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An Authentic Victorian Kitchen Design

When these astute owners decided to authentically restore a turn-of-the-century town house in Galveston, they extended their clear vision to the kitchen by keeping it simple.
By Steve Austin | Photos by Philip Clayton-Thompson

    If your objective is to re-create a true 19th-century period kitchen, the challenge is to not get cutesy with the details. It should be a utilitarian space.

    A home office probably needs a computer and a fax machine, and most people assume that a functional kitchen must be just as modern. Even many purists draw the line when it comes to the kitchen.

    So they put in the new—the granite countertops, the central islands with plumbing, plenty of recessed lighting. In a concession to the old-house look, they try to hide huge refrigerators behind expanses of wood paneling. Some are unsettled by the hybrid room, but they tell themselves that the new details are in the spirit of the old house, and that “it’s what the original owners would have done if they’d had [fill in the blank].”

    Try as I might, I can’t buy it. I don’t mean to offend those who enjoy their modern cooking palaces, but when I walk from a restored parlor or dining room into a modern kitchen, I see the front seat of a Honda stuck in the passenger compartment of a Packard. Many old kitchens began life with running water, some form of illumination, and a stove if not a refrigerator. How hard can it be to have authenticity and function, too?

    It was the 2008 flood from Hurricane Ike that forcibly wiped the slate clean when it destroyed a 10-year-old kitchen remuddling in our recently acquired Victorian house. Actually, given all the mud, “clean” might not be the right word, but the flood had left us only one choice: demolition. Years ago, in May 2003, I wrote a piece for OHI on creating authentic period kitchens. Here I was, using that article to guide the restoration of our own kitchen.

    Some decisions came easily. We delighted in reproducing the exposed conduit that would have once crossed the ceiling. Our electrician was taken aback, but he grudgingly admitted, “Well, it’s not illegal.” In the old days, if you couldn’t afford a servant, the only human to set foot in your kitchen was you. You didn’t hang out there drinking margaritas with the guests. Why go to the expense to bury the new wiring?

    Recessed lighting unnecessarily robs a traditional kitchen of character. We chose nickel-plated light sockets attached to braided, cloth-covered electric wire. Fitted with reproduction light bulbs, these bare-bones fixtures re-create the period of the house.

    Fortunately, when the kitchen was remodeled, original windows were not shortened; new cabinets simply covered their lower halves. Once we uncovered them, we needed only to replace a few trim boards. We installed dark-green cloth roller shades on the tall windows, just as they would have done in 1907. The screens were missing here, so we had a carpenter make frames that copied originals from another room. We used antique longleaf pine to match the rest of the woodwork.

    The restored 1915 stove cooks just as well as a new one. It looks more original in this setting than today’s reproductions.

    Instead of replacing the flood-damaged drywall, we used salvaged wainscoting. Purchasing it was a splurge, but beaded board with its original stained finish transformed the room. Our budget did not allow for new flooring, so we painted the modern pine flooring battleship gray. We didn’t sand first, and the floor looks suitably ancient. The big challenge was providing enough storage space without lining the walls with cabinets. (Continuous cabinets did not become common until the 1920s or later). We bought an 1890s Hoosier cabinet, an antique kitchen table that has bins and drawers, a small wall cabinet, and an icebox to use for storage. New shelving is concealed behind the wainscot or is sufficiently unobtrusive. We have as much storage space as many modern kitchens.

    Our period sink was waiting for us in a salvage yard. The separate nickel-plated hot and cold faucets were an eBay find. We adjusted the temperature at the water heater until straight hot water posed no danger. We found our restored antique stove through the Internet. It had always had gas burners, but its old coal oven was replaced by an electric oven with hidden controls.

    An old icebox adds some storage to a kitchen too old to have offered much capacity. Note the unfitted tables and open shelves.

    The old crank telephone works, and so do the coffee grinder and the clothes dryer. Power outages don’t affect them. On a compulsive note, we use an 1887 wall calendar; as in 2011, the year started on a Saturday and was not a leap year.

