It takes me time to process into words the things I’ve been feeling. As for the past year and a half…I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll get there eventually. It’s possible I never will… I’ve been hesitant to share this kitchen project for many reasons. But mainly it feels insensitive to be sharing pictures of a kitchen while people are still dying. So many people continue to be filled with grief, fear, and anxiety. It would be a far cry to say that my life has returned to normal. While vaccines have allowed me to see friends and family I desperately missed, the reason I am most grateful for them is that our family could finally gather to honor my late Grandmother. She died 6 months ago, alone in a nursing home, during the pandemic winter. Vaccines have helped ease the stress of my mother’s cancer treatments which have been weekly since December and then shifted to daily for the months of May and June. Life for me is far from normal, and yet I know I am one of the lucky ones. I hope that by sharing this project it can serve as a reminder that we can find joy in the things we make with our hands, even when our hearts are still aching.
This is how I have been using my body since last May. Deconstructing and reconstructing the heart of our home. It has been grueling, exhausting, frustrating, and exhilarating. It helped to give me the worse case of shingles my doctor had ever seen (pandemic stress certainly made it worse). Mostly though it filled me with gratitude. Gratitude for this home, gratitude for my body, gratitude for my partner, gratitude that I had the ability to make something beautiful as a way of processing grief and trauma and pain and fear.
Eric and I have spent the past 15 years working on this old home, apprenticing under my father, gaining the skills and the confidence necessary to tackle a project that for years I struggled to even talk about because of how daunting it was. We bit off a lot with this one, doing everything ourselves from demo to electrical to plumbing, framing, insulating, sheetrocking, tiling, and design. We had tremendous help from my father when it came to replacing the windows and door, framing up the basement door with wood we salvaged from our old porches, and sistering in a salvaged piece of wood between two ceiling joists. But his most crucial help came in the form of guidance. Throughout this endeavor we found ourselves deep in the abyss. All we could do was keep treading water. We’d call him in to make sure we weren’t drifting out to sea. I could always see it in his face before he said anything. Most of the time he just had suggestions, but we were always encouraged to know we were on the right track. Without that stamp of approval from my Dad we’d still be down to studs.
More than one person has asked me if the ghosts had become more active since we started this project. My answer is the same with each project we do. It seems they get quieter as we return this house to something that more closely resembled the way it used to be. Ripping out shag rugs to expose hardwood floors, pulling down drop ceiling to reveal cracked plaster. Gently removing patternless, textured 70s wallpaper to uncover the fragile ornate stuff from the early 1900s.
While this kitchen certainly didn’t look like this in 1904 when my ancestors moved in, there is something in me that feels that Margaret and Luther and James E. and Rena would approve. Gone are the wall-to-wall cabinets. Now a $50 Hoosier we restored and other stand alone pieces hold more than everything a kitchen needs -design that more closely resonates with what a late 1800s kitchen would look like. A Hoosier’s companion that we picked up on the side of the road for $25 now holds all of my canning supplies. I feel Margaret and Rena in my kitchen now more than ever.
Though the design was in my head from the start, it wasn’t until recently, when I snapped this photo of Eric standing next to the Hoosier, that I realized I felt like I was in France. Luther’s time at the Front during WWI must have seeped into my subconscious. Margaret, having studied French herself, had always longed to go to Paris. But the closest she ever got was the postcards Luther sent her while on leave.
This project is far from over. There’s still lighting fixtures to be found and installed. An easier task now that we feel comfortable thrifting again. We have to refinish the old 300 lb. cast iron, enamel, aproned farmhouse sink we bought pre-covid on Craigslist for $35 as long as we hauled it out of a basement.
Of course we’ve made some mistakes. And those will need fixing. But what would we do if the kitchen was finished? So we keep picking away…
Here are some afters, befores, and in process.
This section of the kitchen witnessed the biggest transformation. Previously the kitchen was the darkest, most cavernous room in the house, owing to the ceiling which we discovered was plaster and lathe, covered with sheetrock, covered with furring strips, covered with drop ceiling. Additionally the only south facing window was blocked by a wall of cabinets. We knew we wanted to drop this wall, but our first plan was to make a trap door leading down into the basement. Despite the fact that we both desperately felt this house needed a trap door, we realized we weren’t gaining much space and could in fact be wasting it. This is the only basement access and we’d have to keep the space clear around the trap door. Our design minded friends suggested a half-wall breakfast bar. As soon as they said it we never looked back.
All of the wood used in the breakfast bar was saved from the house. The basement door header was created to appear original and structural using old porch beams. The frame of the half-wall reused the wood that was in the full wall previously. We painted the wall-facing white, it was the original subfloor that we had to pull out in order to insulate a kitchen built directly on dirt with no heat source. And the bar itself was saved from the old collapsing tractor shed. Our friend Dan repaired and refinished this piece for us, adding incredible butterfly joinery to stabilize cracks and filling with resin some of the large knot holes. (Click on the 3rd to last picture for a close up).
