The Walls Are Falling Down Around Me

Gloria Swanson

For a moment there, I felt like Gloria Swanson in that famous 1960 Life magazine photo (above), in which she stood grand and tall in her dotage amid the rubbled remains of the Roxy Theatre in New York City. (We’re talking the same theater that opened in 1927 featuring Swanson in the silent flick The Love of Sunya.) The reason for my almost mistaking myself for her doppelgänger? My Connecticut kitchen is about to be demolished—stripped bare to the dry wall—to make way for a sleek stainless-steel emporium brimming with KitchenAid appliances, custom wooden cabinets, Chroma countertops, and a bill so huge, I’ll likely have to cash in my IRA.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” I’d asked The One several months ago. After all, the bottom wall oven has broken down five times and is now as dead as they come. The top oven can’t keep a steady temperature to save its life—or my brioche. The downdraft ventilation system on the stovetop has also keeled over several times and, as such, has been in the upright and locked position for several years because I fear if we lower it, we’ll never see it again. The dishwasher—ah, the dishwasher. It’s cleaned the floor almost as many times as it’s cleaned our dishes, thanks to a capricious leak. Then there’s the fridge, which is one of those confounded side-by-side numbers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s useless; I can’t get a half sheet pan of anything in there, and forget about stashing anything larger than a modest pot roast in the narrow depths of the freezer. To add insult to injury, the former owners decided to abut the monster against a left wall, making it impossible to completely open the freezer door. (WTF were they thinking?!)

Panorama Kitchen

Click to view a panoramic shot of David’s soon-to-be-demolished kitchen

Despite my constant rants and complaints, The One wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. For months and months we’ve been saving to remodel the kitchen in our NYC apartment, a kitchen so small, so pathetic that we stopped city entertaining years ago. We couldn’t bear the embarrassment when people would swing open our Donna Reed-inspired kitchen door, poke their heads in to see where we cook, and then have their faces crumble in disappointment—or pinch in judgment—when they cast their eyes on The Truth.

Plans, Plans, Plans

“What if we shunt the money for the city kitchen to Connecticut and then redo the city next year?” I casually mentioned to The One as I slid a piece of my Hershey’s Chocolate Cake in front of him. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that his neurons stop firing and his central nervous system switches over to compliant mode when he’s confronted with chocolate. As he licked the plate (yes, he actually licks the plate when he likes something), he relented—but with the caveat that I pay for the entire renovation. After a second slice, he caved when I showed him the dirt-cheap, butt-ugly stainless-steel sink I said I intended to buy, my fingers crossed behind my back. He immediately, and I must admit, magnanimously, offered to buy a sleek white enamel farmer’s sink. Men. They’re so easily played.

Dan Keys, our Contractor

And thus The Great Project began. There was no way in hell I was going to slide my new appliances (generously supplied by KitchenAid*) into painted-over knotty-pine cabinetry that’s more chipped and cracked than a trollop’s cherry red fingernails. So Dan Keys, our contractor (above), came in and asked me to lay out my dream kitchen. Wind me up and let me go. I whizzed around the room, my hands moving faster than Lorin Maazel’s conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, carving out a pantry here and a recessed fridge—one that actually opened—there. I stretched the air to make a larger, more workable island. I pulled out invisible knife drawers and hidden trash bins. I played God, creating light where there was none. When I was done with my dance, I was so exhausted I needed lunch and a nap. Dan needed an aspirin, I think. After that, Larry Komisar and Don Hodkoski of Litchfield Kitchen & Bath stopped by three times with tape measures, cameras, and puzzled looks, and after several weeks the kitchen design went from rough pencil sketches (above) to floor plans to computer-generated elevations.

