Love hate relationship, right? Love the convenience of them, but do they really have to be soooo big? And soooo shiny? And soooo noticeably incongruous? They just aren’t making cooking spaces out of brick anymore – no one has time to stoke a fire and heat up a bake oven before dinner. So we’re stuck with them. And they are one of the biggest obstacles to incorporating 18th century atmosphere into the context of a colonial kitchen. We either have to overwhelm them – or hide them. Or, like any sensitive old house owner, we have to sacrifice. Double ovens may be at the top of our wish list, but if there’s no room for them in the design, they’re out. A double refrigerator may be second on the list, but again, no room, then down to the basement with a second one, or the freezer, or it’s out. I’ve lived with a single 30” stove/oven combination for thirty years – ten without a broiler – and I’ve managed as many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and thousands of meals just fine. (Did I say thousands? We must eat out more.)
If you have a large kitchen, then there’s a good chance you can overwhelm them. Small kitchen? Sacrifice. It’s worth it – for the other ninety percent of the time when you just want to enjoy the charms of the old house. That’s why we bought it, after all – to escape from modernity! To feel like we’re still an integral part of that peaceful, simpler time.
Bring as much of the fabric of the original house – materials and design – into your kitchen. If your house is early with raised panel doors, beams in the ceiling, wainscoting on the walls – bring it in! Use similar color finishes, plaster the walls, or add texture to the paint. Use natural surfaces for counters – wood or soapstone. Build in the fridge, and cover it. Cover the dishwasher to match. But whatever you do, don’t bring preconceived notions from the last house, especially if it was a condo or builder’s colonial, or from a magazine on “new” kitchens, to the antique house. You don’t have to have double ovens, and please don’t put a microwave above the stove or cook top. Finishes don’t have to be “sprayed” on, joints don’t have to be blended to oblivion – it should look hand made for heaven’s sake! When production cabinetry adjoins a hand crafted antique room, the contrast is evident and the result is sterile.
I prefer hand made, hand rubbed, and hand damaged. My wood counters have burn and water marks, and my door casings have tricycle damage. It all sands out for the most part, and a new coat of oil or paint is a quick fix. I like living in a real house.
Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of your old house. Note all aspects of it from the moulding around a doorway to the size of a bead, from the depth of a raised panel to the size of the baseboard. If you copy the originals, and incorporate them sensitively into the fabric of the “new” room, with an eye toward proportion and balance – you can’t go wrong.
And think outside the box. If your old refrigerator sticks out too far, and the new shallow one isn’t in the budget, find a way to build it into the wall, or steal space from the room behind it. Our own fridge was a typical two door with an ice maker in front. We covered the whole darn thing with wood, screwed the panels right into those metal doors. It was a cheap fridge, no big loss if it didn’t work. We put a ledge on top, painted the bottom grate to match, added wooden handles and, voila, it looks like a cupboard.
The microwave, if one must have one, can sit in a built-in on the counter, covered by a door. It can be built into the side of an island where it’s less conspicuous, or better yet, if you’re fortunate to have such a space – put in the pantry.
There is a stove that I think is a terrific fit for an old kitchen – the AGA cooker. Its size shape and porcelain finishes of many colors can be blended into the cabinetry perfectly. It’s a whole new way of cooking though. Invented by a man whose wife burned everything she cooked, it’s supposed to be carefree and easy. It has two to four cook plates (depending on the size you buy), one for boiling and one for simmering, and then there are two or three ovens – for roasting, baking and warming. The cooker is always on so it warms the room – great for winter, not so great for summer. They do offer a gas or electric insert for the cooktop to use if you decide to shut it down for the summer. But that leaves you without an oven. One of our customers considered buying an Advantium which is a small microwave/convection oven that could be put in the pantry for summer use.
I did find an alternative to the AGA, one I actually prefer, at least from the photo and love the color – the Esse. There is one distributor in the USA and not many of these around. I’m guessing AGA was here first, with better marketing, and since there’s not a whole lot of demand for these unconventional cookers, the one with the best marketing wins. I do hope to replace my stove with this Esse – someday!