Before & After: Chic Makeover for a DC Kitchen With a Presidential Connection

Shaila’s kitchen came with both a fun connection to DC history and a pretty funky layout. Aesthetics aside, it was time for a reno; the kitchen had begun to fall apart. Taking a cue from the age of the building and her personal love of art-deco, Shaila gave her new-to-her old kitchen a stylish updated vintage-inspired look. Take it away, Shaila…

After serving as a diplomat around the world, it was time for me to come back to Washington. While overseas, I had fallen in love with Art Deco and was happy to find a co-op in one of DC’s oldest apartment buildings (built in 1925 and home to some of Washington’s most well-known residents). The place itself had charm and wonderful details — and a kitchen in dire need of updating. The previous owner, who was President Teddy Roosevelt’s granddaughter, had redone the kitchen about 30 years ago and it was starting to fall apart. I wanted to make the most of the awkward layout but also put my stamp on it with details that evoked the building’s architecture and my career. Before deciding on the renovation, I had spent a week in Provence cooking in Julia Child’s kitchen at La Pitchoune, and the spirit of Julia definitely influenced my choices (although sadly I did not have space for a pegboard in the end). Her husband Paul was a master of design, and from their small but efficient layout, I learned to have “zones” for preparation and storage, plus sufficient counter space.

Given my nervousness at spending so much money (or what I thought was a lot), I did a lot of research and asking around before I chose a contractor, appliances, even tiles for the backsplash. Once my contractor explained that custom cabinets would make the best use of the weird space, I decided, in keeping with La Pitchoune, I wanted painted cabinets. As the other rooms in my place attest, I am not afraid of color. I also had had a white kitchen and it was a pain to maintain. I also had design limitations, including a weird “jut” into my kitchen that was part of the neighbor’s closet, so I had to work with that layout.

Kitchens are important to me. Cooking is my stress release — I love trying new recipes and inviting friends over to share good food and conversation. At first, I was afraid to spend the money and waited about five years before I pulled the trigger. Little by little, the place was falling apart: countertops were peeling, cabinets were breaking and I got tired of drinking my Scotch neat. I was concerned about the time commitment and inconvenience while I was working a 14-hour day in national security. But after speaking to a couple of real estate agents, plus with friends and family, I came to realize this was not just a renovation but an investment in my future and my happiness, and that what would really pay off was a full gut of the existing kitchen.

Once I came to that realization, I also committed to having the kitchen I really wanted. This meant I had to double my initial budget, but it was well worth it for the scope and quality of work, including new floors for the foyer and guest room. Now I enjoy entertaining and cleanup isn’t something I dread, thanks to my dishwasher. I chose the details, down to light fixtures and under cabinet lighting, that made me happy — not that someone else pushed. It’s a modern but timely space that fits my personality and is also functional. Even small things like having ice when I want it, or not having to hand wash everything, or even buying normal-size cookie sheets, make me happy. And little by little, I’m adding in details like an Art Deco china cabinet with antique glassware, wall hooks from Cairo, photographs I took in Venice, and other personal touches. I can look around my space and see France, Egypt, Israel, Haiti and so many other places that are part of my life coming together.

I spent a couple of years off and on researching contractors, appliances and thinking through the layout. The actual renovation, once I found a good contractor, took eight weeks (although the original plan was four). I ended up having to double my budget to do everything I wanted, but in the end it was worth it, plus I got new floors for the foyer and guest room to match the kitchen and improve the flow of the apartment.

There were some setbacks at the beginning when the cabinets weren’t ready in time. I had fallen in love with fan-shaped/fish-scale tile to bring in the Art Deco elements of the building, but it was also very expensive. It took some time to find something more affordable that still popped. We had some miscommunication about what exactly was in the contract (note: save every email!) but again, the contractor was reasonable and worked with me to resolve differences. While all this was going on, the building was undergoing extensive stack pipe repair and their plumber didn’t always show up when promised, meaning we took the hit on delays. The construction crew was great about asking me what I wanted to salvage, like the trim. The electrical work was a pain, because, again, nothing was at code due to the age, and many parts were no longer being manufactured. The crew worked hard to bring everything up to code while still working with the existing electrical structure. They also had a tough time as the walls were not straight due to the apartment’s age, and that made fitting things difficult — but in the end they did a great job.

One big disappointment was not being able to have a gas stove. Most units in the building have gas; mine didn’t and it would have cost $15,000 to install a line from scratch. But I found a professional-quality electric stove that I am happy with.

I love everything about my new kitchen! I am so glad I took the plunge and spent the money. I am also profoundly grateful I had a good, honest contractor and crew. Any differences were minor and resolved (and there will be differences in any professional relationship). Living in the apartment for most of the renovation was probably not a good idea. While I liked seeing the process unfold, the dust was overwhelming, despite the crew’s efforts to contain it and clean up every day, and the dog was upset by the noise (which couldn’t be helped). Overall though – no regrets! I am glad I didn’t do a cookie-cutter white kitchen with subway tile. I love the colors and the functionality. I also love my dishwasher. I had a lot of concerns about the dish drawer style, but so far it’s worked well. And I am back to drinking my Scotch on the rocks!

Shaila’s words of wisdom: Do your homework and remember that contractors are partners, not friends. Make sure everything is spelled out in the contract, don’t be afraid to politely speak up if you are not happy with something, and save every email! Prioritize your wish list — I got almost everything I wanted in the end, but I had to take time and think about compromises too. Make sure your contractor files permits and has an inspector for electrical work — it’s not a good sign if they try and avoid this. Consider moving out while the reno is going on if you are in a small space. Know your building’s rules for workmen and noise, because neighbors inevitably complain. But in the end, you will be so happy you took the plunge.

Thank you, Shaila!


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