Countertop Samples

The last major hurdle? Countertops. Here’s where The One and I parted ways. I wanted a simple cement look (above center, beneath the smaller sample). But The One stood firm, insisting on a slightly mottled counter (above left). “Just in case you stain it while you’re cooking,” he said. What the hell? I figure it’s a small price to pay for a farmer’s sink. (Update: We eventually decided on an almost white counter. We just fell in love—with the same one. What can I say?) We did look at zinc for the wet side of the kitchen, but The One felt it was too much metal. Little does he know that I’m in cahoots with Dan to see if perhaps we can have a section around the sink that’s zinc. It ages so gracefully. Not unlike dear Miss Swanson.

David Leite's signature

*LC Editor’s Note: “What? Wait? David took free appliances from KitchenAid? Isn’t that, like, unethical or something? Criminal, even?” Well, dear reader, no, it’s not. Federal law simply requires that anything given to a blogger for free must be disclosed to you. Fabulous, inquisitive, witty you. The gifting of these appliances isn’t any different than manufacturers donating appliances to television shows, cooking demo kitchens, stores, etc. And it makes perfect sense considering that David and The One are planning to host their own Google+ Hangout on Air Web series from their brand-spanking-new kitchen. Besides, they’ve bought KitchenAid appliances for their previous homes and have been quite, quite content with their performance. Plus you know David: He’s so darn opinionated, nothing is going to sway his opinion and no one can muzzle him. If he’s not happy or if he doesn’t like something, you’ll know it. That’s his promise to you.

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Comments
Comments
  1. Maria Gifford says:

    I just don’t understand this craze for stone countertops. Won’t a fine glass break if tipped? Wouldn’t a nice platter crack if accidentely dropped? They are beautiful but seem to me impractical..

  2. Beth says:

    Ooh, can’t wait to see the reveal! I think you should recreate Ms. Swanson’s pose during the demo phase!

  3. Norma in FL says:

    Regarding that fabulous photo and the opening paragraph of this piece: In 1960, the Glorious Ms. Swanson was 61 years old — “grand” indeed, but hardly “in her dotage”! Because I am now in my own (though just barely), I looked it up on merriam-webster.com, and yes, the definition is as I remembered it: “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” As for “tall,” she appears to be standing as tall as she possibly could, but her height is reported variously as 4’11″, 5″, 5’1/2″ and a few points in between. Thank you so very much for reminding me of this great image, which I remember seeing in Life all those years ago. And thanks even more for your always brilliant and hilarious reporting. Minor due diligence deficiency notwithstanding, I do love your blahg and the entire Culinaria!

    • David Leite says:

      Norma in FL, well you got me on “dotage.” I was making, perhaps, a too sly reference to her character Norma Desmond–who was clearly in her dotage. But I must disagree about the adjective “tall.” Even a person of short statue can stand tall! Just Garland, who was 4′ 11″, certainly stood tall. Even when she claimed not to be able to see the floor. It’s a matter of perspective rather than inches.

      Thanks for the kind words. And keep on reading!

  4. pepigopepi says:

    Some people think like you, Maria (Guilford), some don’t–like me. I don’t cook, this way I’ll never break anything?! Anything except a nail or two…

  5. Elaine Nearpass says:

    Hi David, saw the photos of the “old kitchen”, may I have it please? We have a very small house & don’t have the $$$ to buy another. My kitchen is a SMALL eat-in kitchen. In order to have 8 friends around the table, we really have to forgo getting anything out of the refrigerator. We’ve recently bought parsons chairs; they’re very comfortable, but we can’t move. I’ll be curious to see your photos of the new kitchen, maybe I can get some tips on how we can up-date ours. Love the other photos, too. Good Luck, Elaine Nearpass

    • David Leite says:

      Dear Elaine, I hear you about small kitchens. As I told Michael we have a tiny one in the city. I’m not sure you’ll glean many tips from this renovation, but I’m sure we’ll have lots to offer you when we redo our city cocina. So tiny, I have to step outside to turn the page of a cookbook.

    • Martha in KS says:

      I’m with Elaine. Your soon-to-be-dust cabinets are exactly what I want for my 100 yo house. And your countertop is much nicer than my Formica. Can you put them on a truck to Kansas? If not, at least donate them to a local charity.

