Tag Archives: historic preservation

Atlantic City – How do you restore a historic kitchen?

You’ve seen a lot that needs to stay in this house. What needs to change? The kitchen.


Now, in the 20 or so years since I’ve first seen this I’ve come around to steel cabinets and chrome dinette sets. Retro Renovation often features people who send them out to auto body shops or powder coaters. But there’s gotta be a point of no return somewhere. And the fridge in front of windows is absolutely unacceptable. Also, a 6000 square foot, 10 bedroom house needs a kitchen that’s comfortable for several people cooking for at least 24 people.

Right off the kitchen is a fantastically intact butler’s pantry!





When I was younger I thought let’s keep that sink and those cabinets and otherwise overhaul the space. Right behind the wall in the picture above is a small alcove leading to the den and butler’s pantry. Take all that out and you’d have this view right from the kitchen.


And taking the wall out would give you room for a big island. But now I take all this back. I might be up for altering the butler’s pantry cabinets. It looks like they were altered before. Look at the unfinished side of the cabinets above. Right now it’s set up for a separate freestanding fridge and freezer, though there must once have been an ice box. I’d want a single fridge and more dish storage here. The drain can stay though!


And the not-so-huge kitchen? It’s actually a fine space. Obviously this contraption stays, as do the buzzers in the bedrooms!


I’d get rid of the table and move the stove and fridge to interior walls where they’re not blocking windows (or breaking building codes). Then to get better flow I’d add a second door opening from the kitchen to the butler’s pantry, right across from the breakfast room door below.


Try to picture the breakfast room looking like a glassed-in porch. I know it’s hard – it’s the worst room in the house right now.


There’s even a door to the outside behind the paneling to the left of this door:


Another idea my friend’s mom had was reworking the back stairs to connect the kitchen directly to the roof of the garage.


Right now this house has no back yard so this would give you a place to grill where you’re not right up against the street. It’s an interesting idea. But it would cost a lot. You’d probably have to cut a larger stairway opening and shrink one of the bedrooms. And there’s already a gap in that parapet where you could access the garage roof from near the back door. It’s not direct but it would do. And plus, the narrow nooks and crannies in the servants’ parts of this house aren’t what we’d build today, but they’re part of what makes this house interesting. And with 6000 square feet to play with, there’s definitely room to say these quirks matter. Plus, this kitchen has so many windows I wouldn’t want to give up this wall space.


As for the style of the room, I’d say anything goes. The butler’s pantry ought to be fully restored including authentic reproduction tile wherever the existing material comes out and custom cabinetry if any is added. The main kitchen on the other hand will never be authentically 1919.

Now one more thing. I’m pushing for preserving as much of the old as possible in this house, but the truth is that I wouldn’t hold it against anyone to modernize this part of it if that’s what they want. After all, it’s not 1919 anymore and even millionaires are unlikely to have live-in servants. But no matter what happens, I want the world to see the back rooms as they were. What would you do if this kitchen were yours?


Restoring the Exterior Back in Atlantic City/Imagination Land

Back in imagination land, there are a lot of details on this house that (to me) absolutely cannot change – or have to be changed back – and some of that will be hard. But I like hard. So let’s start at the top.

The roof is terra cotta tile glazed green. There are fancy finials on all the gables – but with one or two missing. And there are box gutters integral to a fancy stamped copper cornice.


You probably missed the ugliness. Here, have a closer look.


The roof has been leaking for decades, and the salt spray has blasted holes in the outside of the cornice halfway around the house. You’re looking at a lot of money right here, probably about $300,000.00. It’s a good thing this house sold for a million dollars cheaper than similar houses in the neighborhood. An inaccurate roof and cornices would be really, really sad. Better than demolition of course, but sad nonetheless. And so if this were my house, it’s a no brainer. I’d save my money on things that don’t matter, like the kitchen.

Is there a way to save money on this that’s wouldn’t make you want to gouge your eyes out? Could we re-line the gutters with new copper, make spot repairs on the cornices, and leave the fancy corbels with holes in them? That would certainly be better than an inferior replacement.

Moving downward, you saw the big porch with the big balcony on top of it.


But doesn’t it look a little off?


Clearly it was redone. Badly. It looks like the cracks were patched up but re-cracked, and original detail was stripped off. And I have a treat for you!


So what can we see from this photo?

  1. D’aww!
  2. Yes, that tiny woman had all those kids.
  3. A parapet! Here’s a closer look.


So, I have a feeling it’s time for a new porch, and not a cheap one. We can’t know for sure what the parapet looked like, but the garage gives us a pretty good guess. There is a little more fanciness in the unaltered corner of the porch against the wall if you look back at that. (And also the garage clearly has issues, too.)


Then, I said there are 11 Juliet balconies. And there’s a big hazard with these. The railings are too low to meet code.

