Appliance Strategies for the Old House Kitchen

Kitchens have seen more changes than any other room in the house.  Originally merely service spaces for cooking, kitchens were strictly functional and contained little in the way of cabinets.  Unlike today, the stoves, sinks, and eventually cabinets of early kitchens had legs and were much more like furniture.  While kitchens overall have changed dramatically, no aspect of the kitchen has changed more than appliances.  Ranges and refrigerators have seen numerous technological advances as well as drastic changes in appearance.  Other appliances that never existed in historic kitchens like microwaves and dishwashers are now common.  With all the changes, what are the best appliances to use in the old house kitchen in order to maintain historic character?

The task of finding appliances compatible with historic character is made more difficult by manufacturers who try to introduce fashion into their appliances with curves or a “space-age” appearance.  Usually the latest appliance fashion is not compatible with a vintage kitchen and using such appliances works against all other efforts to be historically sympathetic.  But there are various strategies to consider for addressing the problem.  Since some of the strategies work better with certain appliances, they can be employed in combination to create the best overall look.

The most common strategy is to treat appliances as generic equipment and expose them.  Success requires careful consideration of appearance to find a timeless look while ruling-out appliances that have been influenced by fashion.  The “professional” range look is the most common example of this.  The basic look is similar between manufacturers and comes from the look of commercial ranges, whose appearance has changed little over time.  Stainless steel refrigerators also are examples of this approach, however it’s critical to pay attention to the handles to be successful.  It’s possible to also use this approach with dishwashers and microwaves but there seem to be fewer suitable choices.  In particular appliance manufacturers seem found of including sweeping curves and plenty of black glass into their microwave designs making the task of selection more difficult.

Hiding appliances is another strategy that can be successfully used to maintain historic character.  It’s often employed successfully, and unsuccessfully, on refrigerators and dishwashers.  I find it unsuccessful when a panel is added to these appliances that is meant to recall the look of the cabinet.  These panels project beyond the cabinet face and a varying amount of the appliance is still visible. This is often worse than simply exposing a contemporary appliance!  Because it’s essentially a bad cabinet match, it looks like an obvious cover-up.  In order to really pull this off with a refrigerator or dishwasher it’s important to use a “fully integrated appliance”.  These are designed so that an actual matching cabinet door can be added that will be flush with the adjacent cabinet doors.  “Fully integrated” dishwashers have become more common but many are fairly pricy.  Ikea sells the Renlig (made by Whirlpool) that seems to be one of the lowest priced options available.  With refrigerators (and freezers) there are fewer options and these are again pricy.  Sub Zero has the most options, including under counter refrigerator and freezer drawers.  These will completely disappear after installation.

SALA Architect Joseph Metzler Appliances Old House
Sub-Zero fully integrated refrigerator is indistinguishable from adjacent cabinets.

While dishwashers and refrigerators can be “hidden” behind matching cabinet faces, microwaves can be hidden in cabinets or a pantry.  Given the way most of us use microwaves hiding it in this way and limiting immediate access might be too much of a trade-off.  If this isn’t acceptable there may be another option for a microwave if you are open to a location just below counter height (which can be ideal if you want to provide access for small children).  A location on the back side or end of an island can effective hide it from outside the kitchen.

While these are the usual options for appliances in historically sympathetic kitchens, there is another option for those desiring more accuracy.  There is a booming market for restored ranges, refrigerators, and reproduction appliances.  Some restored ranges may even be more reliable and cheaper to repair than modern-day counterparts.  Ranges built between 1911 through the mid 1950s (excluding the war years of 1946 and 1947 when scrap metals were used) have this reputation.  Many business sell restored ranges and are also available to restore or fix your un-restored range.  Often only minimal work will be necessary on older ranges.  This work usually includes, cleaning and lubricating gas valves, adjusting or replacing the thermostat, and replacing insulation if inadequate.

If going the route of purchasing an un-restored range and hiring someone for restoration, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind.  Look for brands that were national (Crawford, Glenwood, & Magic Chef were the earliest national brands) or enjoyed regional popularity in your area.  This will make parts easier to find.  Also keep in mind that some parts, such as doors and sheet metal panels, will be difficult to find replacements for even if they were from a popular model.  In his Old-House Journal article Stove Love, Gordon Bock provides details on the specific things to look for when buying an original range.

SALA Architect Joseph Metzler Appliances Old House
Reproduction gas stove manufactured by Heartland Appliances.

If you want to provide your kitchen with an antique stove from 1860 to 1937 you might also want to contact the Antique Stove Information Clearinghouse owned by Dave Petricka.  The Clearinghouse has 2,000+ stove manufacturers’ catalogs dating from this period.  Photocopies are available at $6 per stove and they also buy, sell, locate, and reprint manufacturers’ original catalogs.  Dave connects buyers and sellers of antique stoves (1930s and earlier) and stove parts as well as offering restoration consultation, parts search advice, catalogs, and books on antique stoves.  If you are looking for help identifying the correct year of stove appropriate to your home contact Dave at 507-210-4304 or [email protected] for a free consultation.

SALA Architect Joseph Metzler Appliances Old HouseOf course it can be difficult to locate the right antique appliance with only a limited number still around.  There are a few companies making reproduction appliances that would be appropriate in some kitchens.  Although available in only a limited number of styles, ranges have the most models available.  Some of these “reproductions” are pure fiction that never existing in history.  So it might be better to avoid the quasi-historical microwaves and dishwashers.

To find an appropriate antique or reproduction range or refrigerator, you might want to read the Old-House Journal article Fire & Ice by Gordon Bock.  It’s an overview of the evolution of these appliances and should be helpful for matching the right style appliance to your home.  For more on antique appliances check out No Stove Like an Old Stove: Buying and Refurbishing Vintage Ranges or Kitchen Classics.

If you want to create a kitchen with historic character, be sure to consider not only specific appliances but also the best strategy or combination of strategies.  With careful consideration you can find compatible options or even enhance the historic character.

Reproduction icebox manufactured by Klonkike Case.

Reproduction Appliances:

  • Big Chill  (ranges, refrigerators, & dishwashers)
  • Elmira Stove Works  (ranges, wall ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, & dishwasher panel kits)
  • Heartland Appliances  (ranges, dishwashers, & refrigerators)
  • Klondike Case Co.  (“icebox” style refrigerators)

Antique stoves:

  • Antique Gas Stoves  (sales, parts & service/restoration)
  •  (sales, parts & service/restoration)
  • Antique Stove Hospital  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Barnstable Stove Shop  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Erickson’s Antique Stoves  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Good Time Stove Company  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Johnny’s Classic Ranges  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Mill Creek Antiques  (sales & service/restoration)
  • Old Home Supply House  (sales)

Antique iceboxes:

  • Harp Gallery (they occasionally have antique wood iceboxes and refrigerators)

Architect Joseph Metzler SALA Architects Joseph Metzler has a wealth of experience on remodels and restorations along with holding seats on local historic preservation boards. For more useful information about renovations from Joe, take a look at some of his prior posts! You can also browse more of Joe's projects on his profile page. You can see more of his commentary where this post originally appeared in