Dateline: Stuck between authenticity and ease of remodeling.
Now that the electricity is more or less under control, I really have to turn my focus to other projects. Of these, the most important, in order, are: the kitchen; ground floor flooring; and plumbing. As you might imagine, the kitchen is at the top of the list for many reasons. Though it’s a little kludge-y, the plumbing works. And if I bought a gas cylinder, I’d probably even have hot water, though probably barely enough to heat the pipes. And at this point, there’s no danger of falling through the floor, though it has serious problems as we’ll see in a future post.
But if I don’t have a kitchen, I can either move in and starve, or stay in my apartment. Neither choice is all that appealing, and it only gets worse in the long run.
There are several big issues with the kitchen, perhaps the most important of which is my vacillating indecision. When constructed, this kitchen was the height of modernity, with a beautiful, green terrazzo floor, turquoise green tiles from floor to ceiling, all crowned with a pure, white tiled ceiling. When the family wasn’t busy cooking dinner, I’m sure they rented it out as a local surgical center. In addition to the room, I also have some original metal cabinets, which were once painted to match the walls. In overall concept, the kitchen is fabulous. But it didn’t initially strike me as such.
But over time, the look of my kitchen has grown on me. I’ve partially been inspired by Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, working in London in the mid-30s. These stories were turned into a television series in the early 1990s and are now available for free on YouTube. Carlos and I have been watching them together and they’re fantastic. But they’re fantastic not only for the wonderful stories, but the series itself is so amazingly well-made. It takes place in 1935 and 1936, and all the houses, cars, furniture, clothing, hotels, banks, factories, and especially women’s dresses are period perfect. There’s never an episode which doesn’t give me style ideas.
Which brings me back to the kitchen. I’d love to have a period-style kitchen. That would be both very cool and very unusual. In the 1930s, green was a very fashionable color. And my kitchen is quite green. And there’s a lot of green trim around the house too. So keeping the kitchen green seems like a great idea. And I do rather like green. My Boston living room is hunter green, a color that was in fashion in the late 90s and is now back out of fashion. Ni modo; I still like it. And the green in my kitchen just keeps growing on me.
The problem is the kitchen hasn’t been all that well cared for. Take the floor. At some point, the green terrazzo was covered with linoleum squares. Worse, that linoleum was glued down with what looks to be tar. While the linoleum is long gone, much of the tar remains. I spent several hours this morning scraping that tar out of holes in the terrazzo. In fact, I’ve done quite a lot of scraping of that tar in the past few weeks. While at some point, I’m hoping to hire someone with a machine to grind a millimeter or so off the top, no machine is going to dig tar out of 3-5 mm holes. Nope. That’s human work, and at this point the human seems to be me. I’m hoping it’s worth it; I’m honestly still a little ambivalent. I could buy new, green terrazzo, but none of it’s as nice as what I have, albeit it is new. On the other hand, I’m putting in a lot of work on a floor that may ultimately not be that rescuable. In the floor’s favor, I’ve had both a builder (who specializes in the restoration of these old houses) and an architect say the floor is worth preserving. So I guess I’ll just keep gouging out tar, and eventually fill those holes with dark, green grout. Hopefully after the floor is ground down and polished, I can coat it with something like clear epoxy. That would look awesome.
The walls suffer from similar sorts of problems. Much of the tile is in perfect shape, but a fair bit isn’t. Over the years, many holes have been drilled in order to hang one thing or other. Other tiles are crazed or cracked. (Probably exacerbated by the fact that the tiles were originally laid too close together.) And of the tiles that are quarter-rounds, those which basically go around corners, many have an oddly damaged surface. Lots of them have plenty of little nicks and scratches. A certain number are missing, and likely irreplaceable. Others seem to have a highly imperfect finish, which appears to have absorbed rust over the years. Yesterday I spent a fair bit of time scrubbing some of them with Barkeeper’s Friend, a scouring powder that’s especially effective on rust. No go. Yes, the tiles looked better. No, they didn’t really look good. The ceiling tiles suffer from the same problem. Some of them easily clean to a perfect white. Others have this embedded rust problem. And no amount of scrubbing that I was willing to do made much difference.
I should add that a kitchen in Mexico is a much more utilitarian space than in the States. They seldom, if ever, are eat-in, don’t tend to have luxury touches, and if owned by sufficiently wealthy people, are mostly occupied by maids, not owners. So I have to keep this in mind too when thinking about what to invest in remodeling.
