colonial kitchens

The most important room in a house, is arguably, the kitchen.  Not only to satisfy the building inspector who won’t let us live without one anymore, but to satisfy our own creative appetites.  We want them to be special, ample, with lots of storage and modern conveniences.  Because we love the old, we want them to be traditional and charming, as personal and unique as we are.  The trick today is to incorporate all of the new conventions into the old house.  The early builder could never have foreseen the evolution of the modern appliance!  The ten foot wide hearth, with its iron pots and utensils, and large brick bake oven, was more than ample for the early homeowner’s needs.

Needless to say, the huge old hearth is not for cooking anymore.   We’ve long since forgotten how to cook over the open fire, or how long to keep an arm in the oven to gauge temperature.  We use electricity or gas rather than wood for cooking, and dials rather than arms for setting temperatures.  While they used open shelving, and an occasional cupboard for storage, today we crave lots of cabinetry to house all of our “stuff.”  blueCab

We want a designated cabinet to house the mixer, or an “appliance lift” to make it easy on our backs; a space to hide the coffee maker, or the microwave, behind a custom retractable door; a slide out trash compartment, with bins for separating trash and recyclables; a tray cabinet beside the stove; a drawer with compartments for cutlery and knives; a drawer for spices; shelves that glide out of the cabinet for easy access to pots and pans;  “lazy susans” to take up that wasted space that occurs in corners where two cabinets meet.  Added to all of this is a stove – often in two parts, or three – a cooktop and one or two separate ovens; a refrigerator which is often way too deep; a dishwasher, and sundry other appliances.  All are usually in stainless steel, and all combine to create an enormous challenge in trying to capture the atmosphere of 18th century living!

kitchens_display

That old hearth is a place for reflection now, a place to consider how far we’ve come and how far we want to go.  The new kitchen can be incorporated subtly into the old keeping room, or preferably, in a wing off the house entirely.  It can be designed using all of the same ingredients of the old house –wood floors, perhaps beamed ceilings, crown mouldings, raised panel doors, iron hardware.  Putting them tastefully together, thinking like the early craftsman, copying his craftsmanship, even using some of his tools, helps us to achieve the look that works seamlessly with the original house.

new old Buttery The end result should be a room that will feel, when you walk into it, like a logical continuation of the old, or at the very least, part of the natural evolution of the earlier house.

Henry Francis Dupont said of his design at Winterthur, that no one thing should stand out when you enter a room, essentially, everything should carry its own weight.  That is true about kitchens as well – so good luck with the refrigerator!  And the stove, and the ovens!  Well, we’ve dealt with these for many years.  While they are challenging, they are not impossible.  It is never a perfect solution, but a pretty good one.  We do live in the 21st century after all, another evolution in design, which is not always kind to the 18th century.  We certainly don’t want to use chrome and glass or melamine and formica.  Well, we don’t want a lot of things.

litner_kitchen2 But what we do want are classical designs using the same elements that attracted us to the house in the first place.  The natural elements that keep us grounded, that remind us we are of the earth and want to remain in touch with it.

Clay, wood, plaster, stone, glass, and a few variations on those themes, as close to what is found in original colonial homes, will keep any new room in tune with the old.  Wood cabinets, plaster walls, brick or stone fireplaces and hearths, material selection is of utmost importance, as is the proportion and balance of design.  (I overuse that term, but it is everything!)  We are in a constant struggle between fitting in what the customer wants and what the house will not be overwhelmed by.  We don’t want to walk into the kitchen and have it scream at us –“I am a kitchen, and the most important room in your house!”

Shaker style kitchen cabinetry It should be a pleasant, useful space, whose cabinetry and woodwork do not overwhelm with over-design.  It is easy for a homeowner to be seduced by the array of cabinetry and gadgets on display in a kitchen showroom.  From the simpler Shaker style to European extravagance, a homeowner can be overwhelmed and end up “picking” a style they like right there on the floor, rather than one that works seamlessly within the context of their own home.

We purchase a home because we love its style, and recognize its possibilities.  That’s important to remember, and stick to, when choosing a kitchen design.  Custom design is worth it, to know that the cabinetry will be designed specifically for our working space needs, and fit seamlessly into our style of home.  Nothing will stand out.  The cabinetry and woodwork will feel like it was always there, contributing to, rather than distracting from, the charm of the colonial home.

a find

Sometimes you just can’t wrestle that dilapidated old house from the grip of an indifferent owner.  Whether it’s falling down or falling apart – they don’t care.  They may have inherited the property with an eye toward one day tearing it down and building a new one on the same spot.  Or may be considering it as a project for the future, and don’t want to think about it right now.  Sometimes, it’s just that it’s theirs, and it’s none of your business.  There are as many reasons for it as there are arguments among siblings who’ve inherited a house.

