Before and After: A Gut Reno and a New Layout Make a Cramped Kitchen Way More Usable
Super-old homes often have charming original details, but they’re also bound to have some quirky additions thanks to previous homeowners’ preferences, passing design fads, and more. As Carissa Demore, Historic New England’s leader for preservation services, once told AT, “No house that’s 300 years old has survived without alterations.”
Homeowner Libby Gudz Reynolds can attest. In her 1808 home, known as the 1808 Joel Aldrich House, the kitchen is one such room that’s been altered over time to keep up with contemporary life — and Libby and her family chose to alter it for their needs, too. “The kitchen had been renovated by the previous owners sometime in the 1990s, we believe,” Libby explains. “To say that the layout and storage in this kitchen was not efficient is a serious understatement!”
There were eight different doors in the room, and none of them were the same size or height. And while the room —as its eight doors might suggest — was a really good size, it had been cut in half with a bar height-counter.
“All of the appliances were corralled into one tiny area,” Libby says. “The kitchen sink was about 5 feet wide — an old style, all-one-piece with drainboards on either side, but the sink basin itself was super shallow, and the 1990s chrome faucet was loose and hanging on by a thread. The cabinets looked well-made and definitely custom, but there were too many small drawers and small cabinet spaces, and we couldn’t figure out where to put anything.”
Libby adds that some of the drawers didn’t even close all the way because there was insulation stuffed behind them. Plus, the cherry wood countertops were all sticky to the touch — not exactly pleasant to use.
Libby and her husband, Nate — with the help of some pros for electrical, plumbing, drywall, tile, and countertop installation — renovated the kitchen in what was a massive undertaking. “I had a solid vision of a kitchen with dark blue cabinets around the perimeter of the room, a large island with contrasting wood cabinets, no upper cabinets, and some old wood floating shelves with beautiful but functional pieces adorning them,” Libby says. In addition, the couple wanted to seal up some of the doorways, move the stove against the wall, and add pantry storage on the fridge wall.
Nate did the demo on the old kitchen in 2018, and then they purchased and installed new inky blue cabinetry from Lowe’s. “We had lots of challenges just because of how many doorways and windows we had to work around,” Libby recalls.
Two other challenges that came with the historic house: wiring and plumbing within the two-century-old walls, and installing new cabinets and a new island on uneven flooring.
“This house has post-and-beam construction with plank walls; it’s nothing like modern day 2×4 (or 2×6) construction,” Libby says. “With 2x4s, you have space in between for wires and plumbing. We have no space, just literal 1-inch thick tree slices laid side by side by side across the walls. On the inside, they plastered right over it, and there are your walls. On the outside, they attached the clapboards. There’s no room for anything, not even insulation.” (Hence the previously noted drawer obstruction.)
Libby and Nate learned to build out walls with 2x4s by watching YouTube videos. They did this in two spots: one was where they wanted to hide the plumbing that goes upstairs, and the second was on the wall where the sink is. That way, they’d have room to add insulation to prevent frozen pipes as well as some electrical outlets and switches.
Because “no floors are level in this 1808 house,” Libby says, they relied on shims to install their new cabinetry on a level plane. “The island installation was especially fun and interesting,” Libby says. “On the side of the island that faces our stove, the countertop is standard height, but on the opposite side of the island, because the floor slopes so much, I had to buy bar height stools to accommodate the height difference!”
That said, the island is now one of Libby’s favorite parts of the space. “We love the layout and the space we have to gather around the island,” Libby says. “The only thing I would have done differently is I would have ordered the finished paneled sides on the island cabinets.”
One of Libby and Nate’s other favorite parts of their new kitchen is the floating shelves above the stove, which they built out of old floorboards from the home’s attic. They told Rhode Island Monthly that they didn’t want to sand them down too much because they wanted to show some original details (including old nails hammered in!) to pay homage to the historic home. “They add so much warmth and character and history to the room,” Libby says.
To bring the kitchen into the 2020s and make it functional for day-to-day use, they installed quartz countertops, a marble backsplash, and brass hardware. New lighting has a mid-century flair and puts the focus on the giant furniture-like island — a piece that’s much more functional than the old half bar-height, have counter-height peninsula that was there before. To make the kitchen feel extra homey, the couple added lots of plants that complement Libby’s “moody maximalist” style.
“I’m most proud of the fact that my husband and I make an awesome reno duo,” Libby says. “We have complementary skills, and I’m convinced that we can handle any reno challenge that we take on.”
Her advice to those wanting to make a change in the kitchen? “Don’t be afraid to dive into a kitchen reno!” she says. You can learn how to do a lot of things from watching YouTube!”
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