Still, the ceiling is a relatively easy fix. I think I’m going to put a couple inches of insulation, and then place sheetrock. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the tiled ceiling look anyway, and the insulation/sheetrock combination will make wiring new lights VASTLY easier. And the ceiling will still be white, even if not tiled.
But I keep going back and forth on the walls. A couple of weeks ago, it hit me that the walls didn’t really have to be perfect. Right? I’m going to cover a fair bit of them with counters, cabinets, appliances, etc. Who cares if the tile behind your counters looks crappy? At that point, I figured I’d see how many tiles I could rescue from another part. By then, we had already hauled off the old sink, stove, and counter at the north end of the kitchen. It was clear that somewhere along the way a repair had been made to the kitchen sink drain and it was no longer pretty. So that was the perfect place to start. Whatever happened, that area was going to be covered up by another cabinet in the future.
So I set about hacking away the plaster they had used to touch up the area around the repair. Then I decided to chip off as many tiles as I could. As it turns out, rescuing tiles is VERY difficult, slow, and heartbreaking work. As far as I can tell, the best way to do so is to slide a very thin spatula under the edge of the tile. Then work it around, take it out, put it back, and keep gently tapping with a hammer. You can do this, see the edge of the tile start to lift, and think you’re going to save it, only to have it crack at the last, possible moment. It’s heartbreaking. Over the course of several hours, I managed to remove about 40 tiles. Of these, only about 8 or 20% survived reasonably intact. The rest? I kept a bunch of shards thinking that some day I might make a mosaic table out of them or something. But they won’t really have a place in rescuing the kitchen. But man, I really worked to save those 8 tiles. I think it took me about three hours. I’m a little uncertain about whether this is even viable going forward. It’s certainly backbreaking work. Worse, in the back of my mind I hear the siren whispering, “You know, Kim, it’s far easier to just do things new. You learned this in your Boston house in 1997. Just start over. It’s incredibly difficult to repair the past.”
Last week, I thought I’d try another tack. I had watched some YouTube channels that suggested hosing down the tiles with hot water. Well, I didn’t have any hot water. But I tried cold water. And then the idea hit me to see if I could spray vinegar behind the tiles. Vinegar, after all, is a mild acid and maybe that would loosen the adhesive? After scraping away as much of the grout as I could, I then sprayed vinegar every 15 minutes for a couple of hours. Then I had had a go at a few of the water/vinegar treated tiles, but they don’t seem any looser. But at least my kitchen now smells like a pickle factory.
Buying more tiles seems like the obvious answer, but that’s well-nigh impossible. My friend Julio, an interior designer with impeccable taste and a love of Art Deco, said there was a place that recycles tiles in the Mercado Hidalgo, a mercado with a lot of building-related stuff. I went over there, but the place is apparently gone. But someone there suggested I try an old store called Casa Vadillo, nearby. They actually had a sample of my tile, but the owner warned me that it could be months or years before he found any matching tiles, and even then, maybe never. Meanwhile, I have a kitchen to remodel. I can only wait so long before something must be done.
My final resort is to perhaps do the best job I can in patching the tiles. I can fill the holes with smooth plaster, and then get matching, high-gloss paint and paint the holes. I may even have to resort to painting some of the tiles which have gone rusty colored too. Nope, it’s far from ideal. But how else do you get a period kitchen if this is what the universe gives you to work with?
Some days I think I should just gut it and start anew. But for now, I’m scratching, scraping, prying, and hoping for the best.
Wish me luck.
Have you seen any oscillating power tools down there? They are very handy for precise cutting through tile, wood, grout etc. One might give you the edge, forgive the pun, to help separate the tile from the the substrate. There are several types of blades available many with a diamond grit to speed things along and the blades can be placed in several positions to make it easier for access. An enterprising young fellow such as yourself could extend a couple of blades, I’d add two or three inches of 1/8” steel sheet or so and rivet using shortened nails peened over to reach further under the tile and make it easier to extract complete tiles. I would suggest cutting through the grout or cement if possible around the tile as well!
A heat gun would definitely make it easier to extract the tarry substance from the floor divots although a gentle wave of warm air rather than searing heat might be more effective, you don’t want to excite other molecules nearby that might expand and explode. There again there are accessories that can direct the stream of hot air at your intended target. (another unintended pun?)
Many years ago I rented a floor sander and got an assortment of grits to shave a hardwood floor in a 1950’s house, boy was that a mistake as I hadn’t considered years of wax application on it. But it was a learning experience I won’t make or consider again!