And I have a story. Once I got locked out on one of these Juliet balconies. I squeezed through the aluminum storm door and never noticed that it was locked. I asked my friend’s little brother, who must have been like 3, to let me back in, and instead he locked me out on the next one over. And then I got upset and so he CLIMED OVER THE RAILING to be in the same one as me.


So pretty scary, right? Nope, that’s not it. After all, this scariness would never have happened if the tacky storm doors weren’t there. So I don’t blame the railings for any danger. No, I’d be scared that I’d be required to bring them up to code. Especially since some of them definitely have to come down for restoration.


So what to do here? Exemptions? Leaving them as is and repairing them without permits after the project is done? Temporary railings that come down the day after the inspection? Everything is on the table except permanently altering them to meet code. As Boar’s Head says, compromise elsewhere.

And… one more essential is missing from the front entryway. Can you tell what it is?


It’s those piers with not-so-big flower pots on them. They are for the original lights. But we’re saved! They were in the garage!


And then there’s one restoration I probably wouldn’t do. Originally the terrace had pretty tile. (Also my friend’s dad on a trike.)

Atlantic City.jpg

In With Old Windows?

So we’ve been through the brick and the cornice. Finishing off the Phase 2 façade work means replacing the windows. Remember what I have? Total junk. I was glad to learn how bad they were because I didn’t want vinyl windows under any circumstances and I can replace these without feeling guilty. To review:

I bent back the aluminum capping and then left it like this for several years.


I never like aluminum capping, but mine looks like this. (That scalloped marble lintel looks great in this photo though!)


Random scraps of wood nailed into the jambs apparently to bring the openings down to a stock size. (The gorilla glue is no longer extant.)


That window above was so racked I could see sunlight through outside the top sash. Now it’s gobbed up with caulk.


The window jambs had sagged and separated from the windows. And they were structural! So they were unsalvageable.


Living room window casings

I partially removed the counterweight cavities in the process and then the insulation people filled them with spray foam. The remaining wood wasn’t in great shape – you can see chunks of the remaining framing missing.


I really love old windows best, but no houses I looked at still had them. So I decided to afford the best new windows I could find. And Craigslist brought me the very nice cottage style 2-over 2 Marvins in the back bedroom.



The originals would have been 1-over-1 (no muntins) but I think the style I got kinda makes up for the replacements being too perfect with non-wavy glass. I got 3 more (with my Obama energy loan!) to finish off the back and the plan was always to get 4 more for the front.

But then I met Wesley, a historic preservation carpenter specializing in buildings way older than mine. He said that by the time my house was built the windows would have come out of a catalog and are all standard sizes. People in his line of work collect them to cannibalize the wavy glass and install it in even older windows. And so, he says I should easily find period correct sashes that are exactly the right size to fit into my jambs! Unfortunately, I’ll have to take down my cheapie Eucaboard and the blinds on the front of the house to measure for the new/old sashes. (They look better painted. You almost can’t tell how bad they are.)


So, yes, I’m considering pulling out (drafty, poorly installed) double-paned windows and reinstalling old single-paned wood. Do you think I need psychiatric help? It’s true that getting nice new Marvins would be more efficient than un-replacing them with something period correct. But old windows will last longer. Old wood is much more resistant to rot than new. If I slip up with repainting my Marvins I could someday be stuck with buying new sashes. (NO ALUMINUM CLADDING ON THE FRONT!!!) And even if I don’t they may only last a few decades. Old windows can last forever. And besides that, I love everything about the pulleys and chains and counterweights on an old window. They slide better than anything new.

And I’m not blind to energy efficiency concerns. First off, windows are the very lowest return on investment you can get for efficiency. Even worse than solar panels now! So they might make sense if the old windows are really, truly wrecked and beyond restoration or if you have bad replacements. Good weatherstripping and storm windows on an old window will get you 95% of the efficiency gains from a new window. It should also cost a lot less upfront, and more of the cost would go to local labor. (The downside is that restoring them will be my local labor.) So yes, old windows are sensible, even (possibly) for someone who doesn’t have any! Definitely give them a chance before you commit to ripping them out!

Facade Plans Post 3 – How NOT to Restore Historic Masonry

Then comes restoring the brick, and this job is scary. I’m going to take the paint off my brick. Many sources recommend avoiding this as it can damage the substrate, but you saw what the paint looks like on my house. For further reading, I suggest this piece from the National Park Service, the preservation guidelines for Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the New York and Philadelphia Rowhouse Manuals.

The problem is that traditional bricks have a durable outer layer from being kiln fired. Inside of that they’re much softer and it’s important  not to take that off. So…

What you really should never do is of course what everyone does. Scrub pointing, or covering over the mortar joints with new mortar without removing the old. This alters the look of the brick and it doesn’t hold up.


