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They light up a place

Times Staff Writer

The stove that is the hallowed centerpiece in the renovated Newport Beach home of Deborah and John Jakubek is hardly one of the modern-day, gleaming trophy stoves with warrior names such as Viking or Wolf. Their 1950 O'Keefe & Merritt — the type of stove used by millions of moms to cook Thanksgiving dinners for generations of families in post-war America — is far more modest.

And far more meaningful.

"I grew up with a 1950s O'Keefe & Merritt and always wanted one again," said Deborah Jakubek, 50, standing in her otherwise all-new kitchen that was designed around this stove. "It was the stove my mother taught me to cook on."

Her mother died in January. Jakubek's voice cracks as she speaks.

"She used to wake me up early on Thanksgiving morning and we would work together in the kitchen. When I was 5 years old, I was already helping — she would bring in a little step stool so I could reach the counter."

As restored by Stevan Thomas, who works out of his San Bernardino garage, the body of the now burgundy-colored stove is covered with porcelain so thick, smooth and luscious that it looks as if it's candy-coated. Thomas also re-chromed the cooktop, nickel-plated the griddle, refurbished the burners, hand-lettered the knobs, restored the Bakelite handles, put new springs on the doors and replaced the missing, built-in salt and pepper shakers that were standard equipment on many '50s stoves.

Even the clock — a notoriously fickle part on stoves of that era — now works flawlessly.

Restored stoves from the 1940s and 1950s have grown increasingly popular in modern kitchens for emotional reasons as well as their craftsmanship and styling. "You have to remember that 10 years before that period, people were cooking on stoves with hardly any design at all — maybe they had cabriole legs and that was it," said John Sollo, an auctioneer who conducts major sales of mid-century furniture.

But there was nothing Victorian about the stoves that arrived in the late 1940s. Like mid-century furniture styles now being revived, these stoves look forward, not back.

"The curves, the wild colors — it was so daring and creative," said Sollo. "They were not just recycling historical references. It was about optimism, and that's so appealing to people now."

Thomas' restored stoves generally cost from $3,500 to $15,000, depending on the size, amount of work needed and customizations requested by the buyer. The Jakubeks' 36-inch stove, with a custom color and the addition of an oven window that was not in the original, cost $4,500.

New York-based jewelry designer Gregory Coster bought a Thomas-restored Aristocrat, a large O'Keefe & Merritt stove that looks — with its stacked ovens and grills — like a little apartment house. With the restoration, some of which Thomas flew in to do on-site, it cost Coster more than $15,000.

Stoves from the '50s — other popular brands include Western-Holly, Wedgewood, and Gaffers & Sattler — can be found at a lesser price.

The dean of antique stoves in Southern California is Windsor Williams, who has Antique Stove Heaven showrooms in Los Angeles and Harbor City.

His stoves all work when he sells them, and he gives a six-month guarantee. Williams sells a four-burner O'Keefe & Merritt or Western-Holly stove from the 1950s for as little as $799. "I call them my plain-Jane stoves," said Williams. "For that price, you don't get a working clock."

Thomas sells only fully restored stoves and each has a five-year guarantee. Because he gives each stove a major overhaul, and because he has only one helper — his father — Thomas has sold fewer than 40 of them in the three years he has been in business.

But he's not worried about returns.

"When they're restored, they'll outlive their new owners," Thomas said,

He only partly attributed their longevity to his workmanship. The stoves were built far more solidly than what came after. "It's not unusual to find one of these stoves still working. You see them a lot more than anything in avocado green or harvest gold," he said.

Jimmy Rodriguez, 36, grew up in a household with a 1950s stove. "We had a big TV in a wooden cabinet, and it broke down so often that it was like the TV repairman was part of the family. In fact, he married my aunt," Rodriguez said. "We never had to call a stove repairman."

