After refurbishing eight kitchens in 12 years, writer Allison Glock reflects on what drove her obsession, and what finally forced her to stop.
I knew I had a problem when, on my way to a party, I found myself ankle-deep in bog, dragging a rusty sink from the muck, the primordial contents sloshing onto my cocktail dress with every step.
I had been searching for a vintage kitchen sink for months. On eBay. In antique shops. And yet I’d found nothing until that night in 1999 just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, when I spotted something glinting in someone’s yard and slammed on the brakes. You would have thought I’d seen a UFO or a yeti. In reality, it was something much rarer: an old porcelain farm sink, banged up and filled with mud, but a thing of beauty nonetheless. It was unusual, smaller than a traditional apron-front sink, but long enough to hold a double-burner griddle. I knocked on the nearest door and asked the man who answered if I could buy the sink outside. He looked at me like I’d asked to eat his garbage.
I have a habit. A renovation addiction. It’s actually more of a restoration/renovation combination, the bipolar disorder of home improvement. I want to make every kitchen new by making it old, returning it to a more accessible version of its former glory. I want this profoundly. The urge feels, at times, like a moral imperative. Like the kitchen is a living organism, and it is my responsibility to make it as beautiful as it can possibly be.
That may be why I’ve restored eight kitchens in the last 12 years, two from the studs up. I’ve redone bathrooms and living rooms, too, but nothing satisfies like a refurbished kitchen. Kitchens are more critical than even bedrooms, because everything you do in the bedroom you can do in the kitchen, but try roasting a chicken in a dresser. I know this sounds odd. Just as I know there are people who don’t care about their kitchens. People of whom I am deeply suspicious.
My first remodel, my gateway, was a simple paint job. I was a recent college graduate, living in a tiny 1920s house with brown Formica countertops. Not retro-cute Formica. Solid brown Formica, with burn marks and melted divots from a hundred hot skillets. The cabinets were painted a similar shade, making the kitchen look like the inside of someone’s liver. Then, one morning at Home Depot, I noticed a half-price can of pink paint. By late afternoon, the cabinets were adorned with pink polka dots and shellacked. I had transformed my dingy kitchen into something cheery and eccentric. A compulsion was born.
After that first kitchen, I became consumed by historic renovation. I moved to Sag Harbor, New York, and bought a 1930s beach shack, installing vintage pie safes as cabinets and birch countertops. After that house, I relocated down the road into a Victorian, where I hung simple painted shelves and replaced the pressed-wood lower cabinet faces with white enamel doors from an old medical cupboard. They squeaked when I opened them, but their old-fashioned glimmer was irresistible.
As my income and experience grew, so did my ambition. I taught myself how to use a wet saw; I bought a belt sander; I installed tile. I left New York for Knoxville, where I found a 1920s bungalow with a 1970s kitchen. I gutted it with the help of two local teens who were only too happy to take a sledgehammer and destroy an ill-conceived island made of plywood. Once I stripped the vinyl wallpaper, ripped up seven layers of linoleum to expose the original oak floor and demo’d every trace of ’70s avocado and taupe, I worked with a local carpenter to create period-appropriate, freestanding pieces. An old mantel from the salvage yard became a table. Hand-turned decorative spokes from a turn-of-the century porch became drawer pulls. In went the lucky, funky farm sink and a wall-hung china cabinet built from locally reclaimed wood, plus a creamy, milk-glass schoolhouse pendant light from my birth state of West Virginia. My carpenter told me the best thing about my kitchen was that when I moved, I could bring the whole thing with me. A comforting, if wholly dubious, notion.
I did move eventually—sans kitchen; the new owners said they made an offer specifically because of it—to a 1790 farmhouse in upstate New York, a stone’s toss from the Hudson River. I quickly retrofitted the kitchen with vintage marble countertops and floor planks as wide as diving boards. As always, I searched the Internet and the salvage yards for historical knobs, nails, light fixtures, wood. This is not to say I was a militant preservationist. More a mood junkie. I liked the feeling that old stuff created. Installing reproductions would be like getting collagen injections in my lips. Fine for some people, but I preferred the imperfect, real thing.
Along the way, I began to crave the tension of an unfinished project. Once the plastic came off the doorways, my excitement waned. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my new/old kitchen. I did. I just longed for another project.
It helped that once I’d redone a kitchen, selling the house was easy. Nothing seduces like a six-burner range and a vintage gooseneck faucet. But I usually sold at a loss because of my unwillingness to stick to a budget. I was not a house flipper, but a house lover. Even if the brass pulls cost three times more than the brass-plated ones, I didn’t hesitate to get them. I had Martha Stewart perfectionism without the Martha Stewart bank account. (Not a good thing.)
Which brings me to my current house, a three-hour flight from New York City. As a single mom with two kids and a full-time job, I had little opportunity for on-site real-estate browsing. Instead of visiting, I looked at a handful of photos online, which, as anyone even vaguely familiar with Internet dating can attest, are not always reliable indicators of beauty. In the pictures, the kitchen I acquired looked tastefully refinished. The real-estate agent said the sellers had redone the whole space. Granite countertops, high ceilings, wood floors. “What’s not to love?” she chirped.
The day I took possession, I got my answer. Beige! On the cabinets. On the walls. On the tile backsplash. It was the enervating beige of vinyl shower stalls, a beige that actually sucks the light out of the room and, by extension, your soul. Then I saw the trim construction (shoddy) and the refrigerator (stainless but tilted and, weirdly, stained). The ceiling fixture was made of artificial wood. Also beige. It looked like the set of the Sopranos, with a phony opulence that could be blown over by a heavy belch.
I’d started itemizing the changes I would need to make to revamp the space—a shelf here, grout there—when I noticed The Drawer. In the corner between the stove and the sink was a cabinet topped by a drawer that was so awkwardly mounted that neither would open. Instead, they could be pulled out only a few inches before they slammed into the lip of the stove top. I did this repeatedly, like a tic: Open, slam. Open, slam. My heart filled with resignation. Cosmetic changes were not going to fix The Drawer.
To do that, I would need to dismantle the entire kitchen and start over. An enticing thought, except that I was broke. And so was my kitchen. I sunk to the (cheaply refinished) floor and sighed. For the first time in 20 years, I was going to have to live—the horror—with a terrible kitchen.
I would like to tell you that I eventually rose above my bourgeois preoccupations with design and historic authenticity and discovered a far richer inner life. That I put down the hammer and picked up a mantra. That I evolved.
I did not.
Instead, I continue to fantasize about the day when I’ll have enough money in the bank to de-faux my kitchen, to rip out the cabinets and replace the cheesy granite and light The Drawer on fire in a ceremonial cleanse.
Until then, I’ll dream of kitchens past. And I’ll paint.
Allison Glock, the author of Beauty Before Comfort, is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.