Old garbage incinerator makes way for modern kitchen in Mt. Lebanon

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Were kitchen incinerators the granite counter tops of the early 1900s in Mt. Lebanon?

To judge from what remains, trash burners were once hot in this upscale South Hills suburb. But those former must-have items and their dedicated chimneys have become expensive obstacles in kitchen renovations like one undertaken by Laura and Myles Lilley. With help from architect Quintin Kittle, the couple overcame structural and space issues that began with an old incinerator and created an efficient kitchen with lots of storage within the old kitchen's original footprint.

Last year, the project was chosen as a finalist in the Renovation Inspiration Contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Design Center. It illustrates what can be accomplished in a well-designed space at a relatively low cost. The project was entered in the small (under $50,000) residential category. Kitchen rehabs often cost much more, especially if they include an addition. Unlike former owners of their 1927 Colonial who had worked around the incinerator, the Lilleys decided to tackle it. But first they asked for a professional opinion.

"The first day I walked in, I said, 'Tear out the chimney,' " Mr. Kittle recalled.

Ms. Lilley, a former Post-Gazette staff writer, said the chimney and flue, which had also serviced the water heater until they moved in, cut into floor, cabinet and counter space. Mr. Kittle, who also lives in Mt. Lebanon, said he would use structural steel to replace the chimney support and extend new Merillat cherry cabinets to the ceiling.

But the biggest increase in storage space isn't as obvious -- a pullout pantry and utility rack and large cabinets beneath new breakfast nook benches. Ms. Lilley uses them for seasonal items and appliances she uses only occasionally.

"I was tired of carrying my crockpot from the basement every time I wanted to make chili," she said.

Tim Murphy of Murphy Bros. Contracting was hesitant about another of Mr. Kittle's suggestions: extending the Deltile backsplash up the wall around a window.

"It's a clean look," Mr. Kittle said. "It's often used in commercial applications."

The couple went with Cambria Welshpool black quartz counter tops and Benjamin Moore ochre wall paint. In the adjacent breakfast nook, they replaced a small ice cream table with one combining old table legs and a new top made of alder from Brookside Lumber. A slim baseboard heater by Runtal takes up less space in the nook than an old cast-iron radiator.

While the kitchen work was going on, the Lilleys decided to make other improvements. One repaired a gap in the roof over the nook that had allowed squirrels access. "I can't tell you how many things got fixed because of this kitchen," Ms. Lilley said.

They also got a few nice extras including under-cabinet LED lights and a hands-free soap dispenser. That gadget needed a little adjustment -- it squirted soap every time someone walked nearby. The entire project came in within 5 percent of the original budget partly because Mr. Lilley did the demolition and painting. And the family got a new 25-cubic-foot refrigerator that the delivery people insisted wouldn't fit in the space, even though it was constructed to its exact measurements.

"If that's the only challenge you have in an 80-year-old house, you're doing fine," Ms. Lilley said.


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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