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Dateline: Stuck between authenticity and ease of remodeling.

Time to think about the kitchen

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.

Looking north into the kitchen. Back wall is flat, side walls are parallel.

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.

Best preserved floor terrazzo tile

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.

A certain amount of cracking too

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.

West wall of kitchen. Lots of holes and a few cracks

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.

My oddly mottled ceiling.
As you can see, cleaning doesn’t do much.

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.

Tile donor area. See the tar on the floor?

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.