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My House, My Life

A Bungalow Returns to Retro

A South Pasadena kitchen looks more old-fashioned after a remodel--and that's the point


When we moved into our South Pasadena bungalow in 1986, the kitchen had louver windows, cabinets in disrepair, a hideous vinyl floor with a dirt-catching gold pattern and no good place for a standard-size refrigerator. There was a '70s bender-board wall behind the stove, which was a superb grease magnet.

On the plus side, the kitchen had its original yellow-and-green tile and porcelain sink and 1923 cabinets, complete with built-in ironing board and curvaceous doors under the sink. A friend made me promise never to rip out those scalloped doors.

In the following 15 years, my husband, Jim, and I did basic repairs to the drawers and cabinets, removed the bender-board facade, painted and pulled up five layers of vinyl flooring, plywood, asbestos tile and adhesive.

This latter job was a marriage tester as we sat and chipped off the final flooring layer in laborious 1-inch chunks, which took days, or maybe it was weeks. The felt backing and mastic proved too much for us, so we called in a professional refinisher, who revealed the beautiful original Douglas fir flooring.

Unlike some bungalow kitchens, ours has plenty of counter space. The sink had some sizable chips, but I was loath to rip out the tile to replace the sink or install a dishwasher. There remained a wish list of kitchen improvements, but as the years went by and I learned more about bungalows I realized that my priorities and taste were evolving.

Fortunately the changes we had made--contemporary track lighting, additional upper cabinets from IKEA and inexpensive knobs--were easily reversible. It was a blessing that our budget precluded a whole-kitchen make-over that might have been wrong for this modest bungalow.

Inspired by Jane Powell and Linda Svendsen's "Bungalow Kitchens" (Gibbs Smith), we recently completed a kitchen face lift that leaves some visitors wondering what's changed--which is just fine with us. Over the course of six months we:

* Sent the cabinet doors out to have 70 years of paint stripped off.

* Had cracked portions of the ceiling and wall plaster repaired and skim coated.

* Installed decorative moldings on contemporary cabinets.

* Painted cabinet exteriors and varnished interiors.

* Painted walls and ceilings.

* Replaced lighting with period and reproduction fixtures.

* Had new wood-frame double-hung windows installed.

* Refurbished or replaced existing hinges and knobs.

* Refinished the Douglas fir floor.

Of these projects, the floor refinishing proved to be a real challenge. The urethane coating that had been applied about 10 years before had worn thin in spots, and the floor had some longitudinal cracks that needed repair.

Our bungalow was built without subflooring, so the vertical-grain Douglas fir is the only thing between us and the floor joists, making us doubly cautious about repeat sandings. We were assured that the urethane layer could be removed with finish sanders. Wrong.

The remaining coating proved very tough to cut through, but one belt sander, two finish sanders and multiple coats of paint stripper later, we were able to apply an environmentally safe oil-based sealer to the period floor.

We already had a '50s stove that we'd hauled to Minnesota and back that looked great in our period kitchen, but the perfect refrigerator proved elusive.

Originally our bungalow undoubtedly had an icebox on the adjoining service porch, and the slim space next to the stove was only large enough for an apartment-size model. We kept looking, considering built-in, under-counter and vintage-look models. None seemed right for the room or the space: too tall, too small or inappropriate for a simple bungalow.

A bungalow-savvy friend turned us on to a retro-looking refrigerator from Germany, manufactured by Muller. It was the right width--less than 30 inches--and came in more than 200 colors.

We were able to custom order it with a larger refrigerator section instead of a bottom drawer, and went for jadite green, although white would have been a safe choice. It's not frost-free, which gave me pause, but in the nine months we've had it, it has required defrosting only twice--a 15-minute job. The fridge took five months to arrive, but it really enhances the kitchen; most people think it's old.

We still have our nearly 20-year-old portable dishwasher, which we use daily as a work island. And the microwave and TV aren't under wraps; they're small white models that sit out on a painted chest of drawers under one of the newish upper cabinets. But we have no garbage disposal, trash compactor or appliance garage; those are things the first owners didn't need, nor do we.

A period porcelain wall sconce and schoolhouse light were found at online auctions, as were advertising art and fruit packing labels from the '20s-to-'40s era. Vintage hand towels and an old cherry-print fabric that was wrapped around our built-in ironing board were turned into window valances. Hall china, Jadite glassware and period kitchen clocks also add to the room's bygone-era appearance.

I'm sure many visitors completely overlook our kitchen or think it represents a prime "before" room, crying out for stainless steel appliances, granite counters and recessed lighting.

But we're happy with this decidedly old-fashioned room and use it daily for simple family meals and gourmet dinners with friends. It's just right for us and our bungalow.


Michelle Gringeri-Brown is a freelance writer and the editor of American Bungalow magazine, online at

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