The north side of the house had been the coldest. It was always drafty, the pipes froze every winter. When we ripped out the walls and the floor we found out why. The original cooking source was a stove and the chimney was right behind the sheetrock. There was barely insulation and what was there had been saturated from age-old chimney leaks that had been repaired. You find a lot of disgusting things when you demo an old home, but maybe the grossest was a giant mound of bat guano on the ledge of this chimney. “God put that rock there for a reason…and um, I don’t think you should, um, move it, I don’t think…”
The leak had done massive damage to the ceiling as well as one of the ceiling joists. While tearing down the ceiling we discovered the plaster around this spot had been repaired. It was over 2″ thick in some places and heavy as cement tile. Eric would stand on a ladder with the reciprocating saw cutting through a sandwich of sheetrock, plaster, and lathe, while I stood below him holding a contractor bag open and trying not to get hit with falling debris. It was the filthiest, most exhausting work I’ve ever done. The damaged ceiling joist had been partially removed in a previous repair, but the work they did to sister in the other joists was so sloppy and horrific we forgot to photograph it because of how badly we wanted to forget it. In the second to last picture you can see where Eric and my Dad sistered in a reclaimed beam in the ceiling just above where the old chimney had been. Meanwhile, I hid on the other side of the house with my ear plugs in. I was peak shingles and for some reason the sound of the circular saw sent violent electric shocks jolting throughout my body.
One of the most time consuming parts of this project was creating custom molding around the cavities of each exposed beam. You can see what it looks like before in the 3rd to last picture and after in the 2nd to last.
north-east corner (wip)
We solved the problem of frozen pipes by pulling them out from under the floorboards and exposing them. Our final plumbing has yet to be completed while we work on restoring our sink. We built cribs beneath the floor joists so we could put sprayfoam insulation in the floor to help keep the room from getting so cold in the winter. Without a direct source of heat in the kitchen it used to get down to the 40s in there at night. We also installed radiant floor heating beneath the tile.
We wanted a classic subway tile backsplash but also wanted some exposed shelving. Because our wall studs were nowhere near spaced evenly we needed to do floating shelves as opposed to mounted brackets.
Because we were doing it all ourselves we could only work on the kitchen in our free time -which because of covid ended up being pretty much every weekend. One of the best things we did to prepare for what we knew would be a long renovation was to buy a relatively inexpensive utility sink. It was easy to disconnect and light weight enough that I could move it by myself. We could move it in and out whenever we needed to. In the end we only went three days without a stove and a sink when we removed and replaced the subfloor, and eight days after we installed the tile (one day for installing the Schluter heating system, two days for mortaring tile, one day for grouting, two days curing, one day cleaning and sealing cement tile, and a final day for a second seal coat). Good grilling weather and the village pizza joint helped support this phase.
Still left to finish in this section is the installation of our sink, new stove, and building a custom corner piece once both of those are in place.
dining room view
Eric wanted to remove the entire wall into the dining room. Instead we removed the framing around the door that made it look like a coffin and widened it.
Picture 5 is me at the start of shingles (just after throwing a pandemic-wedding in our backyard, followed by four days pulling down the ceiling, followed by replacing four windows and a door). Picture 6 is literally the first time I was able to put on clothes in 5 weeks so I put on a full body suit and spray foamed my kitchen. (We wore masks and goggles for the actual application).
When we taught English in Thailand we took a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam. There was so much of the Vietnamese culture that inspired us but one thing we often daydreamed about was being able to showcase the artistry of Vietnamese tile in a room in our home. This handmade Vietnamese cement tile was the first thing we bought for this project when it was on sale and shipped free last spring. It sat in our shed and in our basement for a year before we installed it. Eric pulled out a box and laid it down at the start of the project for motivation (picture 1).
We’d redone our pantry two summers ago so we were able to have a fridge throughout the entire process. After we insulated the kitchen we realized just how much colder the pantry still was than the rest of the kitchen. (We didn’t go back to studs in the pantry). Part of this was intentional as our cellar is too damp to be a good root cellar for anything other than potatoes, so I wanted our pantry to double as cool food storage. We originally got the basement doors to close off the pantry but it felt too crowded so we closed off the stairwell with them instead. We plan to hang heavy curtains in the pantry in the winter to keep out the drafts.
The second thing we bought for this project was the botanical potato poster to hang above our potato cellar. Anything to stay motivated.
While ripping out the plaster and lathe in the walls so we could insulate I discovered that during a previous second floor renovation instead of removing the plaster they simply chucked it down into the wall cavity. The entirety of the wall between studs was filled with loose plaster dust and chunks, as well as a mummified squirrel. At the end of the day I was filthy and angry.
We used original, unpainted kitchen subfloor for the ledge beneath the window and added this door we found lying in the basement to close off the bottom of the stairs. I scraped off any loose paint and then sealed it so it will keep its natural weathered patina. We still have to hang sheetrock behind the breakfast bar, put brackets on all the exposed electrical, and paint the stairs. But that’s what winter is for.
We named the section of floor just above the staircase “The Viper Pit” for obvious reasons (just look at it). You really get to know a house when you go back to studs. Everything suddenly makes sense. Why a certain wall whistled when it was windy. Why a floorboard creaked. Why the window looked crooked. How and where the mice were getting in. Why it smelled the way it did. I know this house inside and out now. If I’m lucky she’ll keep giving up her secrets for the rest of my life.