A Crumbling 1872 House Gets a “Fearless” Kitchen Transformation

published May 20, 2024
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Buying an old house can be nerve-wracking: Even when a 100-year-old home is in good shape, there are often still fixes — big and small — that need to be made. And when you buy an old house for a bargain, the to-do list can stretch even further. But! Under all that work can be a truly beautiful piece of history.

That’s the premise behind the new HGTV series Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House?, hosted by historic preservationist Elizabeth Finkelstein and her husband, Ethan Finkelstein, a historic build expert. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you probably know their work: Elizabeth and Ethan are the couple behind the @CheapOldHouses Instagram account, which digs up affordable listings for old houses across the country to share with their nearly 3 million followers.

The show premiered this week, and the first episode showcases a gorgeous remodel of an 1870s Italianate in Upstate New York that was originally a fire station. When the homeowners, partners Bill and Joe, first saw the building, it was in iffy shape. The paint was peeling, the walls were crumbling, and the brick was turning to dust. Plus, one area of the first floor had been covered in dated ’70s finishes.

But the building also boasted gorgeous tin ceilings throughout, plus tin tiled walls in the foyer, lighting dating to the 1940s, giant windows, and even a small workspace that was once the mayor’s office. The couple wanted to preserve as much of the old detail as possible while also making the home an inviting space to host family.

Bill and Joe had a total budget of $190,000 for the project; $100,000 went to the purchase of the home, and $90,000 went into their planned remodel. Designer Jennifer Salvemini, whose ideas Joe calls “fearless,” stepped in to create a space that would highlight the historic features while also making the home livable.

The living room’s color scheme was an accident.

The first plan was to strip the white paint off the tin tiles to reveal the iridescent coppery patina beneath. The stripping process also removed that patina, though, so Jennifer pivoted. Instead, she painted over the tin tiles with a pink paint that closely matched the tones found in the patina. That color is complemented by a dark blue used on the wood trim.

Bill and Joe peeled up the layers of old flooring to reveal the original wood beneath; refinishing that instead of installing new floors saved them thousands.

Jennifer filled the space with cozy lounging furniture, including a vintage sofa she scored secondhand for just $250. Bill and Joe’s own antique finds were brought in, too.

Dark paint on the walls and ceiling made the most of a small office.

The mayor’s office — labeled with an original glass door! — had a lower ceiling than the living room, as well as a small footprint. Jennifer decided to lean into the “cave-like” quality and go dark with the paint throughout.

The old door looks new.

The new color helped the already-there 1940s school light fixture pop. It also helped the original textured glass door shine. The “new” flooring is the original linoleum, uncovered after layers of other flooring were removed.

The kitchen features exposed brick.

The open kitchen and dining area benefited from a lucky find: gorgeous brick, which was exposed once the crumbling plaster was removed. The new black cabinets lean into the home’s dramatic color scheme.

A highlight of the space is the handmade light fixture over the dining table, which is modeled after an antique chandelier that rests in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The light was a splurge at $7,000. The team made it work thanks to cost cutting in other areas (like all the DIY demo and painting). “We’re all about cheap, but this was the splurge,” Ethan says.

Outside, the brick was restored and repainted.

Before, the brick building had been covered in the wrong type of paint, which trapped moisture and caused the mortar to deteriorate. Bill and Joe, professional concrete artisans, refaced the brick before the exterior was repainted in a warm orangey tone as a nod to its firehouse beginnings. 

“It was very very hard to see the potential in this space, but it’s come a long way,” Elizabeth says during the reveal. And even though it looks completely different, all the original features of the building that made it special remain. Now, it’s ready for an entirely new chapter as a home and gathering place that’s full of historic charm.

Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? airs on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. ET on HGTV.