Give me that old-time kitchen

House Beautiful

When my consort and I set out to buy an apartment with a dream kitchen, all we were looking for was a big, bright, airy space where we could move right in and immediately start cooking. Two years and 325 apartments later, we had refined our fantasy enough to recognize potential perfection when we saw it. We seized on a co-op built in 1929 that had been occupied for the last 38 years by a single family who had done as little as possible to update it.

What sold Bob and me on this kitchen, after seeing endless competition over-outfitted with dishwashers and Garland ranges and Subzero refrigerators, was simply its untouched condition. It had 19 vintage wooden cabinets, 11 with original hardware, including one just the right size for mops and brooms and dishpans. It had 1929 white ceramic tile alongside the stove and around the one window, which had been installed in the 1980s. It had a butler’s pantry, and it had a maid’s room that could be converted into my office. The whole place wore its age amazingly well, more like Georgia O’Keeffe than Joan Rivers.

The kitchen, in short, bore a strong resemblance to the fantasy photos we had been collecting over those long months of apartment hunting. The one in particular that entranced us was photocopied from a 1930s home decorating magazine somewhere around the time we had seen a mere 100 apartments and started to understand that older was better for our tastes. All we had to do to duplicate it was erase the few “improvements” the co-op’s previous owner had added: the tinny sink-cabinet-and-dishwasher combination; the cheap 1970s gas stove; the buzzing fluorescent ceiling lights, and especially the window air-conditioner blocking the gorgeous late-afternoon sun. Otherwise, the traditional triangle layout was eminently workable, no less today than in 1929.

Having seen so many flawed renovations in our protracted apartment hunt, we knew we needed an architect. We interviewed half a dozen, most of whom either looked at us like Martians when we whipped out our picture or looked around, saw only an awkwardly shaped, bleak space and just said sadly, “I feel so sorry for you.” And so we instantly knew that Frederic Schwartz of Anderson/Schwartz Architects, a Robert Venturi protege, was our collaborator when he looked around the echoing white shell of the kitchen and asked: “Thirties look? No microwave? No dishwasher? You’re serious? Okay, I think I can help you.”

Working from both our conversations and our photocopy, he proceeded to draw up plans to move a wall to steal space from the oversized foyer and make the kitchen even more commodious, shorten the maid’s room to give the kitchen more of an L-shape and install a French door and interior window between the kitchen and maid’s room to capture that sensational sunlight. He designed a vent from the stove through the maid’s room and out the maid’s bathroom window so that we would not have to block that one kitchen window in a building where penetrating outside walls is forbidden. He advised replacing the hideous French’s mustard-colored formica counter tops with butcher block and adding one 12-foot-long counter across the longest wall of the kitchen to make an eat-in area. He realized the butler’s pantry had to contain plumbing that could be opened up to install a second sink for a bar in another section of new butcher-block counter. And he added new areas of white ceramic tile to tie together the Nineties and Twenties ends of the kitchen. At Bob’s suggestion, he drew up plans that called for widening the existing counters from the stingy 16-inch size, akin to a shelf, to a more practical 24-inch depth. The cabinets underneath were then pulled forward and extra wood was added to deepen the shelves inside, while the original drawers were set into rolling extensions.

And that was all before Schwartz focused on the design accents. For light fixtures, he chose Halophane lights from the Thirties that had been removed from a factory and restored. For the floor, he designed a traditional Thirties pattern of black and gray linoleum tiles and then, after Bob demanded more pizazz, came back from the drawing board with a four-color, two-pattern grid including red and green. (He also wisely suggested laying a cushioning sheet of plywood over the original cement-and-linoleum floor to save us from backaches from standing while cooking.)

