Before and After: A 1950s Kitchen Gets a Refresh (but Keeps Its Retro Cabinets)

published Oct 27, 2022
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Before: full view of the kitchen with white cabinets and a white refrigerator

Mid-century kitchens are some of the most recognizable vintage spaces you’ll find in older homes. Roughly spanning the 1950s and ’60s, these kitchens have a few hallmark traits: flat, utilitarian cabinets, linoleum floors, laminate countertops, and square or U-shaped layouts. Some of those features are worth preserving; others might not have stood the test of time.

Marty Shaw’s kitchen was last updated in 2018 but still had much of its original 1952 character. “It was kind of cool and retro, with the original gray Formica countertops and old farm sink,” Marty’s girlfriend, Emily (@emeliabird) says. Before the previous owners painted them white in 2018, the cabinetry was even pink, as was somewhat common for retro kitchens.

Marty and Emily’s kitchen redo began because their refrigerator died. They couldn’t find a new fridge to fit in the slot where it was before, so they decided to switch its the location with the stove. But there were other little (and big) things they wanted to fix in the kitchen, too: “There was no ventilation above the old stove, and the countertops were kind of lifting and deteriorating,” Emily says. “We suspected a mouse problem behind the old broken dishwasher and under the sink, so, we decided to replace the dishwasher and overhaul the inside of the cabinets to take care of the mouse issues once and for all. One thing led to another, and we spent the next eight weeks planning and making trips to Home Depot.”

Their entire project took two months, done on the weekends and after work. The process involved adding a layer of LVP flooring overtop of the old gray tiles, replacing the run-down laminate with stylish butcher block, installing a new sink, adding a subway tile backsplash, installing new appliances and a new light fixture, and giving the cabinets a facelift with paint and beadboard detailing on their exposed sides.

The couple kept the original cabinets, repainted the uppers white (Behr’s Shoelace) and the lowers teal (Glidden’s Dwarf Spruce), and changed out the hardware. “It saved a tremendous amount of time and money,” Emily says. (Their total redo cost about $5,000.)

The most difficult part of the redo was installing the appliances, Emily recalls. They unexpectedly had to re-wire some of the electrical outlets and add additional outlets behind the dishwasher and along the backsplash. Their neighbors helped with the electrical and with digging a trench for a new propane line. (Thank goodness for good neighbors!)

After their experience, Emily has budget-friendly advice when it comes to appliances, and light fixtures, too. “If you’re ordering things online, read the reviews,” she says. “We were originally going to go with a few more expensive things, but the cheaper ones had great reviews, and in the end it saved us some money.”

Another tip: “Try to salvage what you can,” Emily says. For instance, Marty framed and built the new range hood using old hardwood flooring he found on the property.

If you have to buy new, Emily recommends that you “choose new things that will stand the test of time, wear, and tear.” She’s pleased with their choices of durable wood countertops (topped with two coats of stain and mineral oil) and a heavy-duty sink.

Emily and Marty’s favorite parts of the redo are the aforementioned countertops and sink, plus the backsplash and beadboard. And Emily’s final piece of DIY advice is this: When in doubt, turn to blogs and video demonstrations. She and Marty learned how to lay their new flooring, install their sink, install the propane line, and add their subway tile online.

“I’m so proud of how we were able to truly make the space feel like a homey kitchen we love spending time in,” she says. “We love how cozy and functional the space is.”

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Before and After: A 1950s Kitchen Gets a $5,000 Refresh (But Keeps Its Charming Retro Cabinets)