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.
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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.
If your object 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.

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.

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 hidden storage to a kitchen too old to have had offered much capacity. Note the unfitted tables and open shelves.

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.