05 Dec It Took Only Eight Years

After eight years of living in this house and several months of working on this single project, we have finished the butler’s pantry. And now that it’s done, we wonder how we lived with it the way it was. Look at the before/after photos and you’ll see that it was abysmally bad – no doors, a jerry-rigged counter, support slats obstructing the counter-space, poor lighting, etc. Mostly, it was a vast dust catcher.



1) The first thing we did was take out the support slats, which blocked access to the counter. 2) We then supported the shelves with Victorian-style brackets. 3) Now we had eleven feet of uninterrupted countertop (this photo shows plywood laid down). Since there was little left of the original yellow pine countertop, which had been varnished, we pondered what to replace it with. Granite was out because it’s not era-appropriate. Soapstone is a good choice but it doesn’t hold up well. Stainless steel seemed the best bet, especially since we have an eleven foot stainless steel counter in the kitchen, just the other side of the pantry wall. Stainless came into vogue in the 1920s, replacing nickel, as a choice kitchen work surface.

4) We found a steel shop (called Cleveland Range) on the outskirts of Baltimore that could custom cut 8mm steel to fit the ¾-inch plywood cut-outs I supplied. Some shops can’t roll out an eleven-foot piece. They’ll offer to give it to you in two pieces. That would have been a messy look. I gave the shop a couple of tricky turns. They did a great job.

5) Dan Gleckler, our neighbor down the street gave us these glass-front doors. He said he’d never get around to renovating his pantry so we might as well have them. Thanks, Dan. We had to strip and repaint them, which took weeks. Then we trimmed them – and move the support slats – to make them fit. 6) I used my router (a scary machine) to make new support slats where they were needed. I am amazed that the doors hang right and close fairly well. Hanging doors is a nightmare (see below).

7) We had the original bottom doors in our basement. Mind you, although Victorian builders brought a lot of pre-made materials to the construction site – doors, molding, latches, etc. – they custom fit everything as they went. That meant that no two cabinet doors were alike. You can’t mix and match. If you get the doors mixed up, you’ll have a hell of a time fitting them into the space where you think they’re supposed to hang. To make matters worse, the old house will have settled and warped and so the door opening will be out of alignment. One way to get around all of this mess is to flush-mount the hinges. This is what I did for the bottom cabinet doors – the only place in the house where this technique makes sense.

8 – We got the vintage hardware from online auctions. We bought dirty, painted lots because they go much cheaper. People don’t want to deal with stripping them. Jill just drops them into a crockpot and boils them for a day. It yields amazing results.

9) The original pantry was not tiled but tiling made sense here, so we bought boxes of old subway tile. It’s not especially hard to find the old tile, which has a great look (they’re crazed with age and of varying hues of bone-white), but they are expensive ($3-5 each). We used over 500 tiles. We got a great deal on a huge lot of them from Housewerks. At first we were going to tile only one side of the pantry. But then we figured we’d go all the way after our friend Jessica suggested we tile below the window. To look at it now, you’d never know this tile was not original.

10) We got a new cast-iron sink for our garbage disposal. The previous sink was resin, which just doesn’t hold up under hard use. We also moved the disposal switch up to the wall instead of below the sink (one of many mistakes when we rushed through renovations the first time around).

11) We put a piece of stained glass over the lower window for privacy. We found this piece in Pennsylvania. We needed one that lets in a lot of light.

12) We put LED lights under the cabinets for counter illumination. I’m not especially happy with the LEDs because they give off a cold, bluish glow. They’re low voltage, however, and will last forever.

The pantry looks so cozy now, I sometimes just stand in the hallway and gaze at this small space. Then shake my head in wonder at the way it used to look. The house-rehabber’s recurring refrain is “I should have done this long ago!” But we live with what we know. Consider electricity. You’d think it’d be impossible to live without it. But, even after it was widely available circa 1905, most Americans went decades without electricity. It wasn’t widespread in homes until the 1930s and even then it was only rudimentary – a few lights. The post-war building boom of the 1940-50s changed all that.

I imagine that after people turned on electric lights, they shook their heads in amazement at all they had missed – the smoke smudges on their walls, the crud in the floor cracks, the blemishes on their faces. So we get something new, we upgrade, we make even a small change, like painting a long-neglected wall, and then it seems we have advanced and our world spins with new vigor and we nod our head with satisfaction and for a while, at least, we feel better about ourselves.