Bringing a 21st century kitchen into a house from the 1800’s

The task of modernizing, while honoring the history of an antique house, is never the same job twice for a designer or the contractor. A request to update and renovate the kitchen in an old house in Sheffield came with its own set of needs, restrictions and unforeseen problems. It also came with its own set of interesting details and unique possibilities.

In this case, it had been the family home of the husband of my client couple. The parents had lived with a 1960’s-style kitchen that was filled with their things and reflected their own taste and lifestyle. Now, my clients planned to offer the house for summer rentals. Their objective in calling me in was to redo the 1960’s, distinctly “country” kitchen on a tight budget, using as much of the existing cabinetry as possible.


The room was 15 feet long and 11 feet wide. Not bad for a functional kitchen, except that the number of openings put a crimp in most layout options. There were four doorways and the only full wall had two sets of windows. We pinned our hopes on the possibility of opening up to an adjacent room – a small space that one walked through to reach the main entry and living room. It must have had a specific use in the 1800’s, but now it was just a dark paneled place to put more stuff in, though it did offer one more window to the space.


The wife had mailed a collection of pictures torn from magazines showing the things she liked and the style she wanted. Some clients use Pinterest to show preferences, but those printed pages are still a great help in knowing what a client is imagining. What she envisioned fit beautifully with the existing antique house, so I was happy to work toward this. After measuring and taking photos, I returned to the studio and used AutoCAD to create some optional layouts based upon the removal of the wall to the little room. It would increase the length to nearly 22 feet.

My drawings were met with an enthusiasm that was quickly dashed when the contractor, Jim Waldman, began taking down the wall only to find it was needed to support the weight of the floor above. A portion of wall would have to remain. The ceilings were far too low to allow for a carrying beam. I returned to the drawing board to incorporate the needed support and make the new layout work. As it turned out, this was only the first weight bearing issue that would arise.

The existing cabinet units had been removed intact; fortunately their flush-door style is still available. Using blocks of their dimensions, I could try all of the units in various layouts. The wife wanted to move a much-loved hutch built by her late father-in-law from the dining room to the kitchen. I incorporated that in the layouts as well.

With the layout set and appliances chosen, down came the old acoustic tile ceiling to reveal a new need for support of the story above. When I saw the 2×4’s installed by Jim’s crew, it was easy to envision a way to incorporate that necessary reinforcement.



Display shelves were designed for the many small family treasures. The remaining two partial walls created a nook for the refrigerator.



No mid-century kitchen included space for a microwave, dishwasher, a beverage refrigerator or recycling. Paul Morgan of Cabinet Works in Great Barrington ordered additional units in the sizes we needed. Most of the original cabinets were re-used and Paul brought in the correct size base for the new apron-front sink. Once the cabinets were painted and capped with granite, everything tied in beautifully with the wife’s selection of practical appliances.



The kitchen in process: Before



The kitchen in process: After


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One Useless Room Solves Three Problems

Furniture isn’t the only thing you can rearrange inside your home. If the configuration of rooms doesn’t serve your needs, things can be changed. Most frequently, I am asked to open a kitchen to make a larger room for cooking, dining & socializing. But here’s an adventure in renovation that enhanced much more about living in the house.

The original builder’s plan for this house may have included everything on the developer’s checklist and everything the buyers were looking for, but the arrangement, in this case, didn’t make a lot of sense. Had I seen the plans before it was built, I could have pointed out the various problems with the layout. A conductor can look at a score and hear the music. A director can read a play and watch it unfold in the mind. I can do neither of these, but I look at building plans and can see how the space will be used and how it will be lived in.

I had to groan when I first saw this house in a 90’s development. The problems had been built-in, right from the plans. A couple from New York had just purchased this property in the Berkshires. They showed me what they liked about the house. It already had a spacious open kitchen and dining area with wide glass doors opening to a large deck overlooking a small pond.

Lead Photo Erica Fay.jpg

This view of the back deck and pond is a wonderful feature that came with the house.

Then we discussed the problems they saw. First, the front entrance had no coat closet. Second, they wanted an office area that was practical. The third problem was that the powder room was miles from the social areas and doubled as the laundry room. It was inconvenient and downright ugly.