A complete house renovation especially an Art Deco example is a daunting job although you can reinvent it of course with what is available today. Many old parts can be modernized with new gubbins wiring and sockets and a touch of spray etc. I’m told it is quite cathartic but in my case it’s refreshing (another pun?).
A question you could ask yourself though is what will your kitchen be to you? Will it be utilitarian with just the basics or will it be a meeting place where small gatherings will convene gradually drifting away to a more convivial spot for dinner or conversation or both. Modern kitchens these days are more like the central plaza where everything comes together! If your kitchen is going to be grand central will there be a console in the centre or placed nearby to act as an accessory table when cooking or preparing food with stools for a quick bite or a nibble? Is access to the kitchen convenient from the other rooms for entertainment, will you have to knock out a wall or part of? Will that upset your cabinet placement?
Certainly you will have cabinets made locally from hardwood possibly with discrete lighting. I’m told hardwood cabinets are less prone to infestation by carpenter ants, are they an issue in Mexico City? Perhaps you could just use masking tape as a template to get a rough idea for placement on your walls (and floor) to give you an idea what they might look like and what tiles you can remove. You’ve probably have used Sketchup or similar already to get a three dimensional impression of your kitchen but the tape very often reveals more issues to resolve plus you can decide if you want floor to ceiling cabinets or whether 42” high ones are more preferable.. or? Will you be using gas or electricity for cooking, will you be hauling gas cylinders upstairs or having it piped in? Do you have a separate tinaco for each building or one for both?
This is thrilling I can live vicariously through you without lifting a finger except for typing of course!
Kim G said:
You bring up a lot of very good points. The oscillating tool I had not thought of, though I do have an angle grinder and a diamond blade for it. Unfortunately, there’s no space between the kitchen tiles, so the grout can’t really be cut out; it has to be scraped. Indeed I think the fact that the tiles are too close is part of what makes them so tough to remove. It’s also why many are cracked. As the building has settled, there’s zero give between them.
I’ve gotten up just about all the tar on the floor that I consider my remit. Though this morning I discovered a couple more tar-filled holes that I had missed. Part of why I wanted to get the tar up is that I don’t want it gumming up any machinery that might be used to smooth the tiles. Worse, I don’t want any such machinery spreading the tar and staining what should otherwise be clean. With regard to the floor, I’m ready for professional help. Unfortunately most places don’t answer their emails and I hate phoning. But I’ll have to get over that.
I’ve got 3 metal cabinets plus a metal shelving unit. Currently an ugly brown, I’m thinking of painting them white at an auto-body shop. Then if I can’t find more (most likely) I’ll have some wood cabinets built and paint them white too. Woodgrain in kitchens wasn’t done in the 30s, so I’m not doing that.
I’ve already marked the walls and points on the floor with masking tape. I’m thinking I want my counter heights to be 40″, 4″ higher than standard. I’m 6’0″ and my counters in Boston are 38″, which is nice. Forty would be even better. Honestly, if I were the only one to ever use the kitchen (hopefully not), I’d probably go for 44″ high counters. Then I could really stand up straight while I was cooking.
Anyway, see the next post for some other issues and drawings. I’m using something called “Canvas,” which is very old and doesn’t do 3D. I’ve dabbled at Sketchup, but find it difficult.
Cheers and thanks for the comment.
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I see where you are coming from, I’m 6’ 4” and the 40” high countertop is an ideal working height for me for most repairs however it gets in the way when reaching into a wall cabinet. I built two 12’ base cabinets in my garage, a 40” high one for my antics and a 34” one that can act as an extension for my table saw.
I’m a bit old school, I just use graph paper and a pencil etc and scale it accordingly, the free Sketchup program is a pain to use although you could use the free program from Ikea to design your kitchen on the Ikea website. The dimensions though are based on existing Ikea measurements which are similar to regular commercial built sizes anyway.
As regards the tiles, could you not get them made and glazed to the original colour in Mexico? It’s a remarkable country for making stuff, I’ve seen some amazing craftsmanship there with the most basic of tools and equipment.
Kim G said:
I agree that Sketchup is a pain. Another reader and I have been corresponding about the project for a while and he suggested Sketchup too, but I found it to require a lot of study to get going. I used to watch the “Wood Whisperer,” (which you should look up if you haven’t seen him), and he uses SketchUp. That was back in the days you could just download it. But I never got the hang of it. So I just use my obsolete and archaic Canvas. It does the job, but no fancy 3D.