Once, we came across a lovely old place in a terrible location, close to a commercial thoroughfare.  It was next door to a gas station, and behind it were the remains of a working farm.  A few weathered barns, in various states of disrepair, struggled to maintain the ambiance of a long forgotten past.  Corn grew and cows grazed in the pasture beyond.  Settings like this attract us, and the abandoned old house is the magnet that draws us in, beckoning us to explore and yes, sometimes, to trespass in the name of preservation.

The front door of this one had been left ajar, and there wasn’t a soul around.  It was an early farmhouse with a steep pitch to its crooked roof, wide center chimney with a few missing bricks, and what looked like original windows with crown glass.  It was now dressed in asbestos siding, and some vinyl storms, but the overall shape still stood proud.

The front door’s raised panels were cracked and weathered, but repairable.  Iron strap hinges were still in place, as well as the arrowhead latch.  It groaned stubbornly across a swollen plywood landing as we swung it open.  We expected to step into the original front porch, with dog leg staircase and doorways to either side.  And that is exactly what we did.  The old staircase twisted steeply to the second floor, displaying its early turned balusters, newel post and simple handrail.  The unpainted treads were shallow and dry, worn thin in the middle from a thousand climbs to the second floor.  The thin whitewashed plaster that lined the stairwell was barely clinging to the lath beneath and was falling in clumps onto the stairs.  The entire wall in front of us was beautifully paneled, with a door to the basement, and a sparking bench between.  Musty and mildewed, cobwebbed and dirty, the entire space was a treasure.

We turned to walk through a doorway to the front room, but stopped in the nick of time.  There were no floors, on either side.  No first floors, no second, and no third!  Wanting to get a better view of the fireplaces, we walked across the joists, carefully, trying not to fall into the basement.  The fireplace walls, at the first and second floors, were paneled, one with a built in cupboard to the right of it.  The summers were cased, there was crown moulding around the perimeter, and wainscoting below.  All the treasures you hoped to find in an early house.  But where was the flooring?  Obviously, someone had been there before us, and had either stolen it, or had made a deal with the owners to buy it.  Surely they would be back for the rest.

While we are known to trespass in abandoned old houses, we have never removed anything from them.  Like the old birdwatcher’s motto – take a few pleasures, leave a few footprints – we have a thorough respect for their dignity, and desire only to examine and evaluate, to find a way to improve their situation, and to keep them whole.

We found the owners – two brothers who lived in town, and visited daily to tend the farm.  It turned out that they had sold the flooring, but were not interested in selling anything more.  We were glad to hear that, as it is always a shame to “part out” a house.  However, as it turned out, they wanted the rest of it to remain because it housed the water pump in the basement. This once proud homestead, replete with 18th century millwork treasures, was now a pump house.  No amount of coaxing could move these old Yankees into giving up the house.  We offered to build a more efficient shelter to cover their pump.  No luck.  We asked if we could purchase the paneling – for safekeeping, in the event that they might change their minds, or at the very least, to keep it from being stolen.  Not interested.  We asked if they might put a lock on the front door to prevent the house from being vandalized.  That was inconvenient.

We drove by once in a while after that, to see how the house was faring.  At each visit we’d notice parts missing, one wall of paneling gone, then another.  Then a hole where the built-in cupboard used to be.  The paneled door to the basement, easily lifted off its pintels, gone.  Paneling and sparking bench, all stolen.  Even the floor joists were missing.  We pleaded with the farmers, but their stubbornness prevailed.

Then the dreaded day came when we drove by only to find charred remains of the treasure that used to be.  I can’t remember how it happened, but didn’t matter, it was gone, another waste.

This wouldn’t be the only story of its kind in our travels.  There were many.  But they weren’t all losses.  Some, thankfully, we would win.

the forgotten

As young college students, some forty years ago, we were on one of our old house adventure drives between southeastern MA, RI and CT.  What used to take two hours to get from college to home now became four or five as we detoured endlessly in our effort to “discover” every old house on our route – to admire, to learn from, and perhaps to find some derelict we could fix.  On this day, we wound our way up some forgotten back road lined with moss covered stone walls, overhung with mature maples.  Their leafy arms arched over the road from both sides, blocked out the sun and created one of those sepia scenes in an old daguerreotype.   There were no homes, no development, just woods.  The kind of place where you feel you’ve stepped into the past, because nothing has changed, it’s as it always was.  We hoped to find an old saltbox, or simple farmhouse or cape at the end.  If someone lived there, maybe they wouldn’t mind our stopping by to admire it.   They might even offer to let us in, to share their “labor of love” as so many called it.

