The kitchen renovation began years before we had even moved into our current home, when we bought our first house, a charming 1948 brick bungalow.
In the kitchen of that house, flames protruded from three of four burners on the old white stove: standing pilot lights. The 36-inch appliance looked like a larger version of the fifties-era stove I had gladly left behind in my garage apartment in West Palm Beach (I had to light that one with a match too). When the fourth burner failed to light, our Realtor got on the phone with his counterpart, who talked him through it.
“The owner’s a vegan baker, and she says it’s the best stove she’s ever had!” our Realtor said. “She loves it and wishes she could take it with her.”
Hmmm, I thought, Previous Owner did not love this faulty behemoth enough to actually take it with her.
“I’m sure we’ll love it too,” I said, and made a mental note to check prices on CraigsList. This thing was going out the door if only as a Curb Alert special.
And then, somehow, the stove won us over. Even though we had to wrap the oven door in aluminum foil when our turkey roaster wouldn’t fit on Thanksgiving. Even though a previous owner had replaced perfectly functional handles with ceramic knobs to to match the kitchen door pulls, and the slippery devils always heated to scalding, slipped from my grip and slammed the oven door shut. Even though I occasionally had to scrape charred debris from the burners in order to light them.
On our honeymoon, we got a call from a friend who we had asked to check on the house.
“You guys know I would only call you if it were really, really important,” she said. “There are teeny tiny little flames coming out of your oven.”
She had, sensibly, left the house to make the call, but had not yet called the fire department.
The thermostat had long ago stopped working, as had the range top clock and broiler. We used a detachable thermometer inside the oven to make sure it reached the correct temperature. The oven never had insulation, so the whole kitchen grew several degrees warmer when we cooked. Oh well, who wanted to eat hot food during Florida summers anyway? Gazpacho and salad dominated the menu.
We made a lot of excuses for the stove. It was just so … cool. It had character. Visitors loved it.
And so when it came time to move to a new house, the stove came with us. Mostly because we had to rent out the old house, and the idea of renters plus standing pilot lights did not mix.
This was the beginning of our investment into cool.
Preparing to move, we pushed the stove away from the wall and quickly realized that for starters, we were the first people to do this since the Eisenhower administration, and second, while the two of us moved our rental-grade oven into the house without breaking a sweat, we would need at least two more people to move this one out of the house. Scrubbing away layers of grease and clearing dust from 1950s wiring, we felt lucky to be alive. I got out my Dremel and attacked the rusty burners, to little avail. We threw out the range hood. We recouped up about $17 for the copper gas hookup at the scrap-metal yard.
And then, once we moved the stove over to the new house, we found out that the local utility would not allow us to install our beloved antique appliance. The stove — dust, grease and all — had been grandfathered in to the old house because it was installed in the 1950s. Current code would not allow such a stove to be installed without new safety features, even though we had cleaned it to a greatly enhanced level of safety.
“Fine!” I said. “I’ll do it myself!”
Ironically, in business school, I had just learned about the concept of “sunk costs” but still could not walk away from this one.
By now, we had a toaster oven big enough to bake a pie, a slow cooker, an electric burner and a grill. We wouldn’t starve.
Online, I found Antique Appliances, a repair shop in Clayton, Ga. that specialized in vintage ranges and refrigerators. The owner, John Jowers, had unyielding patience with my incessant questions and half-baked DIY dreams. He talked me through the options and sold me the oven safety valve I needed. The shop installed them all the time, and after reviewing photos of my stove he was sure it would work. It was a simple job.
Of course I failed in my attempts to install it myself. Three gas contractors also refused to install it. Though they all had serviced old stoves like this, they had never before retrofitted one with safety equipment. It made them nervous.
“It’s going to cost you a damn fortune,” one contractor said. “Just buy a new stove.”
He did acknowledge I had done a nice job cleaning off the rust with my Dremel.
So, did I do the sensible thing as he advised, and head out to Sears? Of course not. I simply dug my heels in deeper.
By now, winter had become spring. It seemed like fate that we had scheduled a family reunion in the Smoky Mountains that summer, and that our route would take us up US 441, through Clayton, Georgia, directly past Antique Appliances. The shop schedules out repair jobs months in advance. They fit us right in.
My husband, Will, would argue that “fate” did not extend to his renting a U-Haul trailer, again calling upon his friends to move the stove into said trailer, and picking up my mother at the Atlanta airport en route to the Smokies. This behavior fell under the “deranged home improvement” category.