      • David Leite says:

        Dorothy, we’re keeping it all. We’re moving it to the basement so that we have extra storage, which we desperately need. The fridge will go down there, too, and will act as a very large wine cooler!

  6. Renee says:

    Now I’m thinking of joining Google+ just so I can hang out with you guys & see the finished product. I’m sure that little green eyed monster will be creeping nearby. I’m a sucker for beautiful (and functioning) kitchens.

    • David Leite says:

      Well, Renee, come on down! Join in and you’ll see every twist and turn of this renovation adventure. (Sounds like a ride at Disney: Renovation Adventure! Watch live contractors, plumbers, carpenters, and more as they swoop in and re-create a kitchen in front of your very eyes!)

  7. How lovely that you get to play G-d with your CT cooking room. However, I should tell you that I know several people in Manhattan who would kill to have a kitchen the size of yours in the city. They may have fabulous living spaces, but they make their meals in glorified broom closets.

    • David Leite says:

      Michael, well, we traded up from a broom closet. Now we’re in the utility-size kitchen categroy. The only good thing: You can make dinner at the stove, open the fridge, grab ingredients from the cabinets, and wash dishes in the sink–all without having to move an inch.

  8. Cheryl says:

    I’m so excited for you and The One! It’s a little like expecting a baby. Me and hubby are in the process of thinking about a new kitchen, but now I will have to wait to see yours when it’s done, for inspiration of course! Good luck.

    • David Leite says:

      Cheryl, if this is like expecting a baby, then my belly’s out to here and I’m weeks overdue. I wish you the best with your kitchen. I gotta say our contractor is supremely excellent. It’s been so easy. A good contractor is the key.

  9. Lin says:

    I will look forward to following your remodel. I know it will be gorgeous! You are going to need lots of your Hersey’s Chocolate Cake on hand to get ya’ll through it, but the end result will be worth the trials and tribulations!

  10. JuneC says:

    Well, your BEFORE pictures are my idea of my dream kitchen.

    • David Leite says:

      JuneC, well the right light and the right angle do a lot. Plus, like our dear Miss Swanson, we require gauze placed over the camera lens to soften the imperfections.

  11. Lucky you! And can’t wait for those google plus hangouts! I find in kitchen design that the layout is the most important thing. The rest is mere frosting on the cake; but I like A LOT of frosting. Preferably chocolate.

    • David Leite says:

      Abbe, so true. We spend a lot of time on flow patterns, reach length, outlet placements, etc. But, oh, such lovely frosting will there be!

  12. Amanda says:

    David, I envy you the thrill of a new kitchen but not the process. I renovated a kitchen in our old house some years ago and it is an exercise that will test most relationships – and ours was a fairly easy reno!

    The worst part was the weekend when my daughter was actually electrocuted by an unsafely taped up light switch which had been exposed when part of a wall was removed. I spent Mothers Day in the hospital with her while they had her on an ECG machine and hunted down the exit point of the charge, while the builder was blissfully out of phone contact on a fishing weekend. My husband and the safety inspector left some very blunt messages for him which really took the shine off his break when he came home and found them. Any remaining shine was completely obliterated by his subsequent fine for illegal/sloppy work.

    • David Leite says:

      Ooooooh. So sorry to hear that, Amanda. That’s awful. I hope she was okay? And shame, shame on builder. Shame, shame.

  13. Remodeled 6 years ago – lovelovelove it – but the one thing I didn’t get was a new fridge. I have a little white KitchenAid all picked out – KitchenAid Architect Series II Model KBFS22EWWH (or the one just like it but with a regular door instead of French doors) – can you tell your buddies at KA if they give me a fridge I’ll never shut up about it! :D

    • David Leite says:

      Hey, Jean. You loved the remodel or the new kitchen? Can’t say I’m looking forward to the process. When there are big things in the house that I can’t control, I get small–as in polishing knick knacks or removing gum from the bottom of my sneakers. And, you never know when and if the KA faeries might alight upon your kitchen counters.