    The whole project cost $12,000, tens of thousands of dollars less than most kitchen remodelings in older houses. Unlike a showroom kitchen, ours will never go out of style, because it belongs in the house.

    You might think friends are uncomfortable in the odd, bare-bones space. Not so! A surprising number of people have approvingly called it “funky.” One says, “I know it sounds nuts, but this is my favorite room.” Another is charmed: “It’s like walking into a movie set.” It’s perfectly functional, of course. In fact, the only thing it lacks is a modern dishwasher. Instead, we have two semi-antique dishwashers: my wife Cathy and I.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors September/October 2011

    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    Steve Austin August 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    This is our kitchen. An additional article about the rest of the house appears in the same (“October 2011″) issue of Old House Interiors magazine.

    We’re moving back to Oregon. Anyone interested in the house may contact our agent, Kay Schwartz, at (713) 542 7509. This is the most authentically restored Victorian residence in Galveston’s largest Victorian National Historic District (the East End). No cost has been spared in the restoration, the winner of a prestigeous Sally B. Wallace Preservation Award. There is zero delayed maintenance. The restoration is 100% completed. The contents are available, too. Specific questions can be emailed to me at: islandinthegulf@gmail.com
    Steve Austin
    (503) 232 5148

    Donna August 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you for giving me something to prove to Bob that it IS possible to look old AND be fuctional. The kitchen, that is.

    Ellen August 14, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I absolutely love what you’ve done here – it actually looks like a kitchen that you would have found in an old Victorian. Kudos to you for doing it right!! My only question is about the quarter-round… is there any particular reason why it was left white rather than either staining like the wainscotting or painting battleship gray like the floor? It’s the only thing in the entire kitchen that seems out of place to me… Wish I were in a position to buy that home… it looks like it would be a lovely place to retire….

    Heather November 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    This is amazing! I am using your kitchen as inspiration when we re-do our victorian kitchen. I love everything about the space that you created!

    Scott February 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Finally! Someone who the right ideas when it comes to restoring house! What you have done is put forth more than victorian flavor as what seems popular when people remuddle kitchens in victorian houses. My partner and I bought a 1880 stick Victorian in May 2008. We have lived with the interior as is for the past four years in hopes of discovering what was and where it was. What we have discovered is that our current dining room was originally the kitchen and an adjoining den/bedroom was originally the dining room. We have come to the realization that the rooms need to return to their original function. We have been searching the web looking for pictures on how the kitchen should look and what you have created is exactly the same feel that we are going for. To avoid the “new” appearance we are making a conscience effort to do the project completely out of authentic salvaged items. Thank you for taking on the project and writing about it.

    Allie April 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the idea of hiding shelving behind wainscoting! The kitchen in my parents’ Eastlake/Stick style house still has its bones intact, though with a ’50s Wedgewood stove and ’20s fitted cabinetry. I plan to keep the stove (the first one I ever used) and ditch the cabinets but was having the damnedest time getting an idea of what the kitchen should look like.

    Cheers to the unfitted kitchen!

    Ulf G Bohlin March 14, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I finished my old kitchen (built in 1920s), so all the original stuff is still there and visible. Boring cabinets and doors and other targets under varying ages, is gone. Basically, I could /would, with talented carpenter’s help, restore my entire kitchen for originality, with wood-burning iron stove and everything. If I want so .. It seems to me that we who own old houses, owe future owners, this ability .. The only thing I regret is that I painted the whole kitchen white – after I removed the cover masonite. This was before I learned to appreciate the worn areas – to the fullest. Or rather, before I began to think, really;)

    Uffe

    Edward Marse June 20, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Piecing back together a period kitchen is a fantastic way to not only maintain the integrity and feel of an old house, but save a fortune as well! Source your cabs and other items at salvage yards, even if you have to have the items shipped. It may take a little time and effort, but it’s worth it! Total bill for my antique cabs, including a 52″ soapstone sink with original beadboard base, was $5,000.

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