Philip Atwell, who owns several small apartment buildings in Los Angeles, puts 1950 stoves, restored by Sav On Appliances in Burbank, in his rental units. "You can install a new refrigerator and no one will say anything, but everyone notices one of these stoves," Atwell said. "They are like pieces of art."

But their good looks alone are not what attracted the landlord.

"They're just so reliable. They do what they're supposed to do. I can't say that about all appliances."

Williams claims that old stoves do a better job of baking. "The thermostats were more reliable. They kept the temperature more even, without recycling on and off all the time like the new ones."

Anna Delorefice, who co-owns the celebrated Susina Bakery in Los Angeles, heartily agreed. She had a 1950s Wedgewood in an apartment she once rented and now has a home stove that is even older — a Chambers model from the 1930s. "Besides these stoves being so beautiful, they seem to me to hold the heat more evenly," Delorefice said. "You have more control. I would notice that my pies would come out better."

She said the only modern home stoves she has tried that bake as well as the older models are high-end commercial-style residential models that start at more than $3,000.

But veteran kitchen designer and chef Don Silvers is less enthusiastic about vintage models, preferring the modern design and technology of new stoves. He especially likes the power and layout of modern burners that on restaurant stoves can generate 15,000 BTUs. Thomas can adjust a burner on some vintage stoves to about 13,000 BTUs.

"On the older stoves, the burners were too close together," said Silvers. "They might be OK for two to four people, but beyond that you run into trouble."

And one definite advantage of many modern stoves is that they are self-cleaning.

But it would be hard to argue that older stoves don't have a lot of style. Thomas didn't appreciate them until three years ago when he saw a junked Roper mid-century model in a friend's backyard. "It was so cool — lots of chrome, nice rounded lines," said Thomas, who had been a die-hard car fan since he worked in his father's transmission shop as a kid. "The thing looked like a '50s Ford."

His friend was only too happy to have him haul it away. With his mechanical abilities, including a lot of experience in car bodywork, Thomas had the stove fixed and working again in short order. He sold it for $300.

"Once I was aware of them, I started to see junked stoves everywhere — in the back of buildings, along the side of the road, on a curb," Thomas said.

It might have taken years for him to get known as a restorer, but Thomas, 35, also was skilled in building Web sites to advertise his stoves. That's how the Jakubeks found him when they were looking for a 1950s O'Keefe & Merritt. They made an appointment to meet him at his then-home in Perris, near March Air Force Base, and drove up in their Ford Expedition.

"The stoves were so nice on his Web site that I was expecting some kind of neat, pristine workshop," said Deborah Jakubek. "When we went up the driveway, it was like a salvage yard with stoves all over the front lawn."

The two couples could hardly have been more different. Thomas and his wife, Rachel, favor worn jeans and T-shirts; the Jakubeks are more Nordstrom casual. And the Thomas household in San Bernardino — with four kids, two cats and an adopted stray dog, plus the eight puppies she surprised them with — seems planets away from Newport Beach.

But there was an almost immediate connection between the families.

"It wasn't long before Stevan had us crawling all over these ovens, showing us what was there," Deborah Jakubek said. "He spoke with such passion about what he does. It only took about 20 minutes before I decided I had no problem giving this guy our money."

The stove they chose Thomas had found rusting in a field next to a chicken coop along the 215 Freeway.

The family who had put it out to pasture wanted $20 but agreed on $10. It was in such poor shape — it even had a large weed growing up through the oven — that Thomas initially thought it would be good only as a parts donor.

"But when I got it home, I looked it over closely and saw that it had possibilities," he said.

The Jakubeks wanted a custom burgundy color to match their new, 1950s-design refrigerator from Elmira Stove Works in Canada.

It was an important job for Thomas, who recently had quit his managerial job at a bank to devote all his time to stoves. It was Rachel who had urged him leave the job he hated to make his stove hobby his business.

Framed above a sink in the house where they now live is the Serenity Prayer, the staple of those in recovery programs for alcohol addiction.

