Their love of old houses was, in part, what drew Chuck and Judy Kohlhaas to El Paso, Texas. The couple had spent nearly two decades restoring old homes in New York and New Jersey until they uprooted in 1994 to take over a family business, lured by a love of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.
“At the turn of the century until about World War II, El Paso was a very wealthy place because of the railroads and mining industry,” explains Chuck. “That’s why there are a lot of big old houses here.”
The 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival house they purchased, in fact, had been built by a wealthy merchant, who filled it with dramatic archways, walnut doors, Batchelder tile, and wrought iron detailing. Over the years, however, it had been subjected to some misguided modernizations, particularly in the kitchen.
“We were told there was a fire in the kitchen in the 1960s or ’70s,” Judy says. “It looked like they either didn’t spend all the insurance money to rebuild it or didn’t get enough to do it well.” Dark-stained plywood cabinets sucked all the light from the room, and the counters were covered in cheap Formica with a paltry backsplash. A poorly constructed island in the center of the room was listing to the side. Even the kitchen’s one redeeming feature—Batchelder tile flooring—had been improperly laid directly over a wood floor; as a result, none of the doors to the kitchen closed.
Chuck and Judy’s vision for their revamped kitchen was clear: They wanted it to look like it had always been part of the house. While gathering ideas, Judy stumbled across a book called The Goddess Home Style Guide, which featured a kitchen with a farmhouse sink backed by an elaborate tile backsplash and surrounded by cabinets with a distinctive scalloped edge. She called in her friend and neighbor, architect Martina Lorey, and asked if she thought it was possible to re-create a kitchen like that in their space. “Absolutely,” Martina replied.
In deference to the Batchelder and Spanish-style tilework found throughout the house, tile would be the centerpiece of the new kitchen. On a trip to San Francisco, Judy happened upon the Walker Zanger showroom and discovered the inexpensive Mission-style field tile that covers the countertops, backsplash, and island. It’s accented with blue Mexican tiles that Judy scored on eBay for 20¢ apiece. The island countertop and backsplash above the stove also feature decorative blue tiles that Martina salvaged from the 1914 Alhambra Theater, which had been sitting in her garage for decades. “She deemed our project the right one for the tiles,” Judy says.
Amassing the tiles turned out to be the easy part—getting them installed was the challenge. Although they hired “the best tiler in town” to install the new travertine flooring (attempts to save the Batchelder tile floors laid in the ’50s proved unsuccessful, so Chuck and Judy rescued what they could), he wasn’t able to stick around long enough to install the tile on the counters, backsplash, columns, and island. As a result, Judy often found herself correcting the sub-par work of the new tilers.
“When they went out to lunch, I was constantly straightening and rearranging the tiles,” she remembers. Finally, one day, she asked the workers if she could try out their tile saw. Once she saw how easy it was to use, Judy went out and bought one and finished the job herself. “I was much happier at lunchtime when I didn’t have to pull up or straighten tiles,” she says.
As soon as she saw how easy laying a tile countertop could be, Judy Kohlhaas was inspired to tackle the project herself for her kitchen rehab. “It’s really an easy craft, and no one should shy away from it,” she says. Here, she offers a few hard-won tips for first-time tilers:
1. Plan on paper first. Knowing that the herringbone design she wanted for the island might be tricky to execute, Judy first had her husband, Chuck, create a full-scale layout on paper. They attached it to a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood and laid it on top of the island to get a sense of whether the pattern would work.
2. Have the right tools. Judy bought an MK-370 wet tile saw on eBay to use for the project. She measured the tiles for cutting with a ruler, but later discovered that she could have used an angle-cutting attachment on the tile saw to make more perfect 45-degree edge cuts. She used a thin-set spreader to ensure that the mortar was applied evenly, and used small pieces of wood to check the spacing of grout lines. (You also can buy tile spacers to guarantee uniform grout.)
3. Start small. For beginners, using small batches of thin-set mortar at a time will allow you to work at a comfortable pace. “I started out mixing rather large batches, but the mortar would set up before I could use it all,” Judy says. “I quickly learned that small batches worked better for me.” She filled about a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket with thin-set mortar, which stayed workable for about an hour before beginning to set up.
4. Choose grout carefully. Chuck and Judy used an epoxy grout for the island, which is much more durable and stain-resistant than cement-based grout and doesn’t require sealing. “It wasn’t presented as an option by the professional tilers for the rest of the kitchen, but I really wish it had been,” says Judy. However, keep in mind that its glue-like properties make epoxy grout a bit trickier to work with—it tends to stick to everything, says Judy, so you should work carefully and clean up promptly with a solvent.
The kitchen also gets a decorative boost from leaded glass windows, which Chuck and Judy designed themselves, taking inspiration from a book on Spanish Colonial Revival houses in Santa Barbara and Palm Beach. Two of the original multi-paned steel casement windows were still in the kitchen when they moved in, but three others had been replaced with a picture window during a 1950s remodel.
Fortunately, Chuck and Judy were able to get steel casements that were being removed from the house next door. The sizes were quite a bit off, but through Chuck’s steel fabrication business, “we were able to have the frames cut, pieced, and welded back together,” he says.
Having previously created almost a hundred leaded glass windows for a Tudor house they owned in New Jersey, Chuck and Judy had plenty of expertise to draw upon when designing the leaded glass panels for the five windows—but this time, instead of cutting and soldering the glass themselves, they relied upon Judy’s eBay savvy to find an artisan who could fabricate their elaborate design.
Old Meets New
The cabinet detailing was copied directly from the book that sparked Judy’s inspiration, with the size and shape customized to hold her collections of Venetian glass and 1920s Lenox china. The doors of the breakfront, which holds the Venetian glass, are inset with Bendheim restoration glass to match the original wavy glass found throughout the rest of the house.
“When it first came in, the cabinetmaker called the architect and said, ‘This glass is imperfect’—he was really upset about it,” remembers Judy. “She said, ‘No, that’s what it’s supposed to look like!’”
The “perfectly imperfect” aesthetic is furthered by the choice of lighting—vintage 1920s Art Deco fixtures Judy found on eBay. “Even though it’s Spanish,” says Chuck, “the house still reflects the interest in Art Deco at the time.” In concert with the many other antique touches in the kitchen (including the copper sink and faucet), the overall effect is of a space that appears to have been barely changed over the years.
“People come in and say, ‘I guess you just switched out the appliances,’” says Judy. “That’s exactly the effect we were going for—we wanted something that looks like it’s been here for a long, long time.”