When Remodeling Becomes a ‘Dig’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached at:

When Susan Lieberman was ready to buy her first home in the late 1980s, she began a three-year search to find a condominium with some age.

With a lifelong interest in historic preservation, and as the owner of Paris 1900, a Santa Monica shop that sells antique lace dresses, Lieberman knew she “could never live in anything brand new.”

Also, for 10 years she had been storing a 1935 porcelain-and-chrome Magic Chef stove with dreams of someday giving it a home. “The running joke between my broker and me was: Would the stove fit?” she recalled with a laugh.

In 1991, Lieberman felt she’d found the right place the moment she stepped into the courtyard of a 1930s Spanish-style complex in Westwood, just blocks from UCLA.


“It felt like a secret garden,” Lieberman said, gesturing toward winding stone walkways and brick porches shaded by olive, cedar and ficus trees, Australian tree ferns and flowering tropicals. Dotted here and there around the courtyard, the doors to 10 two-story townhomes were framed with original hand-painted Mediterranean tiles.

“I call it my convent,” she said. “It feels like a mission.”

So when Lieberman first stepped across the threshold to the two-bedroom unit she would eventually buy, she was already sold. Adding to her delight were a bay of French windows in the living room, hardwood floors, a fireplace, open beams in the ceiling and an upstairs bathroom with prodigious amounts of original Spanish tile.

The kitchen, however, was a letdown. A remodel in the 1970s, when the apartment complex was converted into condos, had wrought brown cabinets with thick moldings and gothic-style handles, brown paisley tile, brown floral wallpaper and a brown vinyl floor.


“I was horrified by the clash of colors, by the clash of wallpaper and tile, " Lieberman recalled.

The kitchen was also appliance-challenged. Not only did a big brown refrigerator block a row of cabinets and drawers from ever being opened, but a relatively narrow brown stove built into the cabinets and counter tops dashed any hopes of the big Magic Chef easily fitting in.

“I was very disappointed,” Lieberman said. “I thought, I can’t deal with it. I’ll just paint it white and get new hardware.”

That plan changed, however, one day immediately after escrow closed and Lieberman was visiting with her mother, Irene Karney, who lives nearby. Poking around a bit, Karney lifted a piece of the floral wallpaper and exclaimed, “Sue, there’s tile under here.”


Pulling away more wallpaper, Lieberman realized the original 1930s yellow tile with black tile trim had been wallpapered over in the remodel.

Thus began an archeological dig, though not without fear.

“I got nervous,” Lieberman said. “I didn’t know where the tile was. I didn’t know where it started or stopped.” It turned out that some original tile was wallpapered over and other sections were tiled over. “It was a nightmare,” she said.

Rather than remove the cabinets to find who-knows-what behind them, Lieberman decided to just remove the thick moldings on the doors and paint the cabinets white. But after the cabinets were primed, she had another realization: “This just isn’t going to cut it.”


And so, in 1994, she set out to restore the kitchen to its original splendor. Luckily, two of the townhouses in the complex had escaped the 1970s upgrade, and she was able to model her restoration after those.

Among the tasks, most of which Lieberman accomplished with her friend Parke Meek, was to remove the tiles from the back splash above the counters and to discover, to her glee, that the original tiles were still there.

Another part of the “dig” was removing the cabinets and metal hood installed above the stove. That brought good news (the original vent opening was still evident in the 10-foot ceiling) and bad news (although the original tiles were there, they were marred by holes drilled for bolts used to affix the new cabinets to the wall.

The only solution Lieberman and Meek considered--finding replacement tiles in salvage and custom tile shops--was unsuccessful. “We looked and looked and looked,” Lieberman said. “We couldn’t find the right color. We couldn’t find the right glaze.”


Finally, a “brilliant tile guy,” Mark Prescott of Orange County, came up with the idea of using unseen tiles in the kitchen to patch the wall. Luckily, the tiles behind the stove went all the way to the floor, and he harvested some of those.

And most important of all, with the cabinets gone, Lieberman’s old stove finally had a home. “My Magic Chef slid into home port,” she said.

Eleven thousand dollars later, Lieberman’s kitchen has a new linoleum floor, a counter made of 1-inch white hexagonal tiles, another counter of maple butcher block and new cabinets built by Fred Zimmerman of Northridge, whom Lieberman calls “an inspired craftsman.”

Adorning the cabinets is 1930s-era Bakelite and chrome hardware, vestiges of Lieberman’s “deco days,” when she and Meek made and restored chrome lamps and furniture.


To save space in the compact kitchen, Lieberman got rid of the brown refrigerator and placed a smaller, narrow one around the corner in the utility room. When visitors chuckled at her midget appliance, she pretended to be defensive. “What are you talking about? I’ve got food,” she would say.

Other quaint touches are an old ceiling fixture and wall clock, both finds from a Long Beach swap meet, and a shallow ironing board cabinet, uncovered in the excavation, now fitted with glass shelves for bric-a-brac.

Now that Lieberman’s sunny kitchen is complete, others in the complex have started their own journeys of discovery. One neighbor has unearthed yellow tiles with aqua trim under the brown wallpaper, while another uncovered lavender tiles.

For Lieberman, the efforts and expense to bring her bright yellow kitchen back to life will pay off for years to come.


“I moved around a lot as a child,” she said. “So I never want to move again.”