One of my other commenters left a link to a custom tile color program from Daltile, though it only appears to be available in the USA. I think I only need about 100 tiles, so this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I just have to see if my tiles are 4″. They may be 11 cm, in which case that’s not an option. As for custom tiles here, I’ll have to ask around. Thanks for your comment. Cheers!
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I really recommend STARTING FROM SCRATCH. With new tile (well applied) you can have a color you know you like, not just one that grows on you. Plus you could go for a BIGGER FORMAT. Acres of 4×4 (or the metric equivalent) give me the willies (some ancient bad memory?) Finally, don’t take the tile all the way to the ceiling. Have it thick mounted and framed with bullnose. Also consider some Deco accent tile to break up the monotony.
That said: If you must stick to the builders vision: check out DalTile’s “Custom Color” web page where they offer, “Simply provide a color swatch, pantone color code, or any sample of it (piece of fabric or other item) and our lab will provide a 3×6 tile in about 1-2 weeks. There is no charge for this 3×6 sample.”
But just imagine getting rid of that medicinal “sage” color and replacing it with a pale “seafoam” – or a light color pulled from the terrazzo. With maybe a band of black or one that matches the dark green in your terrazzo. I see a field of 3×6 tiles in a herring bone pattern with black triangles along the bullnose borders sitting 30 or 40 cm below the ceiling…
Kim G said:
Interesting suggestion. I’m not really sure what I think, but you have given me food for thought. That said, it’s worth noting that the true color of the tiles is VERY difficult to reproduce accurately on the computer. Given the lack of color calibration of monitors, color management across the web, etc., I wonder what color is coming through on my blog. As for design, while there are Art Deco kitchens, there are few with much “fabulousness.” In that era, kitchens were a bit more utilitarian than today. All that said, I will think more about your suggestion. But it also seems a little exhausting. Even with a rotary hammer drill with a “mini-jackhammer” setting, getting all those tiles off would be a rather herculean task.
The other thing to consider, which I didn’t really write about in the blog is this. The entire sense of color here, SOB, is very different than in the USA. While I’m not exactly sure how that color would resonate today here in Mexico City, it will definitely have a different connotation/feeling than in the USA.
Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, and I’m delighted you are following along. Did you see the prior post?
Hugs, Kim G
I like the idea if preserving the green tile. I just found out that you can rent a steamer to clean tiles with. The previous owner of my husband’s house put little one inch tiles in the bathroom, around the tub and walls. So much grout!
That terrazzo floor is amazing. The tile ceiling definitely has to go.
Kim G said:
I’ve been wondering about renting equipment here. Something tells me that it’s less common than in the states. I’ve been thinking about buying a pressure washer which might be a good thing for my kitchen floor, as well as the tile upstairs, and the exterior walls pre-painting, and for cleaning up the patio and sidewalk. For now I’m still on my hands and knees scraping tar out of holes in the kitchen floor.
Thanks for stopping by. Cheers!
Alfredo Lanier said:
have you seen the movie Roma? Your place looks vaguely like the house in the movie.
Kim G said:
While “Roma” is on my list, I have yet to see it. I wonder if it might be on my Amazon Prime Mx. In any case, there’s a ton of Art Deco houses in Roma Sur and La Condesa. Yesterday I was thinking that this is a little like Miami in the 70s—full of decrepit Art Deco buildings crying out for an invasion of guys like me.
Cheers and thanks for the comment.
Alfredo Lanier said:
Roma is free on Netflix. BTW, did you get a lengthier comment I sent you just before this one. It seems to have gotten lost in the ether.
Kim G said:
I’m sorry to say that I did not get the lengthier comment. I wish I had; I’m sure you had something interesting to say. As for NetFlix, I’m not a member, but maybe I’ll give it a try. (Though with so much free, fascinating stuff on YouTube, I’ve seldom felt a strong urge to do so.)
Edit: I finally found the comment in spam (don’t know why) and replied. Sorry for the delay.
Alfredo Lanier said:
Good luck. What I would recommend first of all, is a bit of humility on your part: You don’t know everything, much less should you pretend to do everything yourself.
An example is the terrazzo floor: You might want to use a heat gun (electric or propane) to soften and scrape the tar (I don’t know if they have those in Mexico). Or at least hire someone to do the scraping. Labor in Mexico is very cheap and your time is better used contemplating The Big Picture rather than scraping tar adhesive off the floor.