And so we found ourselves crawling up I-75 in the right lane with a trailer hitched to our SUV, swinging off the Perimeter highway to retrieve my mother from a MARTA station, going out of our way to avoid situations in which we might need to back up our vehicle.
At each stage we reassessed our decision and came to the perfectly logical reason to proceed:
“The stove is just so cool. It has character.”
Having never before driven to Atlanta under the speed limit, we arrived hours later than predicted. Even though he had closed up for the day, John Jowers drove over to meet us and the U-Haul.
Worth the trip was the sight of the warehouse itself, packed from end to end with refrigerators and ovens dating from the 1920s to 1970s, in all states of repair, some painted mint, yellow, red and blue like hard candy, others bearing college mascot logos, bound for brownstones and retro diners in Baltimore, New York, Honolulu and Dubai.
John gave us a tour and told us about how his father had opened the shop to repair radios, branched out to appliances, and then found a niche specialty in vintage stoves and fridges. Clayton borders Lake Rabun, where wealthy Atlantans built summer retreats in the 1920s and where they still host a vintage wooden boat parade every Independence Day. The region is a retro tourist’s dream.
Wary of driving the windy roads of the ever-higher mountains before us in the dark, we decided to stay in Clayton overnight. We’d seen a few chain hotels on 441, but John recommended a B n B owned by a friend, the York House Inn, a two-story Victorian bordering farmland. He did more than recommend; he drove us there. It was right on his way home. As we checked into the beautifully landscaped B n B, full of antiques and serving a delicious hot breakfast, an octogenarian couple stopped in looking for supper. They had eaten a fine meal at the York House about 30 years earlier and had driven the two hours from Atlanta — without calling ahead, assuming dinner was still served nightly.
Somewhere amid this Southern hospitality, we upgraded from a basic mechanical restoration of our stove ($1,500 minus the $300 I’d already spent on the safety valve) to a $3,000-plus total rebuild. Niceness sells. Plus, we had come all this way after all … so why not?
In the ensuing weeks, John Jowers kept us apprised of every development in our stove’s restoration. When finding original handles to replace the ceramic knobs proved futile, he came up with a better solution: handles painted blue to match the clock on the range top. He painted the burner dials blue as well. Our entire kitchen renovation later played off this shade of blue. The shop documented the restoration and posted photos of the entire process to Facebook.
A few months later, a truck pulled up to our house in Florida and delivered a stove that looked like we had ordered it brand-new from Sears … in 1950.
We could hardly believe this was the old, trusty, rusted appliance we’d dropped off in Georgia that summer. This stove shone with new white enamel, slate blue accents and black cast-iron burners. On the oven window, cleared of grease, we could see the word “Permaview”. In 1950, being able to see your food cooking through a window in your stove was a new thing, worthy of a fancy marketing word. The oven had proper insulation, a working thermostat, and not one but two working lights. The interior oven light, long since burned out, now turned on. We discovered that the second push-button on the range top, which we assumed also went to the oven light, illuminated a second, rectangular light around the clock on the back of the range. It looked almost neon. The burners fired up hot blue, right away, without needing to be scraped or cajoled.
We stood in awe of our new old stove. It was undeniably cool. Its coolness outshone the inferior workmanship of the seventies-era kitchen around it. Renovation immediately became a need rather than a want. This stove needed a kitchen worthy of its coolness. We owed it to the stove. We were at the mercy of the stove.
No, we didn’t need to spend $3,000 on an appliance. Yes, we could have bought a perfectly functional stove retail for far less. Yes, we could have bought a commercial-grade Viking range for the same price. But that wasn’t the point. People who restore vintage cars could buy something up to date and reliable on a dealer’s lot. But why would they want to do that? What fun would that be? Heads would not turn on the street to admire a safe, sedate Corolla. Such a car would not reflect one’s personality like a 1940s Ford pickup or a 1970s El Camino, lovingly restored with a custom blue paint job. Their dollars won’t go toward saving an important piece of Americana, preserving good design and solid workmanship. That is why we spent our disposable income restoring a fine vintage appliance. You can justify it to yourself however you want; it’s an investment, it’s built like a tank, it will last longer, but really, the reason you’re doing it is purely cosmetic. And that’s OK. Once you admit this to yourself, you’ll enjoy the new addition to your kitchen family to its full potential. And maybe you’ll feel a little bit like James Bond every time you enter your kitchen.