By Donna Pizzi | Photos by Philip Clayton-Thompson
“No one ever encouraged us to keep the old kitchen cabinets,” says Don Ruff. “Everybody said, ‘You need a dishwasher.’” The originals, in old-growth Douglas fir and some with glass fronts, remained along the west wall. Greasy and soiled, they were further degraded by the cheap metal-bracket shelving, chipped Formica (Harvest Gold), and well-used appliances that surrounded them. The kitchen plan was poor: a refrigerator stood out against the south wall, while the range was tucked beneath the cluttered white shelves.
Ruff and his wife, Betsy Ramsey, had purchased the 1910 Craftsman house in 1986, in a trade with a friend who was downsizing. The kitchen project would wait, however, until 2009, when Don retired and all the kids had graduated from college. In search of design help, the couple got a computer-generated layout at Home Depot—but Betsy thought it looked like a 1980s kitchen. The two wanted a more period-compatible kitchen. It was after they attended Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center Kitchen Revival Tour that they decided they could restore their kitchen.
They were inspired by the gate-house kitchen at the 1914 Pittock Mansion. “Of all the houses on the tour, that kitchen came the closest to the model we had in our heads,” says Betsy. Don was enamored of the Laurelhurst fan (a local product) he’d seen on another kitchen tour; it could solve the room’s ventilation issues.
The next hurdle was finding a carpenter willing to preserve the old cabinets, and even duplicate their construction. Don’s tree-trimmer recommended Ed Paget of Fine Grain Construction—and the project was on.
“Ed was excited about the job,” says Don. “He appreciated our cabinets’ handmade details, the adjustable shelves, the lift, and the old cooler box—and he understood why we wanted to save the kitchen as a historical document.”
Paget himself admits he wanted to raise the cabinets to a more contemporary height. But they might have been damaged in the move. He was also initially skeptical about Don’s choice of dark-green granite countertops with white subway tile. But Don cited the Pittock Mansion kitchen, which has dark-stained fir countertops with a white-tile backsplash.
At the Ruff–Ramsey house, “There was no way to save the original fir plank countertops under the Formica,” Paget explains. “They’d been cut.” Paget began by moving the gas and water lines so the range could be relocated near the lift, just where the old woodstove once had stood. He tore up the vinyl flooring and added underlayment and Marmoleum resilient flooring in ‘Forest Floor.’
Meanwhile, Barak Fisher of Bear Woodworks in Hubbard tackled the soiled cabinets. To determine their original stain and color, Fisher rubbed the darkened shellac with denatured alcohol. Then he went over the wood with a sealer before lacquering them. Fisher brought a refinished cabinet door to Rodda Paints so the stain department could formulate a matching stain for new cabinets based on the old ones. Fisher and Paget worked together, measuring and figuring, to get the details right on the new cabinets, which flank the stove and house the microwave oven.
“The advantages of this ‘new’ kitchen are enormous,” says Don. “The cabinets look better and are much easier to keep clean. The drawers pull out smoothly. The deep sink is great for food prep, and the Marmoleum flooring doesn’t catch dirt.”
“We’re proud of our kitchen,” Betsy adds, “and want to have people over more.”Old-House Interiors January/February 2011