      • Good question, David. I love the new kitchen. I kinda loved the remodeling, too (but it nearly killed my husband!). I acted as my own general contractor, so it was a full-time job. But very satisfying. The day my husband drove up and saw guys from four trades swarming over the place, he just stepped on the gas and kept going!

        • David Leite says:

          You acted as your own contractor? Brave woman. I, on the other hand, am a coward. I want to stay miles away while the demo and remo are done. But I need to stay close to answer questions from the contractor.

  14. Laurie says:

    David, what a wonderful project. This post got me sidetracked over to your Hershey’s Cake post, but I’m back now and looking forward to hanging out in the new kitchen on Google+. Happy renovations! My guess is that there will be a few funny stories along the way.

  15. JuneC says:

    How can I get updates to posts? Some other blogs that I follow have a box that can be checked saying “update me when new posts are made” (or some such wording).

    I see I am not the only one that covets your old kitchen. I just saw that you have a giveaway section to your blog and I was going to ask for the countertops (actually the entire kitchen) to be used as a give away. Someone posted that they got sidetracked by the Hershey’s cake….I did too.

    • David Leite says:

      JuncC, thank you for bringing that to our attention. There used to be a checkbox right beneath the comment box. I’ll have to check into it.

      And those old counters and cabinets are going to good use in our basement, where we’ll use them as storage. Something we desperately need.

    • David Leite says:

      June, it’s fixed. Anytime you leave a comment you should now see “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” right below the comment box. Click that and you’re set.

  16. Quinn says:

    Oh my goodness, what an undertaking! You have my sympathy AND my admiration. I renovated my tiny sort-of-a-kitchen a few years ago. It’s something that is very good to look back on! :)

    • David Leite says:

      Quinn, I’m not looking forward to when the sledge hammers start swinging. And I pity poor Devil Cat–he hates loud noises. Plus I have two assistants starting the same week. CHAOS!

  17. Lori Lynn says:

    So excited for you, glad you showed the before panorama. I love before and after images. Looking forward to seeing the completed project. I am in the planning stages of my kitchen remodel too. Well, actually I’ve planned it, in the “financial” planning stage now. And if I could just get La Cornue to donate the range…
    LL

    • David Leite says:

      Lori, please send me some pictures via our “Let’s Talk” page. We can start a thread of kitchen remodels! Cool!

  18. Ling Teo says:

    Bless you, David – I laughed until I cried reading this, and I could so see you:

    “I whizzed around the room, my hands moving faster than Lorin Maazel’s conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, carving out a pantry here and a recessed fridge—one that actually opened—there. I stretched the air to make a larger, more workable island. I pulled out invisible knife drawers and hidden trash bins. I played God, creating light where there was none. When I was done with my dance, I was so exhausted I needed lunch and a nap. Dan needed an aspirin, I think.”

    So excited for you and looking forward to the stories!!

  19. Susan says:

    I’m glad you have confidence in your architect, now finding a good contractor is the challange. All I can advise (I know..you didn’t ask!) is say NO to any shortcuts. They really don’t know what they are going to be dealing with until they tear down the old kitchen and start the work. Challanges will arise so don’t be surprised..just make’em make it right…the right way…which might be the expensive way or the long way…just don’t allow shortcuts cuz if you think it’s expensive and time consuming now, it’s worse later. That’s all I’m sayin!

    • David Leite says:

      I agree with you wholeheartedly, Susan. Our contractor, Dan, is fantastic. I’m the one who keeps asking, “Can’t we pull back a bit?” He’s always telling us that it’s not price but quality that matters. And he has stopped me from making mistakes–spending too much and too little.

  20. Louise says:

    We just did the kitchen. It took us a year to get to a point where we were happy with the design and ready to put out the huge amount if cash it was going to take. We knocked down the first wall in September and were finished all the “big” stuff by… Christmas. Lived in a bomb shelter the whole while. Our contractor arranged it so I had a working kitchen the whole time except for fiv days. The process still damned near killed me. I love the end product though. No. I LURVE it. Totally worth the disruption.

