Restorers in the Pacific Northwest know about Karla Pearlstein, a design consultant who’s a stickler for authenticity when it comes to kitchens for historic homes. Well, she finally got around to re-creating a kitchen for her own much-remodeled 1861 house in Portland, Oregon. (The 1960s kitchen she inherited was, oddly enough, situated in the front parlor.) The space she created—a main cooking room flanked by two pantries—admirably functions as a modern kitchen. Yet it presents no anachronism in the beautifully restored house. Authentic wainscoting and cabinets, antique pieces, a refurbished stove, and gaslight-era lighting fixtures look as though they survived from the 19th century.
The Italianate house is on the small side, yet it’s elegant and comes with a history, being associated with the fifth governor of the Oregon Territory (1854–59), George Law Curry, and his wife, Chloe Boone, great-granddaughter of Daniel Boone. The house has weathered countless storms in the name of progress, and was moved twice before arriving on its current site in 1964, after the city condemned it to make way for a freeway. Karla and her family came upon the house in 2000.
“It had been so remuddled inside, I didn’t even want it,” Karla says. “But my husband, Aaron, wanted to live in the Hillsdale area, and I wanted an old house. So we bought it understanding that we were in for an extended restoration and renovation.”
At the time of purchase, the master bedroom had been moved into an 1880s addition, where the dining room is now. The fireplace was dysfunctional, filling the room with smoke. (Mason Bill Smith rebuilt the throat.) The 1960s kitchen in the parlor had a vertical layout that required use of a ladder to reach most cupboards. One of the original floor-to-ceiling windows had been cut in half to accommodate a kitchen sink and dishwasher. An early priority, Karla says, was to find a woodworker who could replicate the old windows. That was accomplished by Don Pile, a master of historical millwork; he reproduced the parlor window and then built the kitchen windows.
Over the 14 years between buying the house and tackling the kitchen, Karla had been amassing a collection of vintage period appliances, lighting, hardware, accessories, and even wallpaper for her clients and herself. She also built an extraordinary research library filled with century-old catalogs, magazines, advertisements, and wallpaper samples—all valuable as reference materials.
For restoration jobs, Karla often teams up with designer Matthew Roman, and he was a great help in her own kitchen project. Matthew explains: “My job, in this case, was to take the historic images Karla sent me and define both the arrangement of the spaces and the articulation of crown molding, rails, etc., to make everything work in the new pantries.” The historically correct kitchen and pantries were placed in a new addition connected to the 1880s addition.
The modest addition meant that the pantries were windowless, so bringing natural light into them was critical. “We decided on skylights,” Matthew says—not modern bubbles, but period-style ceiling wells, and skylights made of wood with the look of old glass. They used a series of solar tubes (“sun tunnels”) to bring light down through the attic crawlspace and into the pantries. Contractor Mike Edeen added reflective Mylar to the tubes to diffuse the light, avoiding a spotlight effect. Karla discovered a laminated safety glass (through Bendheim) that looks like the old wire glass once used in skylights.
Then there is the magic of the plumbing. Karla had located an antique copper sink for the butler’s pantry, and an early cast-iron kitchen sink with a molded backsplash. She found an old faucet for the pantry, but it was marked ‘For Decorative Purposes Only.’ “So, I sent it to the Old School Plumber, Walter Parker of Dudley, Massachusetts,” Karla says. “He made it functional.”
“It’s a rare 1858 Fuller Ball patent mixer faucet with a swing spout,” says Walter. “I’ve got another one that is stationary, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen with a spout that swings left to right. Everyone assumes that hot and cold mixer faucets were not around until the Teens, but this proves that assumption wrong!”
Unable to find a local plumber able (or, perhaps, willing) to tackle her degree of authenticity, Karla asked Walter Parker to fly cross-country to finish the work. First she sent photos to Walter, who began searching for the parts he’d need. “He arrived with a suitcase full of them!” says Karla, who calls him a “national treasure of historic plumbing.” While he was here working on Karla’s Curry House, Walter lent his expertise at the Pittock Mansion, a local house museum. Karla and Walter also relied on local plumber Tom Curran.
There was no need to disguise the stove in the main kitchen—it’s a scene-stealing 1890s antique, refurbished by Dave Erickson. The low iron stove on legs now rests on blocks to bring it up closer to modern countertop height. Matthew Roman reports that Karla has since found an archival photo of a stove sitting up, like this one, on four wood blocks.
Then, also after the kitchen and pantries were completed, Karla found a century-old photograph showing an icebox placed between two doorways, leading to a dry-goods pantry and a butler’s pantry—exactly like Matthew’s configuration.
“The old kitchen spirit was with us,” he jokes.