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As we well know by now, I love a makeover. Always have; always will. I expect this information to shock exactly nobody. But even if all my past and present projects hold special places in my heart (and, maybe, ulcers in my stomach), frankly some makeovers are less exciting than others. Some projects involve more grunt work than creativity, or the balance is tipped more heavily toward practicality and function than aesthetics, or the space just isn’t especially inspiring and you kinda have to force it. Ya know?
This? IS BASICALLY EVERYTHING I LOVE IN A PROJECT. I MEAN LOOK AT ALL THAT HIDEOUSNESS.
Allow me to elaborate.
Over time, I’ve worked on a few projects over at my friend John’s house in Kingston, which I have named Burgevin Gardens—not because John is a Burgevin, but the original owners were. The Burgevins were a fascinating family—florists by trade—who appear to have built the original house in the 1880s and then did a major renovation around 1920 that doubled the size of the house and reworked the original 1880s structure. They built the house in an area of Kingston that wasn’t really developed at the time, and owned and operated the Burgevin Florist Shop in Uptown Kingston for close to 100 years—it was actually still open when I moved here (it’s currently being beaaautttiffullly renovated and restored as part of a new hotel project)! When the Burgevins built the house, they also had something like 50,000 square feet of greenhouse space erected on adjacent land, which kept the florist in operation year-round in the days long before fresh flowers could be easily shipped across the world.
Based on all this, I’m gonna go ahead and say they were a family of means, and they built one helluva house to show for it! Here it is around 1950, still largely intact (although already missing its shutters, and after rectangular storm windows obscured the arched tops on the upper sashes!):
It is fabulous, and huge, and full of huge projects. It’s been updated and messed with over the years in generally extremely bummer ways, and John has spent the last few years slowly chipping away at restoring it to some version of its original glory as time and money allow. It’s a truly massive undertaking and he’s doing a great job of it.
Last year, he enlisted me to design and rebuild the original 800 square foot wraparound front porch (indeed, that is bigger than my entire Brooklyn apartment!)—I shared a lot of that process over on Instagram stories as it was unfolding (the good bits are saved to highlights!).
Before that we restored the fireplace mantel in the sprawling living room (I think it’s 32 feet long??), and a little later I did a quick n’ dirty laundry room makeover because friends don’t let friends have terrible laundry spaces, right?
(For those curious about the porch project, you didn’t miss anything! Unfortunately it’s still not quite complete, and I’m hesitant to share it until it is…but I’m really hoping that can happen this fall because I’m so excited to show you!! Also, even though it’s not mine, I’d really love to close the book on that particular project because I’m really very proud of it. So standby on that.)
SO ANYWAY. The house is a center hall layout, meaning the entryway and staircase are in the center with rooms on either side. Turn right and you enter the ENORMOUS living room. Turn left and there’s a small foyer sort of space, followed by a massive dining room with beautiful oak panel details on the walls and a beamed ceiling. I somehow managed to never take a good picture of this room, so I made John dig one up…shockingly most normal people don’t obsessively take naturally-lit photos of rooms in their house all the time, so give the guy a break:
And then there’s a doorway from the dining room into the kitchen (out of frame, far right—see the edge of the door casing?), and it’s kind of like entering a different world? Based on the grand scale and relative intactness of these other spaces, the kitchen reads almost like a bad joke. BEHOLD:
I think part of me was excited when John bought this house just so I could have the honor of tearing out this mess. It’s so ugly, you guys. Should we count the ways?
From what I’ve been able to deduce, here we have an early-80s special of basically all the things people hate nowadays in a kitchen. Outdated dark oak cabinetry. Sheet linoleum covering the hardwoods. Laminate faux-granite (I guess? that seems generous.) countertops. Matching laminate backsplashes, which mysteriously stop short of the stove (you know, where one might functionally want a backsplash??). Granny wallpaper. Small upper cabinets with big huge soffits, which look not-so-big only because the top TWO FEET of them are obscured by the dropped ceiling. Bizarrely placed recessed can lights. Florescent box over the sink. A cheap metal venetian blind obscuring a beautiful arched original window. Have I missed anything? It’s truly a brown-town masterpiece of bad decisions.
I guess the faux-granite laminate was supposed to be an improvement over the faux-butcherblock laminate?! The mind boggles.
AND THEN IT GETS WORSE! Because the whole room is only about 9’x16′, but only about half of it is currently being used for the kitchen! Presumably because a prior owner wanted an eat-in kitchen, so left half the room empty—leaving a crowded U-shaped kitchen on one side and a bunch of wasted space on the other. Obviously it’s not being used as an eat-in kitchen now, and neither John nor I understand why anyone would waste their time eating in here with that GLORIOUS dining room just steps away. (I know actual dining rooms are out of fashion for many people. Those people are wrong. End of story; don’t @ me.)