And I agree with Michael that you should try to save the terrazzo; those floors are practically indestructible and even with a few cracks that give them “character” they can look great cleaned an polished. I’m not sure you put epoxy on a terrazzo floor, but just buff it with one of those big machines.
As far as the Big Picture, hire an architect or designer, giving him or her general wishes and tastes and stand back an see what they come up with. You’ll be surprised how often they can come up with ideas that never occurred to you, as in “Huh! I never thought of that!”)
And talking about taste and expectations, try to decide the overall look that you want to end up with. Art Deco (like the clock on this blog) is, in my opinion, super cool, as is Mid Century Modern. If the kitchen has a 1930s, Art Deco-ish vibe to it, it might be good idea to go with that. This decision will help you decide which one of the “re’s” you want to undertake: Re-novate, Re-store, Re-do or just a gut job. No matter what sort of look you pick, I am sure there providers in Mexico City that can help you source whatever components you need.
Maybe you can also refine or refocus what you want by looking at back issues of Architectural Digest or browsing through the internet or Instagram for “Art Deco kitchens” or something like that to get some ideas. It’s a very gay way to spend an afternoon, or a whole day.
Kim G said:
I’m shooting for Art Deco, 1930s. It’s hard to say that the kitchen particularly has that vibe as (aside from the color, which is period-correct) it’s fairly generic. Though I do have those metal cabinets which I also think are original. Under the brown paint is a layer that very closely matches the tiles. While I think that making those the same color as the walls would be overkill (and I’d be the overkilled victim), I like the idea of painting them white or cream. And I’m hoping against hope that I might find a couple more of those.
As for looking around the internet, oh boy, have I looked around the internet. I’ve got hundreds of pictures of Art Deco kitchens, baths, houses, living rooms, floors, etc. In fact, I did think about posting a bunch of them on the blog as my sources of inspiration. Also, Roma Sur is absolutely full of Art Deco houses and buildings, many with fabulous lamps, doors, and ironwork. I’ve got a ton of pictures of them too.
Anyway, thanks for the comment, and also for emailing me. For some reason, it never occurred to me to look in the spam folder. Maybe because Akismet (WordPress’s anti-spam filter) has never declared a real comment to be spam. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!
Fred V said:
I like your plan about rescuing the green terrazzo floor and covering it with an epoxy coat. Perhaps you could add a small amount of epoxy green glitter to the epoxy coat? Here is a link to epoxy glitter on Amazon:
You know I am partial to green, too, and it is soothing to the senses. As for the tile, yes, I agree that tiled ceilings are out. As for the tiled wall, they look great from a distance, but I empathize with the amount of work that needs to be done to renew them. Have you considered the possibility of replacing the cracked tiles with new tiles of a different color? If you also strategically replace some of the non-damaged tiles, you could form a pattern with new tiles of a different color, such as, for example, dark gray or white, to give some contrast to the green tile. Perhaps in a ratio of 10 to 20% dark gray or white tiles and 80% green? Are there any art deco patterns in the art deco homes shown in the Hercule Poirot films, which, by the way, I saw on PBS years ago and enjoyed very much. Are there any art deco patterns somewhere inside your house that you could use as a pattern for new offset color tiles in the kitchen?
Kim G said:
Sorry for the slow reply. Your comment ended up in spam, probably due to the link. Actually, my friend Arion, who commented here too inadvertently pointed me toward a source of replacement tiles in his post urging me to do something else, hehe. I’m going to look into the Daltile Color Match program. I only need, oh maybe 75 tiles to replace all those with holes, bothersome cracks, etc. As for a different color, that would become difficult as the tiles that need to be replaced are kind of random, e.g., not really lending themselves to any kind of decorative pattern. And if I did go with a decorative pattern, that would pretty much mean redoing the entire wall, which I’d prefer to avoid. Thanks for your comment. Cheers!
The Legal Mexican said:
Whoever put linoleum over that terrazzo floor should be tarred and feathered. Since it likely was the family who sold the place to you, you have a clue as to where to start.
Kim G said:
Felipe: Haha, yes. I have the same reaction. Only instead of tarring and feathering, maybe just have them remove the tar that’s there? By the way, if it’s the same linoleum that got put over the not-so-interesting tile in the front bedroom’s loggia, it’s doubly staggering: boring, beige, speckled linoleum that’s not even properly laid. Thanks for stopping by.