    Louise's Before and After Kitchen

    • David Leite says:

      Louise, the after looks great. Clearly, there was a little more to do, but the layout, especially the new island, makes the kitchen so much more user friendly.

  21. Suzanne Hamlin says:

    David, there is no little irony in the fact that your marvelous, full-disclosure kitchen reno essay appeared in the same e-letter as the recipe from “Little Paris Kitchen”; is the author crazy or just young and hopeful–or incredibly enterprising? (I lived with one of those miniscule Paris kitchens for six months and even then, in the 1960′s and armed with Elizabeth David , ended up existing on cherries, pate and baquettes).

    But on to CT and the reno! No apologies necessary for the Kitchen Aid largesse; a company that has not only stood the test of time, but backs up its appliances. Here is my sad story, perhaps a cautionary tale to those who are now, or will be, shopping for big kitchen ware:

    Six years ago my husband and I bought this house in upstate New York. It had been built two years previously and had a very large,–if conventional–knockout kitchen which literally had never been used (the owner was, self-described, “Not a cook”). The Basics: Black grained granite countertops (such a cliche but they have stood up well), custom , sleek maple cabinets (I just replaced the garish hardware) , ridiculously small double sinks (replaced with one large, deep stainless sink and a new, lever faucet) and an island (no island before, got two moveable ones with drawers from Ikea, placed them end to end–longwise– and had a matching black granite top made). All the inherited appliances were “high end” stainless steel ones, as follows:

    A GE glass top stove top (no gas up here; it has been not bad, actually)

    A Bosch dishwasher. Two years ago, the cheap plastic soap dispenser broke, and the temperature gauge is hopelessly off. Out of warranty, of course and the cost to repair: $500 (I refuse and use as is). Basic flaw: The way too many digital settings are not only overkill, they are counter-intuitive.

    Double Bosch ovens. The top one has a convection option. Both take 30 minutes to reach temp, and then don’t hold it. A year ago, the top oven locked permanently. Cost to replace the open/close mechanism: $800. (once again this is a digital appliance). I refuse to pay that and open and close it with a screwdriver blade.

    GE double door (freezer on one side, fridge on the other)) stainless steel refrigerator with an ice maker on the door. Of course, we got hooked on the ice maker. Otherwise: worse refrigerator ever. Like yours (maybe yours is a GE), the storage capacity on both sides is ludicrous. Six months ago, it begin a slow death: the temperature on both sides no longer holds (freezer does not freeze at all). Called the appliance people ($125 for service call) who said the motor was shot. Really? In a six year old, $2,500 built-in refrigerator? His explanation: dirt had gotten into the coils on the back, Cautionary tale: apparently–and everyone else in the world already knows this according to service person–refrigerator should be pulled out of its space and coils vacuumed out (preferably by a service person) at least once, preferably twice a year). Am now shopping for new fridge, fridge on top, freezer on bottom (think I’ll have to sacrifice the ice maker)–maybe a Kitchen Aid?

    (Speaking of refrigerators) I highly recommend a Haier wine refrigerator. Mine, which is self standing (just plugs in at the back) is about 36″ tall and 18 inches wide, has temp controls for both reds and whites, has a smoked glass door and holds about 40 bottles of wine. Bought it at Lowe’s about 15 years ago for about $200 and it has been in constant operation ever since. Brought it from my previous house where it was enclosed in an open cabinet as it is here–looks built in although of course it is not. Know you are planning to use your old fridge for wine but, besides the correct wine storage temp of the Haier, one can never –in this household at least–have too much wine close at hand.

