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Part III: Creating a modern kitchen fit for a historic home

In the third installment of our 2016 Renovation Diary series, homeowners Mark Goff and Phillip Engel work to make a contemporary kitchen that complements their home's historic bones

Photos courtesy Mark Goff and Philip Engel

After years of shuttling between New York City and Los Angeles, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel wanted to change their location and their lives. They landed in the tiny town of Healdsburg, California (approximately 1.5 hours from San Francisco in Sonoma County Wine Country, population 11,254). The home they found there—an extreme fixer—was certainly transformative. The work they did on the 1870 Victorian turned the business analyst (Engel) and graphic designer (Goff) into seasoned renovation experts and tested their patience and skill. This week, in our second annual Renovation Diary, the pair describes the joy and the frustration of bringing the decrepit home back to life, a process Goff fully details in his blog, 227NorthStreet.

When we bought the house, it had no heat, very little electricity, and the only plumbing was in the back, where lines ran to the kitchen and a bathroom. When long-ago tenants needed electricity in their bedrooms, they ran extension cords from the kitchen. Sometimes people ask if we re-plumbed and rewired the house. There was no "re-plumbed," we had to plumb the entire thing! Same for electricity.

Back when it was built, the kitchen was one of a few tiny rooms at the back of the house. We combined those rooms to make a not small, but not overly large new kitchen. We wanted to honor the intention of the house, and back then, they didn’t have large kitchens. Making a big kitchen here would have felt out of place. Outside of that, you could say that we designed the new space around a stove (Phillip's grandmother had a 1940s Anderson stove, and he always wanted one like it).

Mark Goff and Phillip Engel saved money in their kitchen by having a carpenter make the cabinets, but painting them themselves. The upper cabinets are Benjamin Moore's Woodlawn Blue.

We purchased a 1923 Clark Jewel online and sent it to a restorer near Mt. Shasta. In every room, there’s a mix of old and new. Consequently, this stove stands alongside a Subzero refrigerator and a Miele dishwasher. We found the refrigerator on Craigslist, and the stove and the dishwasher were splurges.

But our biggest expense by far was the cabinetry, even though we found a way to save on it. We had a professional carpenter named William Eichenberger make them. He doesn’t usually do this, and he didn’t want to, but we convinced him to build the cabinets and let us paint them.

Read more:
Part I: Falling in love with a decrepit 1870s Victorian
Part II: Stripping an 1870s home down to its bones — and building it back up

This, of course, saved us a lot of money (roughly 40 percent). We designed them so that the uppers go all the way to the ceiling and the lower cabinets have an eight-inch baseboard instead of the classic toe kick, except for the space by the sink where you really need a little cutout for your toes. We thought this was a much better look. The lower cabinets are built tall, 38 inches high, as that’s how we are comfortable. Mark had the idea for the colors: pale blue and a shadow color, Benjamin Moore’s Woodlawn Blue and Wedgewood Gray.

We knew we wanted a wall of windows in the kitchen looking out to the deck we added on the back (which we learned how to build by reading Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Decks). We also added a marble-topped, three-foot-by-seven-foot table in the center. We wanted a table, not a massive island, to keep it open and airy. It’s on casters so it rolls around, and we can position it so it acts like a bar when we have a party. The stone top makes it heavy, but it can be moved.

Before the remodel, the kitchen was part of a cluster of small rooms that were in the back of the house. There was no connection to the backyard. The new plans created a larger kitchen with windows and doors that open to a back deck.

The table is a custom piece, so it’s a splurge too. We purchased slabs of marble at a stone yard and used them for the countertops, the bathroom vanities, the fireplace surround, and this table top. We used large casters made from wood so it looks more vintage.

The idea is that the table can be a secondary work or prep space, since the main work area is between the stove and the sink. Although we don’t often cook at the same time, it lets us have two people working comfortably in there.

After trying a lot of things with the adjacent space, we found it works best as a sitting room. Originally, it was planned as a breakfast room. Because of cost, we had to cut the cabinets designed for this space. We found an old cabinet  in New Orleans that was the perfect fit, but shipping was prohibitive. Mark just couldn't stop thinking about the piece, so we flew down, rented a U-Haul, and drove it back to Healdsburg.

We also saved a bit on light fixtures. Some of them we had in our New York apartment, and someone gave us the ones over the sink (they were gifted to us by friends who bought a Craftsman, but didn’t like Craftsman style). At first, we just put them in as placeholders until we could afford something else. But everyone who came to the house loved the light fixtures in our kitchen, and over time we did too.

Left: As a cost-cutting measure, Goff and Engel eliminated cabinets designed for the sitting area adjacent to the kitchen. When they were visiting New Orleans, they found a vintage cabinet that fit the space perfectly. Right: Goff admits to having a "thing" for gas light fixtures. When several he ordered arrived broken to bits, he says it was "a demoralizing moment." He turned it into a "suck it up" moment by tracking down a master restorer who returned them to glory.

There's one very important person in this story we haven't mentioned yet: She’s a fictional character named Melissa. She's based on a woman we met at an open house in town. She and her husband didn’t like that house, and they couldn’t hide their distain or get out of it fast enough. You never know what the future will hold, and whether you will want to sell your house. So, as we designed elements of it, we asked ourselves: "What would Melissa say?" Meaning, how would other people perceive it.

When we had a decision to make, we thought about what Melissa would do. It didn’t drive our decisions, but it was a consideration. We decided that Melissa would hate our stove and the higher cabinets. But we don’t care—we love them!

– As told by Phillip Engel and Mark Goff

Up next: DIY skills are challenged by a bathroom remodel.