The problem is, John doesn’t have the cash to renovate this kitchen (did I mention the enormous old house with endless projects that still has to be maintained and heated in the winter?), and that’s unlikely to really change any time soon. There are bigger priorities and even though it’s ugly as hell and no fun to cook in, it does function, more or less. So he bravely perseveres.
But with holidays around the corner (I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M WRITING THOSE WORDS) and plans to host family for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, he asked me if I thought there was something that could be done to makeover this space on a budget. Don’t tempt me with a good time!
CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. Gimme it.
So, in turn, I approached my friends at Lowe’s to see if they would be interested in partnering up on this project, and they generously agreed! But there’s a catch. I have like…$2,500 to turn this thing around. That number is not missing a zero. That’s basically pocket change in the world of kitchen renovations that involve more than a little paint and maybe some tile. For some reason I am still convinced a total overhaul is possible.
How, you may be asking? Because we have three things going for us:
- Unfounded optimism and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned delusion. This is my main fuel source and I’ve learned to embrace it up until the point that I start hating myself.
- Underneath all this disaster, there are good bones. There’s gotta be, because this is a good old house! There have got to be hardwoods under that linoleum, right? We know there’s a beautiful original window, half-covered by nonsense. A peek above the drop ceiling confirms a TEN FOOT actual ceiling height. And there’s more space to work with than is currently being utilized, so we can play a little with the existing layout. We can and we WILL!
- We have a wonderful and free renewable resource: ELBOW GREASE. Rather than rip it all out, send it to a landfill, and throw money at the problem, we’re going to approach this very carefully, working what we’re working with and making some strategic decisions to maximize the impact of our budget. Luckily, Lowe’s has allllll the products we could possibly need to do just that, which is why I love working with them so much. High-end looks for budget-friendly prices! (they don’t tell me to say these things; I just have a lot of enthusiasm.)
Current financial constraints and impending family arrivals aside, why do a more budget-friendly renovation of this space? Because a) nothing will happen otherwise and b) I’d wager this is the last renovation this kitchen will ever see. Ideally, I’d love to see this house returned to a single-family someday (currently there’s a whole apartment upstairs, but it would be easily converted back), and the wall behind the refrigerator is just a non-load-bearing wall into a room 2-3x the size of this one. Which is to say, in another reality, I can totally see somebody ripping this whole thing out, knocking down the wall between this room and the next one, and putting in a big big kitchen to match the big big house. Old houses generally don’t have big kitchens like that, and while I’m usually not one to tear out walls in old houses, I actually think it would be a good approach for this particular house. The existing layout isn’t all that nice and it would be more suited to modern living. It wouldn’t be a crime here, and this is coming from someone who considers most decisions about old houses to be crimes against them. Ha!
But the reality is, that could easily be a $100,000+ project and, short of a new owner moving in or John winning the lottery, there’s just no way. So let’s make this kitchen as nice as we can without going insane so John can enjoy his big Jersey family and, maybe, someday sell the house to someone who will see this space as totally workable at least for however long they want/need it to be.
NOW. THE HOW. HOW WILL WE DO THIS. Here are a few strategies that I think are helpful to think about if you, too, are considering upgrades but not equipped for the type of FULL, EVERYTHING MUST GO remodels we tend to mostly see on TV and online and stuff.
- Have appliances? KEEP THEM. Even if they don’t match. Even if you don’t love them. If they work, save your money and upgrade down the line if you want, and throw those not-ideal but still-functioning appliances back in there. Your dishwasher will still be 24″ when you go to replace it. This kitchen is going to have a KitchenAid stainless dishwasher, a stainless Kenmore stove, and a white Whirlpool fridge and I truly do not care. If you want a bigger fridge or something down the line, just leave enough space for it and use your smaller one in the meantime. You aren’t the queen of England. (Unless you are! In which case, a warm welcome, Your Majesty. Thank you for dropping by.)
- Have cabinets? CONSIDER KEEPING THEM TOO. You can often change a layout without scrapping all the cabinets, and I’ll be showing you some strategies to upgrade their looks and their function. These are NOT NICE cabinets by any means, but even your most basic cabinets can still often benefit from a few upgrades and strategic hackery.
- Embrace negative thinking. What I mean by this is: identify what you DON’T need or want, and strip that stuff out. In this case, that includes wallpaper, the drop ceiling, the recessed lighting, the linoleum floor…there’s a lot we can accomplish just by simply stripping out the bad and giving some TLC to what’s left behind. That’s basically free!
- Fill in the gaps with budget-friendly new and vintage. This is another not-so-subtle plug for Lowe’s because S E R I O U S L Y even if you feel kind of “meh” about your in-store displays, they have THOUSANDS of products online that might be more your speed. I’ve noticed they’ve also been making incremental improvements to their website which makes online shopping and sorting through products a lot easier, and so far I haven’t felt limited by options and this is coming from someone who literally hates everything.