    Don’t get me started on the microwave–also GE. Built in and hard wired, it died a year ago. (I now have my 15 year old free-standing Panasonic on a counter). Re built ins: to replace, the new one must be the exact measurements of the old (so far, no luck in finding a match. )

    In 45 years of kitchens and appliances, I have never before had appliances break down. Now, Made in China or just shoddily made? As for the smaller appliances: Five years ago I bought a new large-capacity Cuisinart. (My original, btw, bought in 1970, still works fine–but is quite small). The motor is OK, but I have had to replace the plastic bowl (which mysteriously cracks or the spring gives out) four times now–at $100 a shot. My beloved Kitchen Aid mixer , in continual use for 38 years, finally gave out due I think to being woefully mispacked –jammed sideways into a mover’s box. I bought a new one, a model that accommodates the bowls from my old one and, so far, egg whites are beautifully peaking and batters are seamlessly blending as of old. May all your Kitchen Aids serve you as well! I have no doubt that they will–and look forward to progress reports!

    • David Leite says:

      Suzanne, I think in the battle of Kitchen Woes, you are the undisputed queen. I’m so sorry to hear of all your misfortune!!

      • Suzanne Hamlin says:

        David, I don’t really think of it as Kitchen Woes–more as a cautionary tale for those who might be shopping for appliances. And vindication for my own preferences–I inherited my kitchen; I never would have bought these over-hyped, shiny, pre-programmed to self-destruct appliances in the first place. I’ll soon be moving into a big, open loft (yes, I am that kind of person) and know exactly what fixtures and appliances I’m going to invest in–and, of course, eavesdropping on your own progress.

        • David Leite says:

          Suzanne, well, I hope that all have read your tale and have been warned. Now, let’s see if the Great Connecticut Kitchen Renovation turns into a companion cautionary tale….

  22. Adri says:

    Oh, David, all the best to you and The One! We are preparing to do the same. Our old fifties kitchen will soon be demolished, and I too thought of Ms. Swanson and that shot. My boa is and evening gown are at the ready! I also thought of the demo guys but that is another story…

    Countertops are our last hurdle also. The choices are so vast, and the products so beautiful, it is a difficult decision. You will love you new kitchen! I really hope you will share shots of the work as it progresses. I, and I’d wager to say, every one else would enjoy sharing in your joy. And I hear you about the cost. Unreal.

    • David Leite says:

      Adri, I will certainly keep you posted every dusty, dirty, noisy step of the way. And I wish you luck on your reno, too. Hey, why not send me a before and after, so I can post them as I did Louise’s? It’s always good to get different ideas from each other.

  23. Rita J says:

    Your kitchen will be awesome! Can I have your old KitchenAid Mixer? Mine is almost dead, Speeds 9 and 10 stopped working!……
    I have to get a black mourning band….

    • David Leite says:

      Dear Rita J, sorry but our old KitchenAid is spoken for…by me! I’m keeping both because the old one will help when I have a small batch of dough or small amount of batter to whip up.

  24. Ann says:

    David, what’s all this talk about crappy kitchens and remodeling. I have just bought Rachel Khoo’s new cookbook and seen her videos on her show. The woman used a 2 burner camp stove along with a toaster oven and had a popup cafe, hosted a cooking show and wrote a french cookbook! Gird your loins man and start cooking, you don’t want to be bested by little Rachel from Croydon England. As an eternal renter in a crappy studio apartment with crappy little kitchen, my question to you is – Are you bragging or complaining? On the other hand, if I was a homeowner, lucky you! All the best with your remodeling ventures.
    P.S. Rachel’s Savory cake recipe is a winner!

    • David Leite says:

      Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rachel is young, pretty, and thin–so she can move around in the kitchen! I’m more in the complaining camp. When you purchase a home specifically for its large kitchen, and paid a lot for appliances the former owner somehow “forgot” to tell you were fritzy, you get cranky. And I thought six years was enough to have three broken/crippled appliances. I want just once in my adult life to float through my kitchen–like those people in the old appliance commercials of the ’50s.

      .

  25. My husband keeps telling me I should go for a general contractor license and work as a project manager or something. Maybe ten years ago, but … nah!

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