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They light up a place

Stoves from the 1940s and 1950s are stoking a lot of nostalgia in today's kitchens. But the antiques also fuel a modern demand for appliances that really cook.

November 27, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

The stove that is the hallowed centerpiece in the renovated Newport Beach home of Deborah and John Jakubek is hardly one of the modern-day, gleaming trophy stoves with warrior names such as Viking or Wolf. Their 1950 O'Keefe & Merritt -- the type of stove used by millions of moms to cook Thanksgiving dinners for generations of families in post-war America -- is far more modest.

And far more meaningful.

"I grew up with a 1950s O'Keefe & Merritt and always wanted one again," said Deborah Jakubek, 50, standing in her otherwise all-new kitchen that was designed around this stove. "It was the stove my mother taught me to cook on."

Her mother died in January. Jakubek's voice cracks as she speaks.

"She used to wake me up early on Thanksgiving morning and we would work together in the kitchen. When I was 5 years old, I was already helping -- she would bring in a little step stool so I could reach the counter."

As restored by Stevan Thomas, who works out of his San Bernardino garage, the body of the now burgundy-colored stove is covered with porcelain so thick, smooth and luscious that it looks as if it's candy-coated. Thomas also re-chromed the cooktop, nickel-plated the griddle, refurbished the burners, hand-lettered the knobs, restored the Bakelite handles, put new springs on the doors and replaced the missing, built-in salt and pepper shakers that were standard equipment on many '50s stoves.

Even the clock -- a notoriously fickle part on stoves of that era -- now works flawlessly.

Restored stoves from the 1940s and 1950s have grown increasingly popular in modern kitchens for emotional reasons as well as their craftsmanship and styling. "You have to remember that 10 years before that period, people were cooking on stoves with hardly any design at all -- maybe they had cabriole legs and that was it," said John Sollo, an auctioneer who conducts major sales of mid-century furniture.

But there was nothing Victorian about the stoves that arrived in the late 1940s. Like mid-century furniture styles now being revived, these stoves look forward, not back.

"The curves, the wild colors -- it was so daring and creative," said Sollo. "They were not just recycling historical references. It was about optimism, and that's so appealing to people now."

Thomas' restored stoves generally cost from $3,500 to $15,000, depending on the size, amount of work needed and customizations requested by the buyer. The Jakubeks' 36-inch stove, with a custom color and the addition of an oven window that was not in the original, cost $4,500.

New York-based jewelry designer Gregory Coster bought a Thomas-restored Aristocrat, a large O'Keefe & Merritt stove that looks -- with its stacked ovens and grills -- like a little apartment house. With the restoration, some of which Thomas flew in to do on-site, it cost Coster more than $15,000.

Stoves from the '50s -- other popular brands include Western-Holly, Wedgewood, and Gaffers & Sattler -- can be found at a lesser price.

The dean of antique stoves in Southern California is Windsor Williams, who has Antique Stove Heaven showrooms in Los Angeles and Harbor City.

His stoves all work when he sells them, and he gives a six-month guarantee. Williams sells a four-burner O'Keefe & Merritt or Western-Holly stove from the 1950s for as little as $799. "I call them my plain-Jane stoves," said Williams. "For that price, you don't get a working clock."

Thomas sells only fully restored stoves and each has a five-year guarantee. Because he gives each stove a major overhaul, and because he has only one helper -- his father -- Thomas has sold fewer than 40 of them in the three years he has been in business.

But he's not worried about returns.

"When they're restored, they'll outlive their new owners," Thomas said,

He only partly attributed their longevity to his workmanship. The stoves were built far more solidly than what came after. "It's not unusual to find one of these stoves still working. You see them a lot more than anything in avocado green or harvest gold," he said.

Jimmy Rodriguez, 36, grew up in a household with a 1950s stove. "We had a big TV in a wooden cabinet, and it broke down so often that it was like the TV repairman was part of the family. In fact, he married my aunt," Rodriguez said. "We never had to call a stove repairman."

Philip Atwell, who owns several small apartment buildings in Los Angeles, puts 1950 stoves, restored by Sav On Appliances in Burbank, in his rental units. "You can install a new refrigerator and no one will say anything, but everyone notices one of these stoves," Atwell said. "They are like pieces of art."

But their good looks alone are not what attracted the landlord.

"They're just so reliable. They do what they're supposed to do. I can't say that about all appliances."

Williams claims that old stoves do a better job of baking. "The thermostats were more reliable. They kept the temperature more even, without recycling on and off all the time like the new ones."

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