Restoring the retro house
Need a 1950s bathroom sink or atomic-age décor for the kitchen? There's a support group for you. The website Retro Renovation has become the go-to destination for enthusiasts who want to restore houses built during the post-World War II boom.
The New York Times
Finding the right stuffIn a retro-themed renovation, the biggest challenge is often finding authentic period materials. Pam Kueber, of retrorenovation.com, offered some of her favorite sources for things like Republic Steel cabinets and bathroom tile in 1950s pink.
eBay: To find well-preserved lighting fixtures or other materials on the popular auction site, use search terms like "NOS" (new-old stock) or "MIB" (mint-in-box), and then narrow the field by adding the name of the item, the time period and the room.
CRAIGSLIST: The easiest way to scan listings nationwide is to type a subject ("steel kitchen cabinets") into Google and then add "site:craigslist.org."
Habitat for Humanity ReStore: The retail arm of this nonprofit housing organization (habitat.org/cd/env/restore.aspx) has 770 stores in 48 states selling salvaged materials, furniture and appliances from remodeled or demolished homes, as well as items from store closeouts and surplus material from contractors, distributors and manufacturers. Prices are reasonable, and especially in Rust Belt cities, Kueber said, stores tend to have great stuff.
WORLD OF TILE: Because it has been around so long, this New Jersey store (worldoftile.us) is one of the best resources for vintage tile Kueber has come across — especially for styles from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and replacement pieces for 1950s-era homes.
She also suggests checking out any stores in your area that have been in business for decades and may have old stock in their storerooms.
Steven Kurutz, The New York Times
In early 2008, Stephan Edwards bought an apartment in Palm Springs, Calif., and over the next four months he restored the bathroom, using fixtures dating to circa 1958, the year the building was constructed. When he finished, he sent photos to the one person he knew would truly appreciate his efforts: Pam Kueber at retrorenovation.com.
Helen Stickler spent two years trying to assemble a set of vintage steel cabinets for the kitchen in her 1950s post-and-beam house in Los Angeles, but after countless hours of scouring Craigslist, she was still one cabinet short. In desperation, she contacted Kueber, who sent out a plea on her behalf from retrorenovation.com.
With no idea how to go about decorating the pink bathroom in the midcentury home she and her husband had bought in Lexington, Ky., Judi Forston typed "1959 Ranch" into Google. "I thought I'd find something architectural and scholarly about houses built in that era," Forston said. Instead, she found retrorenovation.com.
Since Kueber started her website in 2007, it has become the epicenter of a small but devoted group of midcentury design enthusiasts, a go-to destination for homeowners who spurn the latest décor trends in favor of retiling their bathrooms in turquoise mosaics from the Eisenhower years or installing Dishmaster kitchen faucets whose bulky forms recall those of a late-model Studebaker.
Many of Kueber's followers live in what she has called "midcentury modest" homes: ranch- or Cape Cod-style houses built during the post-World War II housing boom. And because they grew up in that period, or are appreciative of its aesthetic, they want to restore their homes to something resembling the original splendor.
As Edwards put it: "I'm into the old stuff. I want things to be absolutely authentic."
Being authentic isn't easy. Hardware, appliances and even furniture sizes have changed significantly in the last 60 years. But Retro Renovation, with its abundant and highly specific information on vintage décor, offers a practical resource for doing the impractical. Old advertisements for terrazzo shower floors, how-to tips for cleaning a Saarinen tulip table, where-to-buy guides for dead-stock plumbing fixtures — surfing the blog is like visiting a time-warp Home Depot.
Kueber, a 52-year-old corporate communications consultant, dispenses product news, advice and encouragement in a peppy, we're-in-this-together tone.
"Let's help Helen find her last steel kitchen cabinet!" she wrote in May, summoning the "Retro Decorating Gods" to save Stickler. In another post, she spotlighted the new Retropolitan refrigerator from Big Chill, a company that makes appliances with vintage styling. The Retropolitan's look, Kueber helpfully informed readers, is "Jetsons, rather than Donna Reed."
Kueber started the site after renovating her own midcentury home in Lenox, Mass. "That's when I got into searching, searching, searching for the right stuff," she said. It took five years, but finally, on eBay, she located a set of 1960s steel kitchen cabinets in eye-popping aquamarine that is now the centerpiece of her home.
To educate herself on the period, she read old homebuilder magazines and brochures from the Steel Cabinet Institute and various long-defunct companies (see "A short history of steel kitchen cabinets," her entry on the subject). "This whole pursuit of a retro renovation takes tenaciousness and patience," she said. "I wanted to do a blog with real resources to get the job done."
Kueber said the site receives about 450,000 page views a month, and it has attracted a handful of advertisers — companies like DEA Bathroom Machineries and Barn Light Electric — that sell products that appeal to vintage enthusiasts. Her anecdotal research, she said, suggests that Retro Renovation readers are much like her, highly visual and results-minded.
"They find me before they close on their house," Kueber said. "They have to get stuff done."
What motivates someone to forgo a quick trip to Home Depot in favor of hunting down kitchen cabinets made by a company that went out of business 40 years ago? Kueber offered several explanations. "I think people who are into vintage just love the hunt," she said. "There's also a suits-the-house aspect. Then there's the sheer cost of it. I have plenty of readers who want to pull together a kitchen on the cheap, see this opportunity and go for it."
While Kueber is the blog's resident expert, she shares the spotlight with readers, creating a sense of community. They send in photos of their knotty-pine kitchens and Danish-inspired living rooms, which she posts along with the names of sources they provide.
