Making a Small Kitchen Work

Learn how I made small kitchen work.

(Illustration: Bill Firestone)

“What are you going to do about the kitchen?” horrified neighbors asked with eager curiosity when we first moved in. “Such a great house,” said others, who had considered buying it themselves, “but the kitchen…!”

Ah, the kitchen—the fatal flaw of this house, the reason it sold so much lower than other houses on the street. Ours is a galley kitchen, unfashionable in its very name. Galley, so backstairs, so servile, so unhearth-like. The kitchen is supposed to be the gathering place, the heart of the home, and must therefore be suitably sized for that purpose. So everyone assumed we would not stand for such a dingy old closet of a kitchen but would renovate and expand like average homeowners. We needed a kitchen that would suit the grand proportions of the rest of the house—an 1880s Shingle-style Victorian—and the neighborhood, designated historic by the local preservation board.

When I first saw the house, I felt the same way. But I wanted it so much, I conveniently evaded my own doubts about the kitchen. As we got closer to moving in, though, I became more anxious. First, there was the look. The entire kitchen had been painted the unappetizing color of dried egg yolk. The floor was cracked, brown linoleum, and the sink reminded me of my play sink from childhood. An orange, metal birdcage-like chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. Then there was the lack of usable appliances, most notably, the filthy 1950s stove. We scrubbed it within an inch of its life, apparently. When we turned it on for the first time, sparks flew from the knob.

“Well, you don’t waste a single step in here!” my mother cheerfully pronounced on her first visit. When the cabinet doors are wide open, you bump your head. The fridge is around the corner, on the backstairs, with about 18″ of space to pass through.

In order to move in, we decided simply to make the kitchen clean, bright and safe. It was to be a temporary update. We painted the ceiling, walls, and woodwork in the same white, replaced the sink and appliances and peeled back the linoleum and sanded the floors.

We weren’t prepared for the utter transformation created by the gleam of the new white enamel and silvery stainless steel fixtures; the elegant stretch of creamy, light walls; the pine floors that buffed up to a warm toffee color. We were stunned to realize that we now had a pleasant kitchen. Still not big enough, not glamorous, definitely not edgy but usable and friendly.

The space has gamely come back to life, a diamond chip in the rough. I began to see how this little kitchen offshoot makes sense with the rest of the house’s curious layout. The other rooms are also discreet spaces unto themselves that don’t flow into one another like the floor plans of new constructions. Where you would expect a dining room door to the family room, there is a window. The large living room has a narrow doorway, while the entry to the dark backstairs has a charming arch. I’ve concluded that Mr. Cabot, the bachelor who designed the house, had a deeper need for solace and solitude than for the active companionship of connected rooms.

For three years now we have lived happily enough with our refreshed but tiny kitchen. What was once cramped now feels cozy, a place that fills easily with the smell of morning coffee. The sun pours in through the two large old windows during sluggish late afternoons, just when I need it, splashing gold on the clean white walls. The panes are wavy like water and play lovely tricks with the light. And although space is tight, it doesn’t stop me from baking with my three boys on many a wintry Sunday. By now we have all learned how to fit side by side in that small space, making use of every square inch of countertop. We duck and reach and gather companionably around. Mom was right; no wasted space in here.

Who knows? Someday I may come up with a solution that will increase my counter space or rescue the refrigerator from the indignity of the backstairs. But only if it leaves intact the serene distinction of the rest of the rooms. Because although the kitchen doesn’t make that much sense in a 21st-century way, in other ways, it’s a near perfect fit, for us and for the house. After all, Cinderella’s foot was absurdly tiny, and that’s why it was a perfect fit for that glass slipper. It’s just one more eccentricity to put up with in a beloved old friend.

Sue Senator lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is the author of the book Just a Family.

Tags: kitchens OHJ September/October 2004 Old-House Journal Sue Senator

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