Small miracle: Tiny kitchen stylish, efficient after redo

Renovation Inspiration contest runner-up, small project category

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Renovations are tricky in a small house. Do too much and you risk overwhelming the space; practice too much restraint, and people might not notice the effort.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photos
In Jan Ban's Mount Washington home, a tiered counter doubles as a breakfast bar, where a wall once separated kitchen and dining room.
Click photo for larger image.
Related coverage
Before and after view
A kitchen that fits

Add in a historic designation and strict rules about exterior changes, and the challenges only increase. How do you make a place your own while maintaining its distinctive nature?

Jan Ban has some ideas. She lives in Chatham Village, a National Historic Landmark community on Mount Washington. Her elegant kitchen remodel, which Ida McConnell of Cuvee Kitchen Designs and Anderson Remodeling completed in April 2005, strikes exactly the right balance between form and function. Not only does it echo the brick Georgian townhouse's traditional flavor, but also it makes great use out of every inch of usable space. Seeing that the entire kitchen measures 105 square feet, that's no small feat.

The end result is so pretty and user-friendly that it made Mrs. Ban one of two runners-up in the small renovation category of the inaugural Renovation Inspiration home renovation contest. Co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, the contest defined small renovation as $50,000 or less.

A handful of the 197 homes in this 74-year-old planned community still have their original 1930s steel cabinetry. Mrs. Ban's had been remodeled sometime in the 1970s and had dated, light-colored cabinets and a drab vinyl floor when she bought it. But it was the kitchen's size, more than its look, that cried out for a redo.

As Mrs. Ban noted in her entry, Chatham Village is sometimes described as "a beautiful shoe, one size too small." Keep in mind that when it was built, the average American home measured less than 1,200 square feet. Today's average house is twice that size.

The kitchen, which had just one window and one small doorway to the dining room, was especially cramped and confining. An easy solution might have been to bump out an outside wall and tack on an addition. But Chatham Village is a co-op and, as such, cannot be expanded. Homeowners can't even leave a grill outside overnight or have more than one bird feeder in their yard, let alone alter the architecture.

They can, however, do pretty much whatever they like inside, so long as those changes aren't visible from the common green. So after setting a budget of about $30,000, Mrs. Ban got creative and carved out the space she needed by removing a nonbearing wall between the dining room and kitchen and adding a tiered counter that doubles as a breakfast bar.

"I'd seen that configuration in another house and liked it," she explains. "So I took Ida over to look in the window."

Compared to the huge, eat-in spaces you tend to find in new construction, Mrs. Ban's new kitchen is still on the small side. What it lacks in square footage, however, it makes up for with eye-catching design and high performance.

In keeping with the classical detailing in the rest of the first floor, the space features corbels with decorative fluting, ceilings dressed up with crown molding and light-colored oak floors that are a perfect match to the original hardwood floors in the rest of the house. Adding to the elegant feel are high-end, painted maple cabinets from Cuisines Laurier. The ones facing the dining room have glass fronts, allowing for a colorful display of Mrs. Ban's china.

The hand-painted, mocha-and-cream striped walls, meanwhile, mimic the earthy color of the Saint Cecilia Light granite counter tops chosen by interior designer Lynn Butz, who also helped coordinate the colors and fabrics in the townhome's other living spaces.

"It was harmoniously designed so when you enter the first floor, everything is the same style and works together," says Mrs. Ban, who teaches music at Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon. "It was important it came out just right."

By adding the breakfast bar, rearranging the appliances and moving the sink to a corner, Ms. McConnell nearly doubled the amount of counter space. The old kitchen had counters and appliances on opposing walls, with a narrow work aisle between. The revamped model embraces the concept of the "work triangle." The multilevel bar helps to hide clutter while also including storage space. There's also an angled coffee center next to the basement door.

Recessed down lights provide even illumination over key work areas. Because they're on dimmers, they can also act as accent lighting for the dining area.

During the planning stages, Mrs. Ban toyed with the idea of putting in a big commercial-style stove with an indoor grill. But that, she learned with dismay, would have added several thousand dollars to the project's price, and she was determined to stick to her budget. She also cut costs by doing away with a stainless-steel panel on the dishwasher, choosing stock handles and knobs on the cabinetry and abandoning plans for dividers and spinners in the drawers.

She did, however, splurge on a Bosch dishwasher.

"It's really, really quiet," she says, laughing.

Had Chatham Village allowed for it, Mrs. Ban might have replaced or moved the single window. Instead, the window's exterior trim was replaced so that the edge of the countertop behind it isn't noticeable from the outside.

Like a perfect shoe, this kitchen just fits.

"It's completely usable," she says. "Compared to what it was, it's just great."

Jan Ban's dining room feels more open after the kitchen remodeling work.
Click photo for larger image.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-761-4670.


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