Susie and Mark Williamson knew the faded linoleum floor and 1970s ill-fitting cabinets would have to go when they undertook a major remodeling of their outdated kitchen. But they wanted the vintage butler’s pantry, with its well-worn copper sink, to stay.
“It was a quaint and neat historical feature,” said Susie. “And we wanted to preserve qualities of the original house as much as possible.”
The Williamsons called on architect Mark Larson, a former classmate at St. Olaf College, to design a new kitchen as well as find space for a new mudroom and casual eating area, without adding a single square foot to their 1915 shingle-style home in St. Paul.
“The old butler’s pantry was perfectly placed for the old days of prepping and serving, but it was in an awkward spot and would take up nearly a third of the new kitchen,” said Larson of Rehkamp Larson Architects in Minneapolis. Instead, that well-used relic from the past became the inspiration for the style and materials Larson used in the Williamsons’ modernized kitchen.
“The new kitchen is like a great butler’s pantry,” said Larson. “And it still has all the character and charm of the one original to the home.”
The rich architectural details and period style of the St. Paul residence, which was designed by architect Peter J. Linhoff, convinced the Williamsons that it would be worth it to take on the extensive cosmetic upgrades and remodeling that the home required.
Back in 1990, when the couple were dating, they loved to walk in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood and admire the beautiful historic old homes, some designed by renowned architects such as Charles Johnston. “We talked about how wonderful it would be to live there,” said Susie. “It’s a hidden gem.”
After the Williamsons married, they lived in several south Minneapolis homes with their two children. In 2006, wanting to move away from the airplane noise in their neighborhood, “we had an itch to start looking at houses,” said Susie, “which can be dangerous.” The couple had remodeled kitchens in previous homes, but were ready to tackle a top-to-bottom renovation.
So they headed back to their dream neighborhood and toured about a dozen Crocus Hill homes. But the properties they saw required so much work that they were financially out of reach.
The couple were about to give up when Mark biked past an intriguing house he saw listed “as is” on a real estate website. “Mark said, ‘Let’s look at just one more,’ ” recalled Susie.
They walked in the front door and were greeted by floral wallpaper and shag carpet. Cracks cut across the plaster ceiling and walls. And the previous owners had installed a chair lift on a staircase for an elderly resident.
But the home’s “beautiful bones” and solid structure encouraged the couple to see beyond all the cosmetic upgrades and repairs it would need. “We loved the detailed Federal-style woodwork on the fireplace,” Susie said. “And it had three porches.”
With four floors and six bedrooms, the house was spacious enough for the Williamsons’ growing family. “We could visualize what it would look like if we fixed it up,” Mark said. “It hadn’t been ruined.”
The Williamson children gave their approval. “They thought the basement was scary,” said Susie. “But they loved to ride up the electric chair lift.”
This old house
For the first phase of the renovation, the Williamsons restored and freshened the interiors by refinishing the dark-stained hardwood floors, repairing cracks, tearing down wallpaper and repainting the faded yellowed woodwork. They decided to open up the front porch by removing the screens.
After two years, they were ready to tackle the kitchen, as well as create a mudroom and casual eating area. “The goal was to enlarge the kitchen to a size and caliber appropriate to grand old St. Paul houses, but to do so with details and materials original to the era,” said Larson.
That century-old butler’s pantry and design details from the rest of the house became a blueprint for the new kitchen. Larson combined wood countertops with beadboard-covered walls. The glass-front cabinets with exposed hinges mimic the original ones. Calcutta marble tops an island built of dark-stained walnut for an antiqued look. “Marble was used at the turn of the century,” said Susie. “It gives it a splash of elegance.”
Another way that Larson retained the old house aesthetic was by not opening the kitchen to the living and dining areas, although it was tempting, he admitted.
“Today, the more common approach to a new kitchen in an old house is to turn it into a modern open floor plan,” he said. “We kept small doorways for a dignified old-school separation from the public spaces.”
Larson then repurposed space already in the home for the rest of the renovation. He removed a back-yard staircase leading to a tiny entry that held an icebox to make room for a generous mudroom off the kitchen. It’s cozy, with heated stone floors, maple cubbies and a bench for removing shoes. The mudroom offers enough storage for a busy family with soccer equipment.
Larson also put in two daylight transom windows and a glass door to allow light to flow into the kitchen. The mudroom “keeps the mess out of the rest of the house and is a great place to drop stuff,” said Mark.
Larson also transformed a covered porch into a light-filled casual dining area by enclosing it and adding seven windows on two sides and wood floors. “Tongue-and-groove paneling on the walls and a beadboard ceiling are a nod to the past,” he said. “We loved the original porch, so we wanted to maintain that feeling,” added Susie.
With the renovation complete, the Williamsons weren’t able to preserve the century-old butler’s pantry. But they’re pleased with the way Larson modernized the home while staying true to its early 1900s spirit.
“We appreciate those old features, but we wanted to make it livable,” said Susie.
“The kids drop their backpacks in the mudroom and then have a snack and talk at the island.”