The challenge: Meghan and Sean Elliott recently bought a historic home, the E.L. Powers House, in Minneapolis’ East Isles neighborhood. One of the first collaborations by prominent architects William Purcell and George Elmslie, the 1910-built home is a prime example of Prairie School architecture, the style pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright, with well-preserved original features, including carved woodwork, art glass fixtures and decorative tile. “To the credit of all the owners before us, they were amazing stewards,” Meghan said. The kitchen, however, an oft-updated space in old houses, was “a quilted patchwork of remodels. There were three different countertops, several types of tile and three different cabinets from different eras. No one had ever done the whole thing. Our intention was for a unified design that was sympathetic to the architecture of the house.”
The design team: David Heide and Brad Belka, David Heide Design Studio (dhdstudio.com). Meghan was familiar with Heide’s firm, which specializes in historic restoration. “I had seen and heard of their work, and saw some [of their projects] on the Homes by Architects Tour. They integrate new design into historic older homes,” she said. Respecting Purcell & Elmslie’s original vision was “extremely important,” said Belka, lead designer and project manager. “Purcell & Elsmlie were the unsung heroes of the Prairie School. Their detailing was exquisite. They’re not of the same prominence as Frank Lloyd Wright, but they were at least as skilled. We wanted to do right by it, and pay homage to the pedigree of the house.”
The solution: An earlier remodeling had incorporated the original butler’s pantry into the kitchen, creating a single 16 ½- by 12-foot space. That was enough room for a modern kitchen with today’s appliances. However, there was an island in the center, with a cooktop and a very large hood above it. “The kitchen was a little too small to accommodate the island,” said Meghan. Appliance doors bumped into each other when opened, and the massive hood overwhelmed the space. “It cut off sightlines and made the room feel small,” said Belka. The island was removed, and the stove was relocated to a wall. The kitchen also got a complete makeover, with finishes and details carefully chosen to complement the rest of the house.
Original materials preserved: The original maple flooring in the kitchen was intact, but it required stripping in some areas and patching in others, using boards that matched the original in species and width. The floor was then refinished to a light natural hue. Nearly all the original plaster walls were preserved, with just a few small patches to accommodate installation of electrical and mechanical items. “Meghan is preservation-minded,” said Belka. “We worked hard to preserve as much as we could.”
Cabinetry: The hodgepodge of cabinets from different eras were replaced with new ones, by Frost Cabinets, that look as if they could have been original. The wood is red birch heartwood, which has a deep grain. It was finished “the old-fashioned way” with shellac, which brings out the depth of the grain and creates a slight shimmer. “It looks like you’re seeing deep into the wood,” Belka said The cabinets were stained a medium hue, to brighten the space and contrast with the dark-stained oak woodwork in other rooms, reflecting the historical concept of formal “front of the house” spaces vs. utilitarian “back of the house” spaces.
Inspired details: Prairie School architecture is often characterized by nature-inspired details, and the E.L. Powers House is no exception. A four-petal floral motif that appears in the house was incorporated into brackets in the new kitchen. Cutouts in the doors beneath the apron-front sink echo cutouts in the front door and built-in buffet.
Countertops: The Elliotts wanted a natural stone material with some blue in it for their countertops. “There’s blue throughout the house in the art glass; I wanted to pull it out,” said Meghan. They chose Blue Roma quartzite, which has a light-blue background with golden brown veining. “Blue stone is unusual,” said Belka. “Stone is the first thing we pick.” Unlike paint and tile, which are available in every imaginable color, “there are only so many stones — it’s like picking out a piece of artwork. We build everything around it.” To complement the warmth of the wood and the blue hue of the countertops, the backsplash is white subway tile with a matte glaze finish.
Restored windows: Above the sink were original sliphead windows, designed to slide up into a pocket in the wall, but they had been painted shut. The windows were restored so that they could again be opened as intended. Between the windows and a corner there was about a foot of space, where Belka and Heide designed a bank of open shelving for the Elliotts to display decorative objects.
Period-look lighting: Belka and Heide also designed new light fixtures for the kitchen to complement the rest of the house. The lantern lights are made of veined milk glass with hardware of unlacquered brass. “All the metal in the kitchen is unlacquered brass,” said Belka. “It will take on a darker appearance” as it ages, echoing the antique brass hardware in the rest of the house, which has developed a dark, greenish/brown patina.
Movable island: In place of the large unwieldy center island, the Elliotts now have a smaller free-standing table. “It moves, depending on what we need,” said Meghan. “Sometimes it’s an island. More often it’s perpendicular [to the countertop], as a workspace or for sitting.”
Hands-on homeowners: The Elliotts took an active role in their project. They did not hire a general contractor, but did have help managing the project from a friend who is a contractor, Mitch Redepenning. The Elliotts did their own demolition, hired the subcontractors and did cleanup. “Whatever we could do ourselves we did,” said Meghan. “We’d be in there at 10 at night, sweeping the kitchen.” Their involvement made the project take longer than if they’d hired everything out, Meghan said. But being hands-on helped them save money. “It was a $150,000 kitchen. But because we did so much [ourselves], we were able to do it for just under $100,000,” she said.
Advice for others: “Allow more time than you expect,” said Meghan. “You have to be patient and manage change. You never know what you’ll find. We found original wallpaper, an old medicine bottle behind a wall cavity — and some electrical problems we weren’t expecting. You have to be flexible and have a lot of patience for dust and noise.” And set up a temporary kitchen, she advised, as they did in their basement.
The result: Meghan has always enjoyed cooking. “Cooking is my way of relaxing,” she said. But it’s more fun in her new kitchen. “It’s a lot more enjoyable space to be in, with a lighter feel — fresh and really nice. We [she, her husband and teenage daughter] spend a lot more time there.”