Don’t power wash the brick with high pressure. Traditional bricks were kiln fired and you could take off the outer later, which is the most durable part. And NEVER sandblast historic masonry. This can wear away the surface badly, altering its appearance and shortening its life. I encountered this poor facade on tony Spruce Street. I would have thought it was some kind of rustic 1920’s brick except for that little square that was once covered, revealing the same pressed brick as I have. Also pictured: scrub pointing, paint.


NEVER use dry heat like a heat gun. This can drive paint deeper into the masonry and make permanent stains. Plus, it doesn’t work well on masonry.

NEVER clean or strip masonry when there’s any risk of frost as any extra moisture that absorbed could freeze, expand, and cause the masonry to spall.

Avoid driving too much water into the masonry even in mild weather as it’s weaker when wet. Repointing before cleaning the surface is a good move, but you can also temporarily caulk the joints and repoint later.

Don’t sand or grind the surface.

Avoid strong acids (Hydrochloric/Muriatic) and alkaline (lye) products and only use in very limited applications.

Don’t use acidic cleaners on acid sensitive stone like marble. (That’s me!)

Don’t expect surfaces to look brand new. Some patina may be desirable and vigorous efforts to remove troublesome stains or residual paint can damage the substrate.

So what can you do? Use the gentlest means possible. Low pressure washing, hand scrubbing, washing with a non-ionic detergent, some mild acid and alkaline cleaners, steam cleaning, and dangerous chemical solvents can all be effective. Test in an inconspicuous area (which I don’t have) preferably a full year before proceeding, but at least a month.

And when I repoint I must not use modern masonry techniques. My house is made of traditional clay bricks with lime mortar. Modern mortars are harder than this kind of bricks, so if the wall shifts, the bricks fail instead of the joints. Some preservationists recommend only using lime while others specify a soft mortar made with lime and Portland cement.


My façade is pressed brick, which is very smooth and uniform with very thin mortar joints. The mortar is washed or colored red to match the bricks. Scrub pointing is putting a false wider mortar joint over the real ones. This kind of halfassed job eventually pops off and until it does, it fakes the look of inferior and historically incorrect masonry.

And what about that damaged area?


I think I should use a water resistant coating here. These are formulated to let water vapors out but prevent liquid water from getting in. Never use a waterproof coating that traps both. And even the best of these products can do more harm than good, but it sounds like treating the damaged areas only could help preserve it. Or if I pick the wrong one it could help destroy it.

So this will be fun right?

Maybe another big job – advice please

I was pondering that back door threshold and a thought entered my mind. Possibly a crazy one, possibly totally sane. Should I rebuild the kitchen floor from scratch?

I took 7 vinyl floors out of my kitchen and found old (but not original) pine underneath.


The plan was always to have it sanded. But here’s the deal: my friend Chris told me that the pine floor in his kitchen is holding up poorly, and I have a feeling that mine is a similar material. (My upstairs pine floors are older and I believe harder than what’s in the kitchen.)

I always said dismissively that if the floors don’t hold up well I’ll replace them later. But the low corner of the kitchen floor is about 2 ½ inches lower than the high one. There’s no structural problem here; unlike Portland cement masonry, lime based masonry can settle without losing strength. South Philly used to be a swamp, so this is kind of a common thing around here. And although I can feel the slope, it doesn’t bother me at all. You see the sub-title to my blog. I wanted a quirky old Philadelphia rowhouse, and obliterating all the quirks is not the adventure I wanted.

So why am I considering this now? Because making a raised threshold to cover this awkward gap and bridge the level-to-crooked transition will take some work. Then installing cabinets and appliances on the crooked floor is more work.


Leveling the floor would raise it to cover that vertical strip of wood under the patio door and the horizontal threshold under it.

Then there’s a structural reason. Apparently someone had to get something big in or out of the kitchen because there was an opening cut through here. The home inspector told me to sister these joists, but I put it on the long list because it doesn’t seem structurally unsound now.


But if I level the floor, out comes everything. Then I will sister all the joists, and the sisters will go in level and support the new floor. This will be much easier than what we did in the back bedroom. Let’s look at a pro con list though. I kind of shudder at the idea of another project.


  • No threshold at the back door.
  • Easier to install cabinets and appliances.
  • Slope may bother guests and other occupants.
  • A level floor may be better for resale.
  • Doing more now means less disruption later and an easier job overall.


  • More work now means more work now.
  • A level floor and plywood subfloor erases some of the house’s weirdness.
  • The Irishman gets to say I told you so.
  • More pressure to commit to a permanent kitchen floor right away.

Now about that last point, some people have urged me to put down ceramic tile. I don’t want anything that hard and cold, so that’s probably not happening. I would consider vinyl or linoleum as long as it’s plain and not printed with the image of something more expensive. The vinyl tiles I had in school would be fine. Or I could run the same oak strip flooring as I have in the living room through the kitchen. Or I could have a small bump between the rooms and use thicker tongue and groove oak, which ironically would be cheaper. And if I can’t decide, the plywood subfloor will be fine for now.

So what do you think I should do?