While the main floor had all of the basic social rooms and a master suite, it also had one odd room – small bedroom size – that didn’t relate to anything, certainly not to how the house was to be lived in. In addition to the first floor master suite there were three bedrooms upstairs. This curious room was directly off the dining area and a long way from that powder room. If it were intended as a bedroom, using the bath in the master suite — which was closest — would have been awkward for any guest or family member.

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What were they thinking when this room was planned?

Initially the couple thought they would just use that odd room for their home office, realizing that its baby blue walls and plush beige carpeting would have to go.  I immediately sensed that this room was a pocket of dead energy — another problem. This is something you might also sense, especially if you apply the principles of Feng Shui.

The owners had dismantled the cheap closet organizers and tried laying out shapes and sizes on the carpeting with painter’s tape to explore what they might be able to do with that room. You will notice on the plan how the original closet in that funky room was beside another that was accessed from the master bedroom on the other side. The master suite already had a large walk-in closet so not only was this other one not needed, it made for difficulty arranging furniture.

After taking measurements and digital photos, I returned to my studio to make a plan (the bird’s eye view) in AutoCAD. With the problems in mind and the owner’s wish list, I created a number of possibilities.


In this plan, blue indicates what was to be removed, red shows what was to be added.

In the end, a hallway was opened into that odd room from the front entry. A good sized coat closet was constructed on one side and a powder room with a pocket door on the other. After removing the bank of closets, an office space fit at the end of the new area where the room opened to the dining area. The two windows within the original room fit nicely into the new plan keeping the exterior rhythm of windows intact.

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This view during construction looks toward the entry where the plastic hangs. On the right is the framing for the new powder room while the frame for the closet opening is on the left.

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Contractor Thom Whaley is shown finishing new trim in the space that became the office. Seen from the dining room, the new oak flooring matched the original.

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The completed galley-style office from the same view. Custom cabinets were installed above the desk top. The hall out to the entry with the powder room and coat closet is behind the seated gentleman.

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The decorating and finishing was fun and rather simple. I was giving the trim throughout the house a makeover with four inch flat stock for a “transitional” look (a catch-all term for a style that isn’t of any particular era but isn’t “modern” either). The new powder room received a band of 2 ½ inch flat trim 48 inches from the floor visually breaking up the small room. The lower walls were painted Ben Moore Raspberry Truffle. A silvery grass cloth from Kenneth James was used above and the trim was painted with Ben Moore Revere Pewter. The pedestal sink from St. Thomas and Toto toilet were white. When they were first installed, the owners were unhappy that the whites were not exactly the same. This is often the case when using fixtures from different manufacturers. I knew that once the strong red color was applied to the surrounding walls, that difference would no longer be discernible. The faucets, mirror, and glass shelf were selected from Renovation Hardware.

At the rear entry, the existing toilet and vanity were removed. What remained was enough space to create a nicely arranged room for the laundry, utility sink, pantry and a utility closet. Later, additional renovations solved other problems with the original plan. Voila! This house was beginning a new life as pleasant and functional.

Thom Whaley and his crew did a wonderful job with this small renovation that had a huge impact on the house, its use, and its value.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Edge on July 7, 2017

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Color Combinations

What colors work together? This is an ongoing question. Color choice is the focus of most of the calls I receive.

We live in a colorful world and while we develop preferences, when faced with the cost and effort of painting (inside or out) many people are unsure of themselves. I am glad to help, but my method is only a little about looking at the setting and hearing what people say they like – it’s mostly about watching them and their responses when I show them options. We respond viscerally to the colors that surround us even though we may have grown numb to that response.

I would never have put these two blues together – until I saw it done in the right setting. I continue to see the world anew. Nothing awakens the joy of a new experience like seeing something you might not have imagined!

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About Erica

Erica Fay brings together the threads of her studies and experiences to assist others in creating the physical environments that best support their lives and their work. Her decades of interior and renovation design are enhanced by lengthy practices in both Buddhism and Yoga. These roads come together to help others feel better in their bodies, their minds and in their homes.  She is ordained in the Japanese Tendai Buddhist tradition and is a certified Kripalu yoga teacher.

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