"There's something about Pam's site that seems friendlier" than many other design sites, Forston said. And she likes it when Kueber asks for solutions to a reader's design problem, she added, because then "you get to write in and feel like a designer for a day."
Forston found the solution to her own design problem — a hard-to-furnish dining room with three doorways and a fireplace — on Retro Renovation. After seeing magazine illustrations from the 1950s and '60s on the blog, she realized that what she needed was a smaller table, in keeping with the style of the period.
"Maybe we would have made these changes anyway," she said. "But I got the idea from reading Pam's post."
Cindy Bigras discovered Retro Renovation when she bought a 1960s ranch house in Holyoke, Mass., and was unable to find new tile that suited her bathroom — or someone with the right mindset to do the work.
The "likeminded souls" that have formed a community around the blog have "an appreciation for maintaining the style the house has come with," she said, but that attitude hasn't been shared by most of the contractors she has consulted. "So many recommended I gut it and do it contemporary." Through Retro Renovation, she found a mason who understood the throwback patio design she had in mind.
The difficulty of finding both workers and materials is a continuing lament among readers. Homeowners can't just walk into an appliance store and come out with a 1953 Kelvinator Food-O-Rama, and tracking down vintage items creates its own complications.
Stickler thought she had lucked into a deal when she paid $500 for a set of 20 steel cabinets from a house in Palm Springs. But when she got them home, she realized that the set wouldn't fit into her kitchen. After searching Craigslist, she patched together a near-complete workable set from sellers in six cities. She is now able to identify World War II-era cabinet manufacturers, she said, "the way guys can identify old cars."
She ran into another problem, however, after buying a turquoise bathroom sink from two female bikers in Nevada. The sink's odd shape has made finding a vanity exceedingly difficult, and she may have to have one custom made. "It'd be a lot easier to just walk through Lowe's," she admitted.
To facilitate the hunt, Kueber has created a forum for buying and selling that has become a popular feature on the blog. People who inherit or purchase an old home and want to divest themselves of its contents — especially steel kitchen cabinets — often find the forum through Internet searches. And Retro Renovation readers in, say, Los Angeles can call attention to local classified ads that someone in Cleveland would otherwise never see.
Given the difficulty of finding vintage materials, especially in good condition, readers are remarkably generous about sharing resources. Kueber, who also makes her readers aware of interesting houses for sale, attributes this in part to a common desire to preserve items that could easily be scrapped.
"I have new old stock in my basement," she said. "I rescue it like puppies."
Until recently, Kueber ran Retro Renovation as a sideline, but last spring she dialed back her corporate communications work to devote most of her attention to the site. Her biggest traffic month came in April, when a video she made of her bathroom was picked up by Urlesque, a pop culture site owned by The Huffington Post.
In the video, Kueber displays the same inexhaustible enthusiasm for the minutiae of home décor in evidence on much of the site. She spends a full two minutes fretting about light-switch placement, and seems truly pained about installing a shower that is 34 inches wide, rather than a slightly roomier 36.
The blogger noted that Kueber was "like a Christopher Guest character, but in real life," referring to the director of mockumentaries like "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," and suggested that Guest set one of his films in the home-improvement world.
"I thought the whole thing was hilarious," Kueber said one morning earlier this summer, as she weaved through traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, chasing down a tip from one of her readers. A few weeks earlier, Jason Fournier and his wife, Nicky, a couple backdating a 1990s split-level house in Havre de Grace, Md., to a midcentury aesthetic, had visited a store in Springfield, N.J., called World of Tile — a place where nothing seemed to have been thrown away in 50 years. A call to the owner confirmed as much.
"New old stock is golden," said Kueber, who could hardly contain her excitement. Dorothy Scarpelli, one of the store's owners, met Kueber at the door. A middle-aged brunette who introduced herself as Chippy (a nickname from her father, she said, that referred to her being a chip off the old block), she explained that she had started working in the family business in 1968, as a teenager, and had become an owner after her father's death in 2006.
The dated inventory, she said, was partly the result of prohibitively high disposal fees — basically, it was cheaper to keep the old tile around. Standing in a small area off the main showroom, Kueber snapped photos of tile samples to post on her blog.
"It's interesting to see the plain grays," she said, pointing to one.
"That's an oldie — 1950s!" Scarpelli said.
In another room, she pointed out patterns named after her and her sisters. "This one is Chippy Blue," she said.
Kueber's eyes widened. "Can I buy a few of those?"
Walking through the mammoth warehouse, she seemed almost faint. "It's impossible to take it in on the first visit," she said. "You need to calm your mind and review the images, so you can see the amazingness of it all."
"There's something about this stuff from the postwar era," Kueber said later. "It's not only the visual aesthetic; it's that the people who ran these stores are still around."
Reflecting on how readers would respond to her newest discovery, she said: "Anyone thinking about redoing their bathrooms — and bathrooms are rooms that really need tile, functionally — will jump all over the floor tile. I think the wall tiles are a little more replicable; you can possibly get them from existing manufacturers. But the little liner tiles she was selling for $1.49 each, that's a fantastic bargain."
A few days later, she was still worked up about it. "World of Tile is, no question, the single most exciting discovery on the blog yet," she enthused in an email. "Absolutely mind-blowingly amazing."
Then she added: "At the same time, looking at all that gorgeous vintage time capsule tile is complete torture for me — agony, because my house is done."
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