Kitchen Chronicles: The (not so) bad beginning

December 17, 2009

Yep, it’s that pesky kitchen again…

In the last episode, we discovered that there were far too many complicated and expensive things that needed to be fixed with our circa-1939 kitchen (with a 2007 “facelift”) for it to make much sense to do the project piecemeal. Instead, we started saving up for one big overhaul. We’re not quite there yet, but I’ve decided to go ahead and start working on the plan and talking to contractors so that we can get this thing rolling in the new year. Not exactly a bad beginning, per se, but certainly a far more expensive (and stressful!) one than we’d originally envisioned.

First things first: to save those of you who really don’t care about our kitchen from having to wade through what will probably be a LOT of posts about the renovation process in the coming year, I’m going to start titling and tagging any kitchen-related posts as “kitchen chronicles.” Read ’em if you like kitchens, or ignore ’em if you don’t.

Crafting the plan
One of the first things I did once we decided to tackle the entire space was to sit down and make a list of the current problems and the multiple roles we’d like the space to serve. Here’s how we envision it:

  • More light!
  • Better flow from the dining room into the kitchen into the breakfast room and out into the yard
  • Preserve the breakfast room function, if not the physical division of space
  • Allow the breakfast room to double as a mud room (which it sort of does now, but not terribly well)
  • Create space for the dog’s bowl and supplies
  • Create a continuous work surface somewhere in the kitchen itself
  • Eliminate the “wall” of cabinets that you walk into when you enter the kitchen from the dining room
  • Preserve the California cooler, the only original element in the kitchen
  • Preserve the ability to close the kitchen off from the rest of the house
  • Create a kitchen that fits into the historical aesthetic of the house

That’s a lot of different pieces and different jobs for a relatively small (13 feet by 17.5 feet, counting the breakfast room) space to fill. We’re still playing around with different configurations to get there, but right now, the plan is looking something like this:

Here’s what we’re starting with, as a refresher:

And here’s what we really started with, courtesy of our neighbor. This kitchen is actually  from the blueprints of our house’s mirror-image twin. I flipped it in Photoshop, but that would be why “screen” and “glass” are still backwards. (Or rather, I’m lazy and that’s why they are.) But you get the idea, and you can still see where the original walls and counters were, which is pretty crazy! In our house, the wall between the porch and the breakfast room was taken down as part of the 1939 remodel and the ironing board was moved.

1915 blueprints of our kitchen

The plan is still very much a work in progress and we have a lot of things to work out (like whether we can actually move the doorway, for starters—and if we do, how do we set it up so that the door closes, given that it’s a swinging door right now, and apparently you can’t put a pocket door in without stripping both sides of a wall down to the studs?) Our kitchen is awkwardly sized—too wide for a good galley layout, but too narrow to really accommodate an island. Most people with this layout—and there are a surprising number of them given how many bungalows are floating around town!—take out the cooler and stick the refrigerator there or make this into a U shape, but I really love our cooler and would hate to lose it. So, no U.

Kitchen Work Plan

  1. Disconnect and move stove and refrigerator; demo all cabinets. Remember to buy new toaster oven and borrow hot plate or microwave from somewhere before we get to this point!!
  2. Demo furnace chimney; re-vent furnace and hot water heater through wall or to exterior of house as needed. Explore the possibility of using the new Oakland iteration of CaliforniaFIRST to upgrade to a high-efficiency furnace and solar water heater at the same time.
  3. Remove tile floor, baseboard trim, sink backsplash, and washer/dryer hookups on breakfast room walls.
  4. Widen doorway between breakfast room and kitchen and figure out what kind of door to install here.
  5. Insulate outside wall behind sink, and add heat to the kitchen.
  6. Finish open walls and install new flooring and new trim to match the original.
  7. Install new cabinets, open shelves, sink, dishwasher, backsplash, etc.
  8. Install new counter. Paperstone, maybe?
  9. Install (or acquire freestanding) benches for breakfast room and mudroom areas. Install coat hooks.
  10. Install new light fixtures and exhaust hood.
  11. Replace back door with better insulated door. Yay Obama tax credits!

The million dollar question, of course, is how much all of this is going to cost. (Hopefully not a million dollars!) We’re on a pretty tight budget for this project, so the goal is to do as much of the work ourselves as seems feasible and wise. That probably means lots of fun demo-ing things, but leaving some of the finishing to the pros. I shipped off some paint and dust samples to be tested for lead a few months ago and was psyched to learn that the paint and plaster in the kitchen are effectively lead-free, so we can demo our hearts out. We also need to figure out where the cabinets are coming from. I’m getting a few estimates from local cabinetmakers, since that’s our ideal scenario—but we may end up back at Ikea if we can’t make it pencil out. We’ll see.

So with that—welcome to the City Homestead Kitchen Chronicles!


  1. Sounds like a fantastic, and arduous, project.

    What is a california cooler?

