Perfect kitchen? That's one tough dish to cook up

April 08, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Now that our kitchen restoration is finished, my wife and I have moved on to the next phase of such a project, namely second-guessing ourselves. Figuring out what we did right and wrong.

It is amazing how quickly you move from enjoying a comfortable and well-functioning space, to entertaining nagging doubts about how you restored it.

In our case, a once-dark and narrow ground-floor kitchen was transformed into a large, airy, combination kitchen and sitting room. Daylight now streams through windows that we barely noticed before. A set of stairs with a ceiling so low that you had to duck to avoid hitting your head has been replaced with a soaring oak stairway. Plumbing that once ran uphill was changed to comply with the laws of gravity and City Hall. Maple cabinets topped with glistening granite have replaced the old fiberboard cupboards that in their final days only appealed to the family of mice that chewed them.

Yet the other night, as I sat basking in the soft glow of the newly painted Antique White walls, my eyes locked onto the swinging metal arm that held the new flat-screen television. I had fantasized that I would be able to swing that TV out in such a way that I could watch it through the kitchen windows as I puttered in the backyard. Fantasy fell short of reality, in this case by about 6 inches, the distance the fully extended screen is short of the window frame. Buying and installing that swinging television mount had turned out to be wasted effort.

That is how you see things through the rear-view mirror of a completed project. You tend to focus on the small stuff.

The other night I had to remind myself of the big picture, of the moves that my wife and I made during the project that had turned out to be good ones. One was being patient. This was not a rush job. It ended up taking about nine months. The realities of old plumbing and the requirements of historic restoration kept the pace slow. Meanwhile, we cooked in a makeshift kitchen set up in the dining room. Denied access to the back door, we entered and exited the back of the house through a large dining-room window. We called it "taking the burglar route."

Another thing we did right was say "yes" a lot, especially to our contractor, Cy Fishburn. When he told us that timbers in the ceiling were weak, we told him to go ahead and replace them. When the electrician Steve Scalf shook his head in disbelief as a nest of old wiring fell from the old ceiling, we swallowed hard and told him to go ahead and rewire. When the lighting guy, Mark McMullen, suggested lining the walls with ceramic sconces, we said sure. And when Richard Rice of Mill Valley Kitchens said we needed fewer, not more, kitchen cabinets than we had planned, I could have kissed him.

The biggest disappointment of the project was the kitchen floor. We tried something new, decorative concrete. This is a poured floor of colored concrete that is allowed to set, then honed with machines until the stones within the concrete appear and the floor begins to take on the appearance of granite. Our floor looked fine for a time. Then long, skinny cracks appeared. Many culprits were suspected -- an inferior quality of the cement used in the batch of concrete, the lack of expansion joints, the radiant heating tubes buried in the floor. None was proven. In the end, our contractor swallowed the cost of the floor and we lived with the cracks, which we now think of as floor "patina."

Another mistake we made was not buying a new dishwasher. We kept our old one, which we had owned for about four years. Veteran appliances don't do well when they are taken out of action for several months, as this one was during the renovation. Lately it has been leaking, leaving spots on the glasses. Not keeping up, in other words, to the standards of the new kitchen.

We didn't get a new dishwasher because we were trying to save money and because I got tired of buying things. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of the kitchen project was coping with the seemingly endless stream of purchasing decisions. It is necessary, I supposed, but I did not enjoy it. I did not mind going to Rock Tops in Halethorpe and selecting one of the massive slabs of granite. But picking out kitchen faucets and drawer pulls left me cold.

Then there was the decoration "creep" that follows a renovation. You fix up one part of your house, and then the remaining quarters start to look shabby. So the painter, Edward Kargman, who did such a good job in the kitchen, is dispatched to paint the dining room and to wallpaper a first-floor bathroom. These walls glisten, but now by comparison, the rest of house looks pretty dim.

This week I read "Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens," an article by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society. One of the points she made was that while many Americans are spending more money on kitchen appliances, we are spending less time in the kitchen.

It is a point well taken. But lately our experience has been exactly the opposite. Since we fixed up the kitchen, we tend to hunker down there. It is all in one room: food, television, comfortable chairs. I am thinking of renting out the rest of the house to boarders.

One thing I learned by renovating a kitchen is that you bring your old self to the new space. So even though we now have drawers that roll open at the touch of a finger, my wife and I still can't agree on where the knives should go.

And even though we now have an exhaust fan that can send smoke to the stratosphere, it rarely runs because my wife thinks it is noisy. And while our granite tops are gorgeous, we are reluctant to set anything on them that might stain.

Which is another way of saying that the quest for the perfect kitchen is as flawed as those who use it.

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