Home & Garden

The Fixers: Range warrior

HomesMetal and MineralJobs and WorkplaceRetirementEnvironmental Politics

She's an unlikely traffic stopper: hefty, over 50, her complexion a grassy green and yellow. But, David Aikens says, people driving past his Inglewood store often stop to ogle this voluptuously contoured gas stove, manufactured at the beginning of the baby boom era.

According to Aikens, the stove's restorer, lust for these Midcentury beauties is found not only among cooks, who appreciate the heat-retaining properties of their cast-iron burners and the convenience of a warming oven. Classic 1950s stoves — capacious, curvy and often chrome-trimmed — also attract buyers who rarely even boil water.

Indeed, Aikens' close-packed aisles of California-made Wedgewoods and O'Keefe & Merritts speak so eloquently of suburban, postwar, dinner's-in-the-oven security that actual groceries in the kitchen may be superfluous. Just as well. When expertly restored, even a modestly sized, all-white stove can be more than $1,000. Something more stately like a Town and Country model — about 5 feet long, with six burners, two ovens, a broiler and storage — can cost $9,000 or more.

But why, with all the high-tech kitchen equipment available, would a person want a secondhand stove? Janet Custer bought a 1940s range from Aikens to go in her 1939 San Pedro house. It cost her $1,200. Originally white, it has been reenameled mint green. She had a stove, she says, a new one. "But things kept happening to it." In the 15 years since she bought the vintage piece from Aikens, only one part has needed replacing, and "Dave came out right away."

Another longtime customer, Wendy Murray, calls her 1954 O'Keefe & Merritt "brilliant," especially for high heat. She likes to roast vegetables at 550 degrees — higher than most contemporary models allow. At the opposite end of the heat spectrum: simmer caps that fit over the burners, accommodating small or delicate pans. Murray likes the way she can broil a steak, then turn off the gas and use the retained heat to slow-cook another dish.

Aikens has enough spare parts in his back room and garage that he can probably switch in a set of light blue drip pans or cobalt kick plates if that suits the customer's color scheme. If a knob cracks or an oven's glass window shatters, he is also likely to have a replacement.

He has been taking apart stoves since he was a teenager, but his interest in vintage objects goes back to kindergarten. His mother loved poking through junk stores, and he loved going with her.

His parents bought the business — mostly used furniture — in 1960 and moved it to its current Imperial Highway location in 1962. His Kansas-born mother would dust and polish the furniture as if it were in her own house, Aikens says. His father, a master welder and an electrician, was great at repairing things. He built the store, and the family lived in the house behind.

Inglewood was growing fast in 1925. Those newcomers were hitting retirement age and downsizing by the 1960s. Quality pieces flooded into the store. Aikens' job was to clean the appliances. He studied art in college, but when his parents retired in 1977, he took over the business.

Today, drip pans by the dozens fill shelves in his back room. Towers of burners line an aisle. In a far corner, aluminum gas lines are suspended in a sculptural tangle. Stove work "is kind of dirty," he says. "I don't think you'd do it if you didn't have a love for it."

Pausing beside a 1947 O'Keefe & Merritt, he demonstrates one of its efficient trademarks, a cover that turns the stove's top into additional counter space, then folds back to become a shelf when the burners are in use. The company, now closed, made its stoves in Los Angeles; the factory buildings still stand on East Olympic Boulevard. Aikens bought the stove from a woman who got it new.

"She got it for Mother's Day in May '47," he says. "She still had the receipt. They paid like $270. That was about three months' wages."

At the top of the range is a clock flanked by handsomely curved blocks that turn out to be salt and pepper shakers. Even more appealing is the Grillevator. This brilliant invention uses a lever to raise the broiler pan to one of five positions. That means you can bring the shish kebab closer to the flame for a final browning without having to remove and replace hot broiler racks and pans.

To be perfectly authentic, Aikens says, this Grillevator should be blue. It's gray. He got it off a later model.

"We save all the original nuts and bolts, degrease them, wire-brush polish them — which is kind of insane, because you could just as easily go buy a box," he says. But the old nuts have four sides; the new ones have eight, and somehow that matters. "I don't know if it's an artistic thing or just wanting to keep things original."

History, it seems, is in the details, and some, like the pale pink stove at the front of the store, can't be repeated. Stove finishes are created by a process called porcelain enameling. Color-producing minerals are smelted and ground into what looks like powdered sugar, then applied to the metal part and fired at a high temperature.

Finding the right proportion of minerals to match a particular color can be time-consuming. To get the violet his sister wants, Aikens has to send her stove parts to Tennessee. His local porcelain enameler doesn't do purples. In recent years, environmental concerns about cadmium, the mineral source of reds and yellows, and about red oxide, have led the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict their use. That has turned red and pink stoves like Aikens' into rarities.

The cobalt Wedgewood in the next row — originally white — is another story. Aikens had sold it to clients who lost their house in the downturn and sold the stove back to him. For Aikens, the slow economy means people aren't restoring as eagerly. Meanwhile, he says, the price of porcelaining has tripled in the last five years. He brightens, though, as we come to the next row.

"Here's a periscope stove, see?" The name refers to a glass panel, which, when you peer through it, shows via mirrors what's cooking in the oven. Like the porthole windows on ovens made by Western Holly, a company that merged with Wedgewood in the 1950s, the design seems startlingly futuristic.

"That's the thing," Aikens says with satisfaction. "The stoves were made to last a lifetime." And maybe more.

home@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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