The virtual gauntlet has been thrown down thrice, now. John Calypso of ¡Viva Veracruz! has challenged his blogging buddies to post photos of their kitchens. So welcome to my kitchen. Pull up a chair, and learn the tale of this near-100 year old hearth and home.
The kitchen, like everything else, has its own story, with more color than you’d initially expect. My ex and I purchased this house in 1997, at which point it was the worst on the block by a good measure. Seriously. The house was in abysmal condition, but it had good bones, a good foundation, a good roof, and a number of other redeeming features including location (near the subway line that would carry me to work), a park across the street, a beach a couple of blocks away, and fabulous woodwork downstairs. Oh, and the price was right, in fact right enough that we had competition for the house. But our broker had some kind of score to settle with the competing broker, and he was determined that we should get it first and made every effort to help us. A small dog accompanied him on this quest, which I found quite amusing. We also made every effort to charm the owner, telling her how much we loved the house and how we were going to bring it back to its original beauty. Needless to say, we won, and we were also lucky that we didn’t have to bid up the price either, though we did pay full asking.
Now this house was built in 1917, supposedly by an engineer at Gillette, a venerable, old Boston company (now owned by Proctor & Gamble). The seller informed us that her father, the engineer, had invented the Toni Home Perm, among other products for which Gillette was known. We did later find in the attic blueprints for what appears to be razor manufacturing equipment, though I’ve never been able to verify the Home Perm claim, and found it somewhat doubtful anyway. Chemistry is a rather different field than mechanical engineering, but who knows?
When the engineer died, he left the house to his daughter, from whom we purchased it. However when we bought the house, Mrs. Murray was in her later 80’s and, frankly, a bit out of it. I would love to have known more of her story, because the bits I did learn were fascinating. Mrs. Murray was a hardworking soul, and had worked as a cocktail waitress up until a few years before we bought the house. But as you might imagine, she did not work at the Ritz serving drinks in her early eighties. No, she worked at a notorious transvestite and gay hustler bar downtown called “Jacque’s Cabaret,” (still open to this day) where apparently she had worked long enough to have become something of a fixture. One of the things we found after we moved in was a photo of her in her later years, wearing a rather ambitious wig, in her cocktail waitress uniform, being hugged by an enormous drag queen. Jacque’s is in what was once an extremely tough neighborhood, right next to Chinatown, called “The Combat Zone.” According to my neighbors, Mrs. Murray tottered off to Jacque’s every night in high heels to work to put food on the table for her family.
Now Mrs. Murray’s work ethic did not appear to extend to her own daughter, who didn’t work and had three boys of her own, so there were a lot of mouths to feed. By the time we bought the house, it was clear that the family had gone through thick and thin, but mostly thin. The outside of the house hadn’t been painted in at least thirty years. Various nice, original details of the house such as stained glass and lighting fixtures were missing, replaced with cheap, ugly substitutes. We always presumed that these items had been sold off when times were tough. The wallpaper was old, and aside from the missing nice bits, everything was pretty original and very worn.
The kitchen was a disaster, worsened only by the inept do-it-yourself efforts of Mrs. Murray’s daughter’s boyfriend. The layout was poor, with the stove in the corner where I now have my fridge, a kitchen sink where I now have the stove, and windows which went down too low for counters. The floor was covered with the most hideous ceramic tile imaginable, essentially cream-colored, but with liver-colored “veining” in an attempt to mimic marble. The refrigerator, which was left to us, had a broken handle, broken plastic inside, and we would later discover that by itself it consumed about $75 per month worth of electricity. The back door had been replaced at some point with a cheap, pre-hung, steel door with a small half-moon window at the top, trimmed in plastic. But the most astonishing feature of this door? Behind the upper casing so that it wasn’t visible was a THREE INCH gap completely open to the outdoors. Now for those of you who haven’t already moved here for the weather, let me tell you that most of the time it’s pretty chilly in Boston with temperatures in the lower fifties or colder. Around New Year’s, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop into the low teens or even single digits. And it can be quite windy when there’s a storm. I was astonished not only at the presence of this gap, but by the fact that it wasn’t so much as filled with crumpled newspaper, which is what I’d do if I had a big gap and no money.
So we had to remodel. In fact, we bought the house knowing that we’d remodel it from top to bottom. And my ex wasn’t going to be satisfied with just any old remodel either. We’d have to have stainless appliances, and have everything done nicely. We ended up spending another half of the purchase price to fix up the place. What you see is what we achieved in 1997, after lots of manual labor, barbecuing all summer, washing dishes in the basement, and many a “lively discussion.” But I essentially designed the kitchen, and am very happy with how it came out. Some of the features of the kitchen that I particularly enjoy are the higher-than-normal counters, which prevent backstrain; the overabundance of electrical outlets, which I’ve never come close to exhausting despite the proliferation of electrical gadgets even since 1997; the prosumer stove, which has some very high output burners that’ll make a mean stir fry; and the abundant cabinetry where I can pretty much keep everything hidden. Oh, and I have a certain fondness for cranky old machinery. My toasters are from the 40’s and 50’s, while a chromed Art Deco egg timer from perhaps the thirties came with the house. The egg timer was revived with a shot of WD 40 and works to this day.
And the funniest aspect of this remodeling? At about the time we did this kitchen, my parents were finishing up their new retirement house in California. And when they came to visit us, we discovered that they had independently chosen the exact same cabinets in the exact same finish as we did. We all had a good chuckle about that one. I guess the apple doesn’t really fall that far from the tree, whatever we might like to think.