All photos/art by Bob O'Connor
Everyone who knows Pam Kueber wants to see her kitchen. It’s aquamarine and steel and would easily turn June Cleaver green with envy. When people of a certain age first take a look around, they get a little unhinged: This Berkshires home is a time warp. This is the kitchen of their childhood; they can almost smell their mother’s pot roast. The younger generation just thinks it’s a little wacky and very hip. But regardless, everyone wants to hear the backstory.
Kueber’s cabinet set is a 1963 model from Geneva Modern Kitchens. Originally installed in a cooking school run by nuns in New York City, it was saved from the Dumpster via the miracle of the Internet. It took Kueber five years to find it, a quest that would take her from midcentury-curious homeowner to period expert to blogging queen. She now runs the wildly popular Web site retrorenovation.com, where more than 200,000 unique visitors each month research midcentury resources to do their own period rehabs.
She never saw it coming. When Kueber and her husband, a high-school teacher, first started looking for property in the Berkshires in 1999, they thought they’d get a classic New England house with a wraparound porch. But then, in 2001, they scouted this 1951 “colonial ranch” just a few blocks from the center of Lenox, Massachusetts, and they couldn’t resist its charms, location, and price. It had that classic single-story ranch layout—two bedrooms, kitchen, dining and living rooms all on the same floor—and quality details, including dentil moldings and cherry built-ins adorned with Early American–style hardware.
“It had great features,” Kueber says, “but the bathrooms did need freshening up, and the 1970s kitchen cabinets were worn out.” The kitchen could wait, but the bathrooms couldn’t, and Kueber resolved to go midcentury. “No matter when you renovate, it’s going to be ‘dated’ eventually,” she reasoned. “You can’t go wrong doing something historically appropriate.” And she began to see something like architectural integrity in the house. If she could see the beauty in a 1950s “colonial ranch,” maybe she could prove that these most common and affordable of American homes should be celebrated—not razed and replaced.
Easy to say, but she soon discovered that finding period finishes wouldn’t be so simple. The pink, green, and peach fixtures of the era were thoroughly out of vogue, and the Internet didn’t offer much assistance. But one Canadian distributor did have 1950s-style tile colors, and American Olean still offered a peach.
For the main bath, Kueber decided to go relatively conservative, choosing a heron-blue field tile, accenting it with retro wallpaper. “I remember thinking, ‘If I have to resell, the next owner can come in and make it look French Provincial or country pretty fast—rip out the paper and switch out the accessories,’” she says.
Kueber got more ambitious with her basement powder room: “I said, ‘Pink, I need that ’50s color pink,’ and people would tell me, ‘Oh, we pull that out of bathrooms every day—no one wants it.’” She eventually settled for peach, though she now knows where to get acres of pink tile, thanks to her readers: B&W Tile Co. in Gardena, California, which still makes classic “Mamie Pink.” And when Pam Kueber talks about other treasure sources—such as World of Tile, a family-owned New Jersey warehouse filled with “new old” (unused vintage) stock—she can’t hide her excitement: “It’s awesome—you’ve gotta visit—unbelievable, unbelievable!”
Once her bathrooms were finished, Kueber turned her attention to the kitchen. Fortunately, she found a decorating clue in her own garage. Tucked away in a corner were a few white metal cabinets, no doubt what remained of the home’s original kitchen. “I just knew that that’s exactly what had to go in there,” she says. Thus began the hunt for a complete set of period metal cabinets that would fit her 225-square-foot kitchen. Because she was working full-time, she didn’t have spare hours to spend scouring. Instead, she avidly watched eBay and Craigslist and hit estate sales in her free time, picking up midcentury brochures and builders’ catalogues along the way.
Then she got word of those 67 cabinets sitting in the cooking-school basement in New York: 115 linear feet of aquamarine gorgeousness. Kueber bought the entire lot for $3,000, cherry-picked the pieces she wanted, and sold the rest on eBay for $2,500. When the contractor came to install them, he said, “What? Someone’s old cabinets in this brand-spanking-new kitchen?”
But once they were all installed and polished up, everyone—from the plumber to the inspector—understood. “There were big smiles on their faces,” she says. “Everyone would say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been tearing these out for years. We can’t believe we’re putting them back in’—but always with a big smile.”
Just as the kitchen renovation was wrapping up, blogs were starting to become popular, and Kueber thought of débuting her own. “I love design, I love writing, and I decided it would be a shame to shove all this information into a drawer and move on,” she says. Kueber began sharing her research, musing on everything from hardware to DIY projects. “It’s a narrow and deep topic,” she says of midcentury home design. And the Mad Men era was starting to heat up the popular imagination.
“People my age are moving into these ’50s and ’60s houses because they’re downsizing to a single-floor layout—and because they’re nostalgic,” Kueber adds. “First-time buyers in their twenties and thirties like them because they’re affordable and groovy.Assuming the house is well built, it’s often a little jewel box—whether it’s midcentury modest or modern or a sweet Cape or Colonial. They have immense charm.” Four years later, she was able to quit her day job to make her living as a blogger.
But Kueber isn’t a slave to vintage: “I wouldn’t say I live like the ’50s at all. We’re a modern-day family, though I do have some vintage clothing I throw on occasionally. We use the kitchen the way anyone else would, with salmon on the barbecue. I don’t make ‘tuna surprise.’”
That said, she does carry on a secret life downstairs, where she squirrels away remarkable antique finds. During my visit, she disappears below and emerges a few minutes later hauling a 30-pound 1963 “Electro-Sink Center.” It’s a two-foot-long hunk of metal with a faucet in the center and a motor on either end, designed to drive a bevy of Cuisinart-like attachments, including mixers, choppers, and juicers. It sold for $399 in 1963 (about $3,000 in 2013 dollars), and Kueber says it appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
She also shows me an original Republic Steel Kitchens salesman’s kit; each one came with dozens of dollhouse-size cabinets that you could use to lay out your dream kitchen on a gridded mat. “I’m so fascinated by the social history of these things,” Kueber says. “At one point when I was building my kitchen, I set up this little model in my dining room for reference.”
Ultimately, Kueber has become a crusader for preserving the flamboyance of a bygone era: “We’ve come through this decade where people have been told to do everything in a neutral way for resale value. So when you see unapologetic color, it brightens your day.”
She’s also found herself defending the quality and aesthetic of a period that many still remember with a tinge of embarrassment. “A few years ago, no one understood my other little blog, ‘Save the Pink Bathrooms,’” she says. “People were flipping houses and gutting pink bathrooms, replacing them with 16-inch faux granite.” Now people send her photos of their salvaged pink tile.
“I’m starting a campaign for knotty pine,” Kueber says. “It’s the classic eye-of-the-beholder thing. Grandma wasn’t wrong; she just had a different perspective.”