  2. Hi Adelaide—A California cooler was a wacky invention that was essentially a pantry built into an exterior wall that opened to the basement and often the attic, and vented out the side of the house. They were pretty common in California bungalows built in the 1910s and 1920s. The idea was to allow cool air to come up from the basement and keep food stored in the cabinet cool to keep it from spoiling. (You can probably imagine why this was primarily used in California and especially the Bay Area, where outside temps hover between 50 and 70 most of the year and nights are pretty cool year-round; it wouldn’t work very well in hot climates!)

    Over the years many (most?) coolers were removed in remodels as the refrigerator came into play; others were converted to more traditional cabinets. Ours is partially sealed so it doesn’t work quite as well as it once did, but it still keeps foods a good 10 degrees cooler than room temperature, which is perfect for storing grains and other foods that don’t truly need to be refrigerated but benefit from being kept cool.

    Here are a few sites with better pictures, since it’s a bizarre concept to imagine if you’ve never seen one:

  3. I love a good kitchen remodel. For me, the kitchen is really the main room of the house and should feel comfortable as a place to hang out. I’ve always wanted a kitchen big enough to have a comfy armchair and a fireplace.

    My brother did a huge kitchen addition on his house a while back. He did almost the whole job himself. It took way longer than they originally planned, but it turned out great. My advice, from watching his process: Let the pros do the wiring, plumbing, sheetrock, and floors. Those were the things that really slowed him down.


  4. You can put a pocket door in opening up one side of the wall only, but it’s a lot easier with the whole wall open. Doorways and windows have a header a bit wider than the opening that supports the wall (and possibly roof) above the opening. For a pocket door, the opening is basically twice as wide as the door, since there’s the space for it when it’s open as well as the opening you see, so you need to install a new header. Which you’d need to do if you move the door, too, though that’d be smaller.

    Are you using some design software to lay out the kitchen, or just doing stuff in Photoshop?

  5. Thanks Gene—that’s good to know, since a pocket door is really our ideal scenario, but a couple of people had said we couldn’t do it without knocking out both sides of the wall. (The dining room side has the original paneled woodwork and plaster on it—could certainly be recreated, but it would be a pain, might not match, and would probably add a big chunk to the cost!) The kitchen side will be wide open anyway so if we can just do it there that will be excellent.

    Right now I’m working with Sunset Kitchen Designer software (just a freebie program that comes with a kitchen book they sell, but does a decent job) but I’m planning to transition it into Sketchup at some point. (The diagram of the existing kitchen is just in Illustrator, though.)

  6. Gene’s right: you can put a pocket door in from just one side; most kits come designed to work that way because nobody wants to tear down and then replace two sides of a wall. You might find a few high-end specialty pocket door kits that require having the whole wall open. Those are the exception.

    Also, given how bungalows around here are usually the same layout, the walls that run parallel to the street are almost never structural, so moving the door over should be a piece of cake. And it would make more sense. I did plans for a kitchen remodel in Alameda where the original kitchen was almost identical to those blueprints. The floor joists and ceiling joists ran parallel to the street and were continuous.

  7. Thanks Ayse! Yes, our joists definitely run parallel to the street (and so do these walls) so that seems to reinforce that the wall removal and door movement is not a big deal at all (which is what we’ve heard from several people now—I’m finally taking a deep sigh of relief!)

  8. Artemis, you might want to think about a swinging door instead of a pocket door. It is more appropriate to the age of the house, and will have fewer complications in installation. Swinging door hardware is still commercially available. If you have a blank wall available, you can lock the door open when you want.

    If the wall is non-load bearing, the studs in a house of this age are possibly 2x3s, and not 2x4s. Pocket door hardware is designed for 2×4 wall studs. You could fur out all the studs to the right depth if you have too. Also, I don’t know how easy it will be to remove old (rock hard) studs from the plaster and lath dining room wall without damage. And you will still need to reattach the plaster back to the new studs when you are done. Finally, depending on how wide the counter is on the door side of the range, you will probably need, and certainly will want, an electrical outlet there. (If the counter is 12″ or more wide you will need an outlet there.) This is also a likely spot for electrical switches. If you have a pocket door, you will not be able to recess the electrical boxes there, and I don’t think you could run cable there.

    Random input on design, ignore if you have considered. The island is disrupting your work triangle between refrigerator, stove and sink.

  9. Thanks Robert—we actually have a swinging door now that’s original to the house, so definitely period appropriate! 🙂 The issue we’re having is how to move the doorway while keeping the door—once there are shelves or a cabinet behind it, the door will block access to that space when it’s open, which is problematic. The best way is really just to nix the door, but we like (or at least D. likes!) being able to close the kitchen off from the rest of the house (and it’s handy with a dog, too).

    And yes, sadly I’m resigned to not having clear paths between the work triangle edges—no good way to do it short of giving up the cooler, unfortunately (or going without the extra counter space). One reason for a mobile island is that it’s low commitment (and low cost) if we hate it, though!

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