old issues of their newsletter/magazine.

Edited by andiesenji (log)

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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I think you need to take an unsentimental look at the Thermadors. Sure, they look awesome, and they're a part of American culinary history that I would be proud to own. Those are the emotional considerations.

Practically, though, they're going to be expensive to get up and running, and will be expensive (and probably involve considerable downtime) to repair -- and because of their age, will likely need more frequent repair. Also because of their age, they're probably not well insulated, which will affect operating costs and, if you have air conditioning, your cooling bill.

Dave Scantland
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dscantland@eGstaff.org
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Eat more chicken skin.

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Well, the upside of "old" is "simple." No circuit boards, few if any tricky circuits. A competent electrician should be able to figure out how it all works. So maybe you stock some spare parts in advance, pack some fiberglass in the surrounding cabinet space and cross as many fingers as you can while still being able to twist the temperature dials.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Is anyone familiar with the Elmira Stove Works stoves and appliances? They look great, but does anyone know how they work? Thanks. I'm renovating a 50's kitchen that was added onto a 1790 Cape.

"Life itself is the proper binge" Julia Child

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You haven't mentioned dishwashers.

If replacing one or installing a new one will be an issue, be advised the current new models on the market have a cycle time of an hour or more. I'm not kidding. What you lose in noise, you gain in cycle time.

If it's not an issue - at least, not right away, then good for you. Personally, I have my sights set on a used professional model with a less-than-5-minute cycle. It would require special plumbing, which should tell me that the whole idea is not a good one, but my head and my heart march to different drummers.

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You haven't mentioned dishwashers.

If replacing one or installing a new one will be an issue, be advised the current new models on the market have a cycle time of an hour or more. I'm not kidding. What you lose in noise, you gain in cycle time.

If it's not an issue - at least, not right away, then good for you. Personally, I have my sights set on a used professional model with a less-than-5-minute cycle. It would require special plumbing, which should tell me that the whole idea is not a good one, but my head and my heart march to different drummers.

I dunno - I have a Bosch which is quiet and does a stellar job in 30 minutes.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

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Anyone got any thoughts on this Thermador problem?

If the lower heating element is shot, I don't see why another one similar in size, wattage and spacing between the terminals wouldn't work. Doesn't have to be in the same square shape as the existing one either.

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