old style Manhattan kitchen with oversized hood
Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
THE PHOTO: Water pipes in old kitchens ran from the boiler over the range
A dusty basement with barred windows and a ceiling of low-hanging water pipes and exposed ductwork—hardly the makings of a fancy kitchen. But when kitchen designer Joan Picone walked into the dreary ground-floor of the 1907 New York City townhouse she'd been charged with transforming into an inspirational kitchen, she instantly flashed on the past.

What came to mind were photographs of turn-of-the-century Manhattan kitchens that Picone, co-owner of the exposed pipes and massive hot-water tanks of those utilitarian basement workspaces. So Picone decided to channel those old black-and-whites (reprinted on these pages) when reconstructing the derelict basement of a four-story townhouse put up a century ago by a coal and mining baron.

"If you look at late 19th-century kitchens," says Picone, "they were built around huge appliances." She decided to approach this kitchen the same way. So at the Kip's Bay Showhouse (a paid-admission interior-design showcase that raises money for inner-city children's programs), co-sponsor Electrolux's new line of stainless steel appliances would get the centerpiece treament of yesteryear.

When a demo crew began renovating the townhouse basement, they hoped to find traces of an old kitchen. But for the last few decades, the house had been used as office space—even the basement, where a windowed interior wall divided the room in half. That set-up inspired Picone to move the interior wall to sit 4 feet in from the exterior wall, which backs up to a courtyard, creating a multiuse mudroom with a potting sink and room for pet supplies. As a bonus, the wall would act as a screen to hide the worst of the exposed ductwork.

But for the most part, the basement's exposed innards weren't negatives; Picone actually wished that contractors hadn't removed so much of the old plumbing. She let the original location of the basement's water heater suggest the starting point of the cooking zone. That's where the cooktop would go, flanked by double ovens and a small worktable. To re-create the multidimensional grid of old water-supply lines that would have been to the right of the cooktop—as those pictures of century-old kitchens showed—she took spray-painted plumbing pipe and shut-off valves and put them to decorative use as a pot rack. The weathered fir sash and trim of the interior wall were also keepers. "But I didn't want them to look new," she says. So they were taken out, cleaned with paint thinner, then stained and coated with a matte polyurethane.

Picone's final challenge was to integrate very sleek stainless steel appliances into the old-fashioned backdrop. To be consistent with an era where dishes and glassware were stored in a butler's pantry, Picone banished upper cabinets. Evoking the built-ins of kitchens past, she "wrapped" the base cabinets and appliances in the same river-washed black granite, quartersawn white oak, and white marble that cover their adjoining surfaces and set them against a white backdrop (this one coated with high-tech scrubbable paint).

As for the jumble of ductwork that, at the end of the project, still ran overhead? Says Picone: "It actually ended up being those little elements that helped bridge the past and present."
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