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Book Review: Bungalow Kitchens

Published by Gibbs Smith, 2000

Pine for the kitchen you had as a kid? Jane Powell and Linda Svendsen can help you restore or recreate one

by Thea M. Gray

If you’re an American over the age of fifty, the odds are pretty good that you spent at least part of your childhood in a kitchen that would meet with Jane Powell’s approval.

Ms Powell’s interest in pre-1950s kitchens stems from her own early exposure to this vintage style. Since 1987 Powell has been preserving and renovating bungalows and other old homes in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Her experience and research in this field informs her comprehensive, intelligently organized, and very readable design resource book, Bungalow Kitchens, nicely illustrated with photographs by Linda Svendsen.

Bungalow Kitchens was brought to my attention a couple of years ago, not long after my spouse and I bought a 1924 California bungalow in San Francisco’s foggy West Portal district. We quickly fell in love with the relatively large and open kitchen, the basics of which had survived for 80 years relatively untouched by passing fads. It is the picture of a proper “sanitary” kitchen, with simple white painted cabinets, one topped by linoleum and the other by a cheery yellow-tiled counter and matching backsplash with a jaunty red racing stripe.

Over the years, the tiles’ surfaces have accumulated minor cracks and fissures, and somewhere along the line, a caretaker hastily patched the groutless gaps between with caulk. But the kitchen still features a fold-down ironing board and a recognizable pie safe, and now, nearly three years after moving in, the original kitchen still tops our list of the house’s many charms.

Kitchens built by the end of World War II, do, however, pose a certain set of problems for any modern homeowner who, while enamored by their charm, is equally fond of conveniences created well after their heyday: microwaves, under-the-counter dishwashers, and garbage disposals.

Having run out of easy excuses for neglecting the kitchen’s welfare (most notably house painting and garden tending), I now find myself spending long stretches flipping through the pages of Bungalow Kitchens. Ms Powell’s very interesting history of the modern sanitary kitchen is followed by chapters on Nuts and Bolts (options for lighting, plumbing, and ventilation), Eye Appeal (cabinets, flooring, ceilings, doors and windows), and, my favorite, Appliances, Assessing Your Needs and Dealing with Professionals, and the final practical chapter, Resources.

The book satisfies the spectrum of homeowners; design options in each chapter subsection are categorized as Obsessive Restoration or Compromise Solution. In the chapter on appliances, for instance, Ms Powell reviews the options for our particular conundrum: how to install a dishwasher in an original kitchen with counters two inches too shallow for the average machine?

We learn that the dishwasher dates back to the early 1900s. “Though widely advertised,” she informs us, “dishwashers were considered a luxury item (probably by men, who rarely did the dishes) and did not become widespread until after World War II, when the under-the-counter built-in dishwasher that is now standard was introduced.”

Want to put one in, say, your 1924 kitchen? Her recommendation for an Obsessive Restoration is as follows: “The likelihood of finding a functioning antique dishwasher is extremely small. If you have one, by all means, keep it, if only as a conversation piece. More likely there will be no dishwasher at all. If you don’t mind doing dishes by hand, then that will be no problem. You might consider building a dirty-dish closet, detailed in the cabinets section. If you do want a dishwasher, it will have to be hidden in some way.”

And that’s where the Compromise Solution comes in. Selections follow:

“The dishwasher is another truly fine invention of the twentieth century, and most people want one. There are various ways to integrate dishwashers into a period kitchen. It could be left out in the open (again, as with refrigerators, no one will be fooled by a wooden panel on the front). However, some expensive European models are available with all the controls on the top edge, allowing the entire front to be covered with a false front; a bank of three false drawers looks pretty good. The new 'dishwasher drawers' manufactured by Fisher and Paykel accept wooden fronts that match cabinetry.

“Another problem often encountered when trying to fit a dishwasher into an existing old kitchen is that modern dishwashers are all 24 inches deep, whereas old counters often measure only 18 or 20 inches deep. Some European dishwashers (Bosch, Miele, Asko) are slightly shallower, about 23 inches. A countertop dishwasher from Equator Appliance, measuring about 20 inches square, is one solution. It can be hooked up to the sink as a portable or installed permanently in a cabinet.

"Another option is to let the dishwasher extend over the counter and build a wooden frame around the part that protrudes. If the countertop is being replaced, it can step out over the protruding dishwasher, which will make the whole thing look intentional.

"A third option is recessing it into the wall, which will gain a couple of inches. Sometimes there isn’t room for a full 24-inch-wide standard dishwasher, in which an 18-inch-wide model (offered by several manufacturers) may solve the problem. Unfortunately, an 18-inch-wide model costs the same as a big one.”

In addition to Linda Svendsen’s beautifully photographed examples of most solutions discussed are a number of clear illustrations. The drawings, such as those of the parts of a cabinet and drawer construction, enable you to figure out what you’re looking at, whether it might be original, and what you’d want to look for if you needed to replace a missing part.

On the whole, Bungalow Kitchens is intelligently and humorously written, and as useful to the average vintage-homeowner as to the obsessive one.

If you want to get more of a taste of Ms Powell’s personality and writing style, take a look at an article she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine earlier this year entitled Modernizing the Vintage Kitchen, Or How Best to Avoid Cognitive Dissonance in Design. Or visit her website at http://www.bungalowkitchens.com/

Once we’ve picked one of Ms Powell’s compromise solutions and installed a dishwasher into our kitchen, the next step will be to acquire one of her other volumes, Bungalow Bathrooms, Linoleum, Bungalow Details: Exterior, or Bungalow: The Ultimate Arts & Crafts Home.

©2005 Thea M. Gray for SeniorWomen.com

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