Farmhouse kitchen makeover adds to the functionality of this Victorian house.
By Barbara Schuetz
When Terry Serena walks into her idyllic country kitchen, she can breathe a sigh of relief. She finally has the room of her dreams—after a long, laborious kitchen makeover.
The charming kitchen and attached dining area were part of an expansive makeover she and husband Scott began in 1994, when they bought a ramshackle 1840s farmhouse in western Pennsylvania’s Peters Township. What once was a narrow servants’ kitchen is now a roomy, inviting space that combines old-style charm with modern efficiencies.
“When you enter the house, our country kitchen is the first thing you see,” says Terry, who handles the clerical end of her husband’s construction company. “Everyone always comments on how warm and welcoming our country kitchen is.” She credits its cozy atmosphere in part to the rich woods used throughout, from the walnut plank floors and knotty alder cabinetry to the pine and cedar trim and ceilings. The beamed cathedral ceilings and a bank of windows lining the curved dining area lend the kitchen its updated, airy feel, giving it plenty of natural light.
Like many families, the Serenas gravitate to the kitchen. “The butcher block island is the hangout area,” Terry says. “The kids (Dylan, 14; Greg, 13; and Jason, 9) do their homework here or have a snack—they seem to eat 24 hours a day! But we make it a ritual to have our meals at the dinner table every night and talk about the day’s events. I think it’s important; it’s a staple of family life that’s disappearing.”
Terry, an avid cook, doesn’t rely on recipes to put dinner on the table. “I may follow a recipe once, then I’ll change it,” she says. “My lasagna is never the same. When we invite family and friends over for birthdays, holidays and last-minute throw-togethers, I cover the island with appetizers and fill the countertops with food.”
With all the cooking she does, Terry’s new country kitchen had to offer more than charm. She made sure the space met all her requirements, even if it meant changing—more than once—Scott’s design. (“I was my husband’s worst nightmare, with all the design changes and reframing,” she jokes.) The end result of the kitchen makeover is not only stunning but super-functional, with ample pullout drawers for pots and pans, an apron-front sink with a dishwasher close by, and a microwave built into the bottom cupboards alongside the stove. And what a stove! Terry’s Aga cast-iron gem has six gas burners and four ovens—and took six men to haul into the house.
Quite a departure from the narrow galley kitchen the Serenas endured for years. The kitchen, added on to the Victorian house in the early 1900s, had just enough room for the essential appliances, two cabinets and a hole in the wall that was probably used to transport food up from the basement, where the cooking was done in a fireplace, to the serving area. That’s just one of the fascinating nuggets of history the couple dug up in the course of the kitchen makeover, along with old keys, vintage newspapers, hidden boxes and more.
Horsehair and Groundhogs
Terry and Scott had their hearts set on a fixer-upper from the start. “After a long and tiring house search before our wedding day, we were told by our real estate agent about this rickety old house,” Terry recalls. “As soon as we saw it, we knew it was perfect, but it needed a lot of work and a ton of TLC.”
She describes the 17-year kitchen makeover and home remodel as a combination of This Old House and The Money Pit. Luckily, with Scott in the construction business, they could do most of the work themselves, and they started immediately—applying fresh paint, removing two dilapidated porches, building a garage and pouring a new driveway. Then it got a little frantic. While gutting the horsehair plaster walls (“You could see the horsehair,” Terry notes), they encountered squirrels, groundhogs and a beehive. As they pulled out the worn floor, they discovered the house had no subfloor. Worse, it was built on a foundation of boulders and tree trunks.
“After gutting the floors, walls and ceilings, the only things left standing were the large Victorian staircase, five fireplaces, three chimney stacks and the decorative trim,” Terry says. “We were able to reuse many of the original floor joists to accent the ceiling in the family room and carried that look into the country kitchen.” They also recycled old paver bricks from the driveway for the sidewalk and patio, and fashioned a border around the yard with boulders from the foundation.
Then they tackled the remodel in three phases:
• Renovating the original house, including three bedrooms and a dining room; removing a bathroom and creating two new baths.
• Adding a wraparound porch.
• Building the addition with master bedroom, laundry and office upstairs, and country kitchen, dining area, family room and powder room downstairs.
All the while, they lived in the house. “I was expecting our first son when we set up our living quarters in the family room,” Terry remembers. “By the time we were working on the addition and kitchen makeover, we had three sons. At one point all five of us were crammed into one room, with a temporary kitchen, couch, TV and a small table. The kids actually had fun going through the remodeling and kitchen makeover process, digging where the new foundation was going to be and using the scraps of wood to build their own little house.”
Time, effort and inconvenience notwithstanding, what makes this house so special to Terry goes beyond its beauty and up-to-date amenities. “It’s the fact that my husband built not only our country kitchen, but our entire house for us— that always gives me a special feeling,” she says. “I am thankful every day that we can share our time with our kids in a home that we built together.”
Click here for a better look at Terry’s kitchen floor plan.