When each previous decade has brought an addition or refurbishment to a house, new homeowners can be plagued by a mishmash of styles and odd-flowing rooms. Once the minuscule kitchen or the expansions of decades past no longer work with modern needs, you need to bring your old house into the new decade. Homeowners who decide to redo a house engage in a kind of archeology of bathroom, kitchen, and living spaces, sifting through seemingly ancient styles in search of the true design of the house, settling on what their modern uses actually require. This approach to commonsense design also holds great promise for those not working through years of add-ons.
For one family in California, bringing all the errant bits of the house together means more than unifying the design; it means modernizing the kitchen and putting all of the family’s modern needs in their places, all the while keeping the look and appeal of the old house.
Elizabeth Peck Holmes is the designer who revamped this early 1900 house in Palo Alto, California, and revived its historic design and style. “The kitchen was originally a small group of rooms in the back of the home,” says Holmes. “The traditional layout—entertaining rooms at the front and service rooms at the back—did not work for the casual lifestyle of the client.”
A 1970s family room located between the garage and the house disrupted the interior space. “The family wanted better access to rooms and wanted to be able to use the garage. They wanted a mudroom, a pantry, and a kitchen that worked,” says Holmes. The family is very active, and they needed a house to support their lifestyle as well as a kitchen that could be used for rapid refueling of kids in dire need of snacks.
Although Holmes designed the interiors and made countless detail drawings to incorporate ideas and plans, she laughingly says that “nearly everyone, from the youngest son to the postman, had an input on the house design.” The owner, Fern Mandelbaum, was extraordinarily involved in the design. “She was a very participatory person through the entire process,” says Holmes.
Mandelbaum would canvass her wide circle of friends for ideas, clever uses of space, and the best products. “We would go over to people’s houses and look at colors and cabinetry. She would ask everyone she knew what kind of appliances they had, get a consensus, and then do her own research on top of that,” says Holmes. “She is people-oriented and likes to learn from others.” The end result is that every space and every material was thoroughly considered.
The kitchen range is directly opposite the house’s main entry. The cherry cabinet that butts against the island looks like an antique that luckily fits just so in the middle of the kitchen. The cabinet holds serving pieces and is slightly taller than the island itself, shielding the six-burner Viking stove from view as visitors enter the house.
Mandelbaum decided ahead of time what spaces she needed for pots and pans, food, and appliances, as well as what storage she would need, so everything could be designed just for their specific purposes. The island is a collection of precise drawers and cabinets, as well as a microwave that is placed under the counter for child-friendly snack accessibility. The precision of storage leads to an economy of space that was lauded in an upcoming book, The New Bungalow Kitchen by Peter LaBau (The Taunton Press 2007), which highlights the kitchen.
Because space is tight, each area has to serve multiple uses. From the beginning, the cabinets were destined for exact purposes, from holding appliances to snacks to breakfast food. The doorway from the kitchen to the dining room is flanked by two hutches. The one to the right of the archway, adjacent to the mudroom, is jokingly called “Grand Central” because of its heavy use and importance. It has a desk space, file drawers, and a spot to post invitations and school notices.
On the other side of the archway is a thinner, but matching, hutch. It hides appliances on the counter and holds the breakfast cereal boxes and accoutrements, as well as a drawer created just for the specific kind of snacks that the kids can grab on their way into the house from the mudroom. On the opposite side of the kitchen, a white hutch holds the coffee maker and other appliances. Every item in the kitchen has a bespoke space, just the right size and with its daily use considered by the owner and the designer.
“We had a number of windows replaced,” says Holmes. The French casement windows above the black granite countertop swing open. The farmhouse faucet and sink sits in the middle of that counter, which overlooks the big lawn where the kids play. To the right is a conveniently placed door to the back porch, where they barbeque.
Even with all of its modern conveniences, the kitchen does not look out of place in the old house. Decades from now, future homeowners will not have to reconcile kitchen modernity with the house style because Mandelbaum did her research, planned well, and Holmes paid attention—to not only the detailed spaces that every item required but also the continuity with the rest of the house.
“The floors are oak,” says Holmes “in order to match the feeling in the rest of the house.” The doors, trim, and accents match throughout the house, even in the kitchen. “You’re not supposed to know it’s an addition when you’re in it,” says Holmes. The lighting above the cabinets and hutches casts upward to subtly brighten the space and highlight the classic ceiling touches. Holmes installed a picture rail because the rest of the house has one, and the coved ceiling with two tones creates an atmosphere that says it is not a cutting-edge kitchen but part of a home.
April Paffrath is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.