And then we came to the end.  It was a little clearing, overgrown with bushes and vines.  The sun streamed through the trees in a biblical light.   There it stood, directly in front of us, a grand stone chimney, some thirty feet high, fireplaces exposed up to the second floor with no way to reach them.  The bones of the old frame struggled to outline where the house used to be.  The rest of it, from floor joists to ridge pole, had collapsed into the cellar hole.   Girts, purlins, sills, and summers stuck out of the earthen pit like a grand carcass, licked clean by the twin vultures of neglect and time.   Squirrels scrambled along the fallen joists, birds scattered to the top of the chimney, where surely bats slept within.   Saplings sprouted in the damp, dirt basement, weeds and vines emanated from every crack in the foundation stones, and a giant walnut tree spread above, dropping its walnut harvest for the creatures that scampered everywhere.   The scene was bittersweet.  Another piece of history was lost, but in that loss, nature was reclaiming her own.

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forgotten

So many houses have been lost to neglect, in our own back yard, in our own historic neighborhoods.  The only way to view them now is in books or historical archives.  We regret their loss, but we can’t always blame the owner for it.  A neighbor, who had lived through the depression, pointed out to me that during that difficult time people just didn’t have the money to fix up these old places.  Sills rotted, houses leaned, roofs decayed.  What was one to do?

We can only do our best.  Maintenance is an issue with anything made of wood and exposed to weather.  Our early homes need a lot of help, more than new ones, but they’re worth it.  If we keep them oiled and painted, and repair or replace anything cracked or broken on a regular basis, if we care for them, they will last another two hundred years.  But abandoned, there is no hope, unless adventurers like us continue on our prowl to find them in time to save them from the compost heap.

progress?

So many, moving so fast, in the name of progress.  Yet where are we going?  Some of us chasing our tails, some striving for an unknown beyond.  So many take no notice of what surrounds them.  “Architecture is frozen music,” said Goethe.  We need to stop, now and then, and listen.  The notes are carefully crafted around us in small forms – a beading detail on a window frame, a bolection moulding around a fireplace opening, a paneled wall at a chimney breast, wainscoting, raised paneled or plank, with chair rail above, a corner cupboard built in to the corner of the room to house our precious things.   The curve of the shelf, the scallop of the back, the hand forged brass knob – all carefully considered, hand worked and forged with a pride that could carve a country out of a wilderness.

Yet, how ungrateful we have been.   How could we turn a blind eye to what these craftsmen created?  How could we forget the awe of their achievement?

We have strayed far.  Hundreds, thousands, dare I say, millions, of houses have been built since, without even a cursory nod to classical design.  They want to learn nothing from the past, just to rewrite it.  To pick it clean, selectively, according to their likes and dislikes, and mold it together as economically as possible, into one giant monolith.   And most builders cater to this.  They look only forward, never back.  Forward to the profit margin, to the devil with the result.  Thus, we have miles of plastic cities, plastic neighborhoods, plastic homes.  With wide empty spaces in which to lose dreams instead of create them, slippery spaces where nothing can stick, Teflon walls, padded floors, plastic paint.

Where is the pride in that?  Where, the reality?

Our American treasures, large and small, cannot be forsaken.   We cannot leave this work only to Landmarks Societies or Historic District Committees, their budgets and powers are limited.  We each have to do our small part, whether it’s saving, instead of knocking down, or calling in an expert for advice on how to restore, repair, reshape the old doorway, the sagging floor, the crooked windows.  There is help and expertise out there.  But one has to make the call.  One has to care.

How I wish I could have been with Henry James on his travels in 1904!  When the roads were still dirt, travel was horse and cart, and architecture so simple.  Before the advent of asbestos and aluminum siding, insulated windows and asphalt roofs!  When glass was wavy and doorways were made of wood.  When architects like Christopher Wren and Asher Benjamin based their designs on the classical, craftsmen honed their skills with pride, and town folks built their homes, and their lives, on principles.

We can do this again.  We need to slow down, turn our attention to the classical details that have outlasted all fads, to the places that have drawn tourists and students alike for a thousand years, and listen, ever so carefully, to the frozen music.