"Rachel knew that doing this work on the stoves was what I loved," said Thomas. "I had learned in the program that I could humble myself, that I didn't have to work 12 hours a day at a job away from my family just for more money. And Rachel convinced me we would do fine."

They downsized from a comfortable home in Orange County to Perris and then San Bernardino.

"So maybe I'm not Rembrandt, I'm not Mozart," said Thomas, taking a break from his work. "But when I go, I know that I will be leaving something of value behind. They will say, 'That guy built some awesome stoves.' "

At the Jakubek household, the restored stove is not just a showpiece — Deborah makes dinner on it almost every night for her family and often for guests too. But for her, it will never just be an appliance. On the shelf above the range are a creamer set and other pieces she and her husband brought from her mother's house when they cleaned it out. "I grew up at a time when everything seemed to center around the kitchen," she said. "This had to be a room filled with warmth."

She reached out to trace some small scratches on the chrome cooktop that Thomas could not get out without digging too deep into the metal.

"I love that these are here," she said. "This stove has so much character, it holds a lot of memories.

"I got just what I wanted."

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Grillevator, porthole or acres of chrome?

O'Keefe & Merritt: At one time the largest producer of stoves on the West Coast, this hugely popular brand was known for its "scientific design" that included an adjustable Grillevator broiler, a Kool Kontrol Panel that tilted knobs up toward the user and a Vanishing Shelf for additional work space.

Wedgewood: Produced in the Bay Area, these stoves did not have as many showy features as some competitors, but they have proved to be highly durable and dependable. Advertisements touted Keep-Warm burners that were low enough to maintain food at an ideal serving temperature.

Western-Holly: The unmistakable signature feature of this brand was its round oven window that looked like a ship porthole. These stoves, made in Culver City, also had a unique removable rack system that allowed for more oven space when needed — like for a turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Gaffers & Sattler: Futuristic 1950s design notes and an abundance of chrome made these stoves particularly eye-catching. Some models had trapezoid oven windows, fluorescent lighting on the backsplash, numerous control lights and a concealed extra burner (on Automatic models).

Sources: The Old Road Home journal, Antique Gas Stoves, Steve Sansone *

Where to find 'em

If you want a 1940s or 1950s stove but want to skip the part about hauling it home from a garage sale or junkyard, you can find a restored, working stove at several shops or workshops.

Antique Gas Stoves: In Montclair but no formal showroom. The company sells fully restored stoves, does repairs and sells parts. http://www.antique gasstoves.com. (909) 445-0300.

Antique Stove Heaven: Large inventory at two showrooms — 5414 Western Ave. in Los Angeles and 1428 Pacific Coast Highway in Harbor City. Also does commissioned restorations and makes house calls for repairs. http://www.antiquestoveheaven.com . (323) 298-5581.

Antique Stoves: 10826 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. Sells working stoves in various states of restoration. Also does commissioned restorations and makes house calls for repairs. http://www.antiquestove.com . (310) 287-1910.

Bond's Home Appliances: 965 E. 4th St. in Long Beach. In business since 1923, it now specializes in selling restored stoves. (562) 435-5669.

Vintage Stoves: In San Bernardino but no formal showroom. Sells completely restored stoves and does commissioned restorations (only on stoves that are to be completely restored, down to the frame). http://www.vintagestoves.com . (877) 850-1266.

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It only looks old

You don't have to give up modern conveniences to get 1950s styling in a major appliance. Elmira Stove Works offers new, modern refrigerators in its Northstar line that harken back to the Eisenhower era. But these fridges have no-frost freezers.

The Northstars are, in truth, new GE models. Elmira replaces the doors with ones that have a convincing '50s look, then paints the units with a choice of eight colors, such as "flamingo pink," "mint green," "buttercup yellow" or "robin's egg blue." Prices vary, but for most it's $2,795.

For more information: (800) 295-8498.

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