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When Susan and Peggy McKevitt bought their Arts and Crafts duplex 28 years ago, they accepted the cramped kitchens that came with each unit. The sisters were thrilled to have a home of their own in the location they wanted: St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood.

“It was an economic decision,” said Susan. “We wanted to stop renting.”

The housing market was tight, and mortgage interest rates were flirting with double digits. “We were happy to assume a 9 percent mortgage.”

The two kitchens shared identical floor plans and little else.

Peggy’s kitchen, in the lower unit, had been recently remodeled by the previous owner, though not to her liking. “Everything was brown,” she said. Also, the radiator had been removed, making the room chilly as well as dark.

Upstairs, Susan’s kitchen was older. In fact, it still had some of its original 1920s cabinets, an iron sink and vinyl tiles on the floor.

Both women soon added dishwashers, replaced their refrigerators and tried to make some cosmetic improvements relying heavily on wallpaper. But last year, they decided it was time for a more dramatic makeover.

“Something had to be done,” said Susan.

“We needed new appliances,” said Peggy. “Once you start down that road, before you know it, you’re knocking down walls.”

The sisters knew who they wanted to work with: David Heide Design Studio, whose projects they had admired on various neighborhood home tours. “We always liked his work,” said Susan, especially his ability to design a new kitchen that looked at home in an old house.

The sisters weren’t sure Heide would be interested in taking on a project as small as theirs — each kitchen was 110 square feet.

But “the excitement and enthusiasm of Peggy and Susan won me over,” he said. And creating a functional modern kitchen in a tiny footprint would be an interesting challenge. “Working with such small spaces requires a greater amount of creativity.”

The sisters had no illusions about magically transforming their modest spaces into gigantic trophy kitchens, given what they had to work with.

“They are the size they are,” said Susan. “We weren’t going to get all the things you see in the magazines.”

‘The right thing to do’

Working with project architect Kyle Veldhouse, Heide presented three plans, with the most aggressive calling for removal of the non-load-bearing wall that separated the kitchen from the dining room and replacing it with a partial wall.

“We mulled it over,” said Susan. Opening up the space to let in more light intrigued both sisters, and they were surprised to find out how little cost it would add to the total project.

“We had quite a lengthy discussion about opening the wall,” said Heide. “Typically, that’s not something we do. I try to steer people to respect the building. But if the building isn’t allowed to change and evolve, it becomes obsolete, an even bigger danger. Given how small the kitchens were, and how cut off, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

The sisters had similar budgets and both wanted to update their kitchens with new finishes and materials without changing the basic layout. Using the same plan for both kitchens was the most cost-effective option, as was tackling both projects simultaneously rather than staggering them to keep one kitchen operational.

“Doing it together made it go faster,” said Susan. “It’s the same plan but two totally different looks” — to reflect their distinctly different styles.

“Mine is more contemporary,” said Peggy, the younger sibling, who chose blue-painted cabinets, soapstone countertops, a blue-tile backsplash and a graphic-print wallpaper.

“Mine is more old-fashioned,” said Susan, who opted for classic traditional details including beadboard paneling, a honed granite countertop, white enameled cabinets and a sage green color scheme. She also wallpapered her ceiling.

“That was David’s idea,” she said. “We wanted them different. I love it!” (Both sisters were able to keep and refinish their existing wood floors.)

The dining-room side of both partial walls became an attractive focal point, with the addition of new oak paneling detailed to echo the Craftsman-style doors on the sisters’ matching built-in buffets.

Trade-offs

Losing the full wall allowed the sisters to add 2 ½ feet of additional countertop space, but it cost them a bit of storage. That was a catalyst to do an inventory of their cookware and dishes and pare down, said Peggy. “I had duplicates. It pushed you to get down to essentials.”

While they were updating their kitchens, they also decided to improve the back hall and staircase that connected the two spaces. They added carpet, repaired wallboard, extended the stair railing and repainted in a creamy yellow and blue-green color scheme, a bridge between the palettes of their respective kitchens.

“We wanted something to bring the two of them together,” said Peggy. They also added an electrical outlet in the back hall to make vacuuming easier.

The extensive project took about five months, during which time the sisters relied on a refrigerator and microwave in their dining rooms. Fortunately, it was summertime.

“We grilled more,” said Peggy. “It was weird not having running water in your kitchen and washing dishes in the bathroom sink.”

But when the projects were completed in late October, the sisters were thrilled with the final results, especially the way natural light now flows into the space. “Everyone says it looks bigger,” said Susan of their kitchens, even though the footprint hasn’t changed.

Both kitchens are also much more functional, they agreed. “Everything is very convenient,” said Peggy. “You’re not trying to stand on your head to get something out of the cabinet.”

And the opened-up kitchens have changed the way they live in their home, making entertaining more enjoyable.

“We’re more likely to have people over,” said Peggy. “People can be milling around, and you can be in the conversation.”

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

@Stribkimpalmer