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Mark Nissen and Ron Lenehan had always thought they were on "the 10-year-plan" when it came to making major improvements to the Italianate-style home they bought in 2008.

Nissen and Lenehan chose the two-story house, built in 1925, so their two boys could walk to nearby Minnehaha Creek and go to school in Minneapolis' Lynnhurst neighborhood. The home's charming stucco exterior boasted a red clay-tiled roof and a wrought-iron-railinged balcony. Inside, five archways were trimmed with rich dark-stained oak, for an Old World flavor.

But by 2011, the men were weary of trying to cook in their dysfunctional 1920s kitchen, which was positioned in the rear of the home, cut off from all the action. The space was a cramped 9-by-11 feet, with outdated honey-maple cabinets and tiled floor, and minimal counter space.

"It had four doors, so there was no cabinet space," said Lenehan. "And the refrigerator was in its own little room where the ice box used to be."

Nissen and Lenehan agreed it was time to take the leap into the remodeling zone. In addition to a new kitchen, their wish list grew to include some of the amenities lacking in most old houses: a main-floor bathroom, a walk-in pantry and a back entry to store shoes and backpacks.

Lenehan, who is 6-foot-3, also had his heart set on a sofa-sized center island, "with enough room for all four of us to sit comfortably," he said.

Trading spaces

During their search for an architect, Nissen found a website showing a remodeled St. Paul kitchen that had been expanded with a back-of-the-house bump-out.

"It was a cool idea — and the kitchen was beautiful," said Lenehan. They were impressed with how the new space blended with the period character of the older home. So they contacted the Minneapolis firm behind the remodeling project, Albertsson Hansen Architecture, to figure out how to add space and modern function to their old house.

Architects Christine Albertsson and Tammy Angaran proposed four different design schemes, all of which required only necessary modifications to existing spaces, to keep costs down. Nissen and Lenehan's first idea of a back-of-the-home addition to increase the size of the original kitchen was nixed because of the costly complications of a lower-level walkout and other variables. "We decided we didn't want to give up the sunroom on the back of the house, either," said Nissen.

Finding the right design solution was a challenge. "They had a lot to achieve within a specific budget," added Albertsson. "We looked at how to use the existing square footage in the most effective way — and where we could find enough width for an island."

One out-of-the-box design placed the new kitchen in the existing formal dining room, which was at the center of the house. The dining area would be relocated to one side of the exceptionally large living room. The old kitchen area would be repurposed into a bathroom, back-entry/pantry and a new hallway. Finally, the wall between the existing dining room and sunroom would come tumbling down to open up to the new kitchen, allowing natural light to stream through the entire house.

"This gave them an open floor plan with better flow," said Angaran.

Lenehan and Nissen were intrigued, but not sold on the prospect of moving their formal dining room. So they tested it out one weekend.

"We moved our dining-room table into the living room, and moved a couch to the sunroom," said Nissen. Their oversized living room had proved awkward for seating and conversation, so "this made us realize it was a smart use of space," he said.

Putting the kitchen in the center of the house was the key to the whole remodeling plan, added Lenehan.

Room for an island

Albertsson and Angaran came up with an innovative way to create space for a large island — and stay within the project budget. They designed a 3-foot-deep "bay bump-out" on the side of the home, adding 33 square feet to hold the cooktop and a bank of cabinets. "We never would have thought of going out the side of the house," said Lenehan. "The architects opened up a whole new avenue of ideas."

The cost-saving structure is built on support posts, rather than a concrete foundation. "We set the upper cabinets flush with the back wall of the countertop," said Albertsson. "That allows light from the transom windows to come in."

The new remodeled kitchen is smack in the center of the open floor plan, requiring a stylish aesthetic with beautiful finishes.

Just beyond the wood-trimmed archway, the kitchen features a striking contrast of dark wood on the floors and island base, with fresh white Vermont Danby marble on all the surfaces. At first, the men had chosen popular Cararra marble for the island top and counters but discovered there was a limited supply. Albertsson suggested marble quarried in Vermont, where she grew up. "It has less veining than Carrara and is whiter, clean and classic," said Lenehan. "The island is the 'wow factor' in a home of this size and vintage."

Down the hallway, the original past-its-prime kitchen was transformed into a powder room, handy storage pantry and back entry hall.

That's where Nissen makes toast and brews coffee because Lenehan doesn't drink it and is averse to the smell. The space serves as a breakfast nook in the morning and a beer-and-wine bar for parties at night. "It's also a smoothie room," added Nissen.

Albertsson Hansen fulfilled the homeowners' request that the remodeled spaces retain the spirit and character of the rest of the home.

The original round-top doors opening to the sunroom were recycled for newly created doorways, and hardwood floors match the refinished original oak floors. Transom windows in the kitchen echo windows by the living-room fireplace. And they kept the window from the old kitchen inside the new pantry.

Although the new kitchen is in an unconventional spot for an old house, "it feels like it's always been here," said Lenehan, who can see out the sunroom windows, as well as watch the boys doing their homework in the dining room, all while cooking at the center island.

"The kitchen is the hub," said Nissen. "It's in a good place."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619