Cooking Up a Dream

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

When Maxye and Lou Henry were searching for a home to buy in the early '90s, they had two requirements:

First, the house had to be in a rural setting. Second, the kitchen had to be awful.

The bank-repossessed 1970s tract home that the couple found on a three-quarter-acre view lot in Thousand Oaks met both requirements.

"We bought the house because we hated the kitchen," said Maxye Henry, associate editor of MotorHome magazine in Ventura. "We wanted to build our dream kitchen to suit ourselves, and it wouldn't have made sense to tear apart a decent kitchen."

Given the couple's interests, a dream kitchen would be put to good use. They love to cook and entertain. Maxye Henry does a lot of pickling and preserving.

The couple, along with guest chefs, also give monthly cooking classes for friends, including instruction for such dishes as pasta, paella and risotto, as well as Asianand Indian cuisine.

The deteriorated kitchen far exceeded the Henrys' expectations.

"There was no kitchen," said Lou Henry, an attorney in Westlake. The stove had only two working burners, broken, the built-in microwave oven and wall oven were history (for roasting, the couple used a backyard BBQ) and the trash compactor needed parts.

And the kitchen didn't work in other ways. For instance, it was separated from the family room by a solid wall. The cabinets were dark, the fluorescent lights were glaring and an out-of-place picture window at one end took up valuable counter and cabinet space, providing only unsightly views of a small slope and the legs of horses passing by on a public trail.

Before they remodeled the kitchen, though, the couple hired a landscaper to fix the backyard. This kept the neglected ground from being harmed or washing down a hill during winter storms and created an outdoor patio and barbecue area to use during the kitchen remodel.

Other new features include a natural-looking waterfall and stream and a fire pit circled by a brick bench.

After the backyard was done, the couple spent several years perusing kitchen magazines, cutting out photos, dreaming up and planning the layout and details of their new kitchen.

Because they took credits off the purchase price of the home, instead of accepting the bank's offer to replace the broken appliances, the couple had extra money to spend.

The first goals for the 1996 kitchen remodel were to remove the dropped ceiling and to take out the wall between the kitchen and family room. There, they wanted to create a peninsula to hold a six-burner Viking stove, allowing for cooking demonstrations that could be seen by friends in the family room.

To get help with the structural implications of removing a wall, the Henrys hired Dale Bergerson, an architect from Woodland Hills. For a flat fee of $1,000 (which the Henrys said is embarrassingly low considering the services he provided), Bergerson not only suggested the proper size and strength of supporting beams, but also helped the couple solve the problem of the awkward picture window. His solution: Take it out.

Lou Henry was shocked at the bold suggestion.

"Take it out?" he remembers exclaiming. "It never occurred to us we could take it out. We thought we'd have to work around it."

Taking Bergerson's advice, they had the large window replaced with a much smaller bay window, leaving plenty of room underneath for cabinets and counters.

"You've got to hire professional designers," Lou Henry believes. "These people see things differently. Without an architect, we would have just bumbled along."

For the cabinets, the couple first solicited estimates for custom work.

"It was scary," Maxye Henry said, recalling one bid for $17,000. Instead, the couple bought cabinets with oak facings and raised-panel doors at Home Base for $7,000. "I'm thinking, a box is a box," she said.

To customize the cabinets for her needs, she chose drawers instead of shelves in the base cabinets, creating three bread drawers and a drawer for kibble for the couple's three dogs.

For the counters, the couple wanted granite. Again, scary estimates came in at $80 a running foot for slab granite. The couple finally decided on granite tile with wood molding, which cut the cost by more than half.

Lou Henry chose granite tiles with a lot of markings and spent half a day matching similar markings together. As a result, parts of the back splash and counters have the appearance of a large, contiguous slab.

When it came to sinks, though, Maxye Henry said, "That's not something you scrimp on." She chose an extra-deep Elkay sink with Grohe faucets. In fact, the entire remodel started with a ceramic salad sink the couple had purchased on sale, and which Maxye Henry dreamed of installing next to the stove with an extendable faucet for filling large pasta pots.

"We bought the salad sink and designed the kitchen around it," she said.

Appliances were another area in which they did not scrimp. Besides the Viking stove ($5,000), the couple chose a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a Bosch dishwasher.

The decision about floor material was not easy. The family room already had a nice wood floor (added by previous owners over the concrete slab foundation), but it would cost $25,000 to get that extended into the kitchen, dining room, living room, entryway and hallway.

Instead, the Henrys chose large ceramic tiles from Europe, which cost less than $10,000 to purchase and have installed. The only question they had for the salesperson: Will this handle dirty dog footprints?

With the large amount of tile installed in the remodel, the tile contractor, John Mueller of John's Tile Works in Newbury Park, played a big role.

Mueller "sweated blood," the couple said, to fit square tiles into the house, which is out of plumb, and came up with solutions that made it look OK.

"[He] was wonderful," Lou Henry said. "That's the main thing. You've got to have a good tile contractor."

Once the couple started dreaming up their new kitchen, it was apparent that the family room also needed some help. The main problem was the nonfunctioning ceiling-high brick fireplace, which blocked out light and the expansive views of hills and mountains behind the house.

"Geez," Lou Henry had thought. "I hate that fireplace. We have to have the lights on in the daytime."

But with minds made flexible from dreaming up the kitchen remodel, the couple finally realized that they could just eliminate the fireplace and replace it with large windows overlooking the patio. Two new skylights brightened the family room even more.

Though the planning of the remodel was exhilarating, the actual execution was fraught with problems. It started when the couple, to save money, purchased their own cabinets and appliances, hoping to hire a general contractor to put it all together.

However, "the generals didn't want any part of it," Maxye Henry said. "We'd taken a lot of the profit out of it," Lou Henry explained.

Instead, the couple hired a carpenter to demolish the kitchen down to the studs, build the new walls and install the cabinets and windows. And though the tile contractor was a "godsend," the couple said, the carpenter was not, and he had to be paid extra to finish the job, which stretched out to six months.

The couple don't know whether the carpenter was licensed, but they do know that he no longer works in the building trades.

Still, the new kitchen is stunning, and the pain of the remodeling process has mostly worn off.

All told, the remodel cost $65,000, and the couple have no regrets. They rarely watch television anymore, finding themselves either "team cooking" in their kitchen or watching wildlife or the stars from their patio.

When asked how long he planned to live in the house, Lou Henry said: "Forever, I hope."

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