- Consider less fitted. As Americans we are conditioned to think of kitchens as long continuous runs of matching cabinets punctuated by appliances, but there are so many more ways to kitchen! Consider freestanding vintage or antique furniture pieces like armoires, dressers, dry sinks, side tables…these things can often be bought CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP and provide TONS of storage and a totally unique look.
OHHHHHHH BOY HERE WE GO! John and I did a couple days of initial/exploratory demo just to really figure out what we were working with and so I could get to designing and figuring out how to make this budget work, and CAN YOU SEE IT ALREADY?! Am I the only one that would run screaming from the kitchen in the first picture but be completely thrilled about the kitchen in the second one? This is a fun one. I think it’s going to be really cool.
Here’s the basic layout plan! My goal is to really use the whole space, go from two awkward corners to just one, and allow for two people to comfortably prep and cook in here since currently I’d call it a one-butt kitchen. I think prep space on both sides of the stove will be a game-changer, and increased floor space and ceiling height will give the illusion of more space. Plus centering the sink under the window will just bring everyone joy and I aim to please.
OK so this is a pretty basic mood board but check it out. These are my thoughts.
- LIGHTING! I want two big-ish pendants for the main lighting and one small one over the sink. No recessed. John doesn’t like under cabinet lighting so we’re not doing that. I found this little pendant and these larger more impactful ones that both have a turn-of-the-century vibe I can get down with. The prices and reviews are GREAT so I’m waiting with anxious anticipation to see them in real life!
- WALLS! I think a nice warm white on the walls and ceiling will look best. I have my eye on Valspar’s “Hint of Cream” but have to grab a sample.
- BACKSPLASH! It’s the tile du jour for bloggers everywhere, except green! And square! This Cloe Bedrosians tile is really beautiful in real life, with a lot of variation in the glaze and a handmade look. At $7.85/square foot, the price point is great considering that it looks like a much more expensive handmade tile from a more boutique source. Anyway John LOVED it so I made it my business to include it in the budget and design a kitchen that’ll pull it off. I think I can, I think I can! (It also comes in white, gray, black, blue, and this SO SO CUTE pink that I am dying to use somewhere, sometime. All in both square and subway formats!)
- COUNTERS! My initial instinct/plan was butcherblock, which John was OK with but not thrilled. Unlike me, he will not cut directly on a counter which kind of defeats the purpose of butcherblock in my opinion. This left laminate (nope) or stone (no $) or composite (also no $) but guess what’s cheap? CONCRETE. So we’re going to try to make our own. May or may not pigment them darker. I think they’ll read much like a natural stone, but it should cost about $350 to countertop the whole kitchen. Not bad! I have 15 bags of this concrete countertop mix waiting and ready to go because I’m ON IT.
- FLOORS! Y’all know I’m refinishing that wood come hell or high water; don’t play. They’re douglas fir.
- CABINETRY! I want to rework the existing cabinets with a little strategic carpentry and, of course, paint. I’m thinking beige-y. I’ve been real into a beige-y cabinet for a few years. I can’t help it! I’ll probably end up building some cabinets from scratch but I really want to reuse what we have already because $ and time.
- HARDWARE! I’m thinking simple and traditional? Simple black knobs on the cabinet doors and traditional bin pulls on the drawers. I really like the shape of these bin pulls—a little different than the norm but still totally classic. Oh also! I’m going to attempt to make these partial-overlay cabinets into inset cabinets, so I will need new hinges and I *think* these ones are just the ticket. I’ve ordered a couple as a test.
- SINK! FAUCET! We are debating a new sink. Which is my way of saying we’re getting a new sink (maybe this guy??! although that will blow the budget, pretty sure). Or maybe a vintage sink, if the price is right and the condition is good and the size works? Either way, I’d like it to be charming, and white, with a new faucet. To be honest, I like having a simple practical single-lever pull-down-hose modern faucet and don’t think that we need to perform plumbing cosplay to make this kitchen feel appropriate for this house. My approach to that is to go fully the other direction, totally mod, and keep it inconspicuous which I think black does. Brass would be too matchy in a bad way, I think.
- HOOD VENT! I generally do not like hood vents. But I think I will like this hood vent! It’s an insert, so we can build whatever we want around it, and I’m thinking just keep it VERY VERY VERY simple and try to avoid being able to see the actual device inside the enclosure. I’m weirdly excited, John is weirdly excited, and this is a real functional improvement since this space hasn’t had a vent as long as John’s been here.
Golly that post took a long time to write. But this’ll be fun! I’m trying to update Instagram stories (@DanielKanter) on the daily as we move through this renovation EVENT, so check that out! You can listen to my terrible vocal fry and watch my chaotic job site filming for entire minutes as this all unfolds! Yay!