While Fred was slaving over the blueprints, Bob and I were under pressure to find new old appliances, or at least provide measurements to hold space in the plans. We knew the antique stove we wanted, having carried around a photo for all those long years of apartment shopping. And we found it on a business trip in California, stopping over in Los Angeles to search out Antique Stove Heaven, a shop in a run-down neighborhood owned by a mother and her two sons. The showroom was stocked with rows and rows of our fantasies: hulking, heavy Forties and Fifties Wedgewood-brand ranges in gleaming white, pastel or deep red enamel. (Stoves from earlier eras are smaller, less efficient and certainly less practical for a writer testing recipes for contemporary cooks.) All of them had been salvaged and completely restored, inside and out, by the Williamses. We paid $1,199 for a stove with four burners, a griddle, two ovens and a broiler, then added $170 more for installation of a working clock and a timer ($85 each) on the stove top and $250 to cover the cost of having a neighborhood cabinetmaker build a crate for our jewel. The Williamses also advised calling a moving company back home with a West Coast delivery, on the theory that trucks need cargo on a return trip and thus will charge less. We paid $600 but saved $200.

Shortly after, our gleaming range, with nearly as many BTUs and certainly more panache than a home Garland, was delivered to our door. Installing it was simply a matter of hooking up the gas line and inserting a plug to activate the stove, timer and oven bulbs.

Stove down, sink to go. At first we wasted time trekking through architectural salvage yards in search of a real-life rendition of our photo: a white enamel fixture on legs with one shallow sink and one deep one where the dish drainer (and freshly washed dishes) could be hidden. Finally, in a flash of brilliance, we photocopied our photocopies of the Thirties magazine sink with its exposed pipes to make “Wanted — Reward” signs and posted them all along Central Park West, the gold coast of big prewar apartments. After one crank call, the very next morning we answered the phone to hear the thick Irish brogue of a superintendent in a building three blocks south: “I have your sink here; it’s going out with the garbage tomorrow unless you come get it.” And so, for the low price of two $20 tips to his porters, we trundled home a 60-year-old workhorse that needed only a $200 reglazing to look newer than new.

(Unfortunately, the new finish is far more fragile than the old. It chips at the slightest provocation, which means we can never toss pots into the sink — or wash dishes in a bad mood — and it takes constant care with special cleansers to keep it a lustrous white.)

The finishing touch on the whole functional design was the stove hood. Fred repeatedly outlined modernesque hoods with harshly sharp angles while Bob and I envisioned something more akin to an old Buick, with softly rounded curves to reflect the shape of the stove. Ultimately Fred and his contractor threw up their hands and pointed us in the direction of Brooklyn, to a restaurant supplier that took our design, crafted out of brown wrapping paper, and recreated it in stainless steel.

The only element of our kitchen that I would concede that the decades have improved is the refrigerator. We would have gone to the ends of the continent to find a working antique, if not for the fact that iceboxes of the Twenties and Thirties were all icebox and no refrigerator, with no room for much more than a bottle of milk. Even for a couple who use a separate freezer mostly to store film, a relic would never do. We initially stuck with the 1970s GE appliance left behind by old Mrs. Silver, happily so once we realized that most refrigerators manufactured more recently are freezer-heavy and much taller than the slot under our 1929 cabinets.

Those cabinets, though, were actually improved by an accident. After the contractor’s crew left a chemical stripper too long on the doors, the soft wood revealed under 63 years of white lead paint looked as it had been afflicted with a really nasty skin disease. We were heartbroken, but our architect was, as usual, simply inspired. He arrived one afternoon with a massive pack of paint chips and flipped through for half an hour before finding a light but luminous green tone that, when applied to the centers of those ancient doors, could pass for gleaming glass — without revealing any secrets of my bad housekeeping in the bowls and cans behind them.

His finishing touch was just as much a mix of practicality and creativity. We asked for something dramatic to decorate the foyer of the apartment, on the wall we had moved to steal space for the kitchen. First he designed an open slot across the top that would both let light and air into the foyer and give guests a sense of where the kitchen is, to draw them in in an apartment where it’s easy to get lost. Then, after Bob repeatedly requested a piece of art that would make us think of Fred every time we saw it, he created a stunning collage. A blown-up black-and-white photograph of a cow attached to a lactolator (milking machine) at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, bought from the Museum of the City of New York, is superimposed against a glaringly green wall with the bright red directive: Eat Here.

And we do.