Inspiration for a Reluctant Remodeler

M.A.--Architecture_Kitchen

You’ll find out soon enough that selling a house isn’t as easy as putting up a for-sale sign. The housing market may be staging a comeback, but the mortgage crisis created a new kind of buyer who is less adventurous and more practical than buyers used to be. He or she has figured out, for example, that in this era of tight credit and low interest rates it makes more financial sense to bundle the cost of a brand-new kitchen (the one the seller paid for) into a fixed-rate 30-year mortgage than to take out a home-equity loan.

That’s how a real-estate agent friend explained the situation, anyway. The subtext was this: Buyers will turn on their heels the instant they see your pitiful excuse for a kitchen.

My husband and I bought our house from my family after my grandmother died. It had all of the charms of a house built in 1880—and all of the deficits. Particularly the kitchen.

It didn’t bother my grandmother:  She never set foot in the kitchen. The cook lived in a corner of it that was barely big enough to contain a twin bed. A door opened onto a narrow hallway adjacent to an elaborate butler’s pantry on one side and a stove that leaked gas on the other. The fridge (AKA, ice box) was parked in an unheated “mudroom” attached to a screened porch about as big as the fridge set on its side.

We did a bare-minimum kitchen upgrade before moving into the house, ripping out a few walls and relocating the original glass-fronted pine cabinets in the butler’s pantry to walls left standing. The finishing touch was a dishwasher.

In subsequent years, we tinkered with cosmetic improvements, such as swapping out the Formica counters for granite and adding a new back door that let in some light and opened up the kitchen to the garden. Because I’m a garden writer (my grandmother preferred golf), it wasn’t long before the small screen porch morphed into a deck leading to an ocean of plants.

When our real-estate agent friend told us what our house might sell for and described it as “so European,” the scales fell from my eyes with a deafening crash. “European” is code for charmingly decrepit and the precise opposite of what today’s buyer wants. It screams deferred maintenance. A high-end home with a high-end price tag is expected to contain if not a Sub-Zero fridge then at the very least a Liebherr. The absence of such amenities makes a potential buyer wonder what else is wrong. Is the roof OK? Does the furnace put out heat?

We hired architect Bryan Meyers of M.A. Architecture in Minneapolis and builder Showcase Renovation in Corcoran and embarked on a major overhaul. Meyers helped us talk through a number of organizational challenges. We’d tried for years to create a proper sitting area opposite the working part of the kitchen. Alas, the space was just too small. It seems twice the size now, thanks to a cantilevered bay that pushes the east wall out two feet.

Showcase turned my hands-on personality to their advantage. For instance, they figured out fast that there would be no weakening my resolve to recycle everything but the thumbtacks that held down the drawer-liner paper. “Heck, if you’re willing to pull out the nails and fill the holes, we’ll re-install your crummy old millwork all day long,” they more or less said.

In addition to the original casings, rosettes, plinths, and baseboards, other recyclables include the back door, several windows, the original oak floors (patched and stained a warm walnut), the sink, most of the appliances, and one section of the aforementioned glass-fronted cabinets (stained to match the floors).

Our new kitchen features brand-new recessed lighting, custom cabinets with inset doors, slow-glide drawers, and cleverly designed legs and feet that draw attention away from the angled cuts necessary to make the cabinets level despite badly sloping floors. The countertops are white Carrara marble.

M.A.--Architecture_Kitchen_Island

We splurged on a Wolf range and stainless-steel Vent-a-Hood. We kept, against robust objections from certain parties who have since recanted, our beloved Jotul wood-burning stove. (If whoever lives here next prefers gas, it’s an easy downgrade.)

The original mudroom’s most recent incarnation was as a half bath that we called the B & B (bike and bath) because it was mostly used for storing bicycles. It’s a mudroom once more, but now a thoroughly modern one complete with cubbies and coat hooks. The new half bath opens onto a formerly cramped hallway that was rejuvenated by the addition of a glass side-entry door, a much larger opening between the hall and kitchen, and a fresh coat of paint.

Jay Nuhring of ReSee Design in Minneapolis helped us track down the vintage schoolhouse light fixtures above the main “island” work area that isn’t an island at all but a library table I found in a junk store and raised up to counter height by extending its legs.

Showcase met our deadline of just over a month from start to finish. I’ve had my car in the shop longer.

As for that for-sale sign…. Well, as I said at the top, putting your house on the market is a wonderful way to trigger a makeover. I didn’t say you had to actually sell the house. We’ll be here a little while longer—at least until the new master bedroom suite is done. Our real-estate agent friend tells us that for today’s high-end homebuyer, a walk-in closet is a must-have.

By Bonnie Blodgett 
Photos by Troy Thies

Architect: Bryan Meyers of M.A. Architecture
Builder: Showcase Renovation

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