Retro renovations

Touches to add, and avoid, when remodeling

You've saved a bundle of money — or tapped your home equity — and now you're ready to tackle that kitchen renovation project.

Where to start?

Well, everybody loves granite counter tops and sleek, modern appliances. Everyone except you.

You find the stainless-steel refrigerator slightly, well, antiseptic. High style is the 1955 Foodarama by Kelvinator, sold in one of eight decorative colors like Bermuda Pink and Buttercup Yellow.

This is your dream, but does it make sense?

Particularly if you own an older home, reintroducing aesthetically accurate glamour can add value. And a retro renovation doesn't have to be hugely expensive. Some fixes are cheap if you shop yard sales and secondhand stores.

But not all things retro deserve to make a comeback. Some items are just too costly or unsafe to operate in a modern home, especially when newer, retro-inspired and energy-efficient options are available.

Which of our six retro touches are smart investments? Read on.


Toilets: Buy new. 
Otherwise, you're flushing away money.

Philadelphia Salvage Co. is an architectural salvage and industrial design shop in Philadelphia. This place is a wonderland of days gone by, but the shop's bathroom is outfitted with a new toilet because old ones just aren't worth saving.

"The No. 1 place where there's leaks in the house: It's toilets," says owner Chris Stock. And if you've ever dealt with a bathroom leak, especially one on an upper floor, you know how expensive repairs can be.

Most toilets made before 1992 are also water wasters — they typically use 5 to 7 gallons per flush. By law, new toilets are limited to 1.6 gallons per flush, but many use 1.2 gallons or less.

If you're dying to match the old pink tile in your bathroom, you can opt instead for a reclaimed sink or replace the toilet lid and seat with those from an older model. Just leave the heavy flushing in the past.


Tile: Go retro. 
Add an easy dash of cool.

Have you ever completed a home improvement project in your kitchen or bathroom and had tile left over? DIYing was no different in the 1950s and '60s, which is why boxes of old tiles are still around and available for sale.

You don't need to redo an entire room to grab your piece of retro cool. A new kitchen backsplash doesn't take a lot of time or materials. If you're already redoing a bathroom, you can integrate a strip of old decorative tile with new tile to tie your renovation to the past.

There's a wide price range for old tiles, generally between 50 cents and $50 apiece, depending on size, age and quality. You can find a good selection of old tile at architectural salvage shops or at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore ( These shops sell new and used donated home items, and the profits go toward Habitat for Humanity's home-building efforts.


Stoves: Buy new.
Why: Safety first.

Older stoves made for home kitchens don't have the same safety features modern-day appliances do, especially if you're cooking with gas.

Modern gas ranges have an automatic pilot, which means that gas only flows when you want it to. When the pilot goes out, the gas won't turn on. With older gas stoves (and with commercial ranges), gas flows continuously through the pilot. If working correctly, the pilot stays lit all the time.

But what if the pilot light goes out? The gas still flows, which can make the air in your home explosive — literally.

Older electric stoves don't pose the same kind of risk, but they're not as energy efficient as today's models, and the wiring might need to be redone. It's easier, safer and more cost-effective to go new.


Mantels: Go retro.
Why: Bring back the hearth — and focus — to a room.

If the fireplace in your older home was closed up by you or a previous owner, you have a few options here if you want to bring back the original character. The more expensive option is to reopen the space and add a ventless gas fireplace.

Or you can re-create the hearth concept in the room by adding a salvaged mantel over where the fireplace used to be.

Philadelphia Salvage Co.'s Chris Stock says you can find a wood or marble one for a few hundred dollars and then install it wherever the mantel once was. If you don't want to reopen the fireplace, you can do things like cluster candles, decorative urns or flowers below the mantel.


Refrigerators: Buy new.
Why: Energy hogs should stay retired.

If you're thinking kitschy is cool for your kitchen, you might be tempted to go out and find a colorful old refrigerator to match your theme. Bad idea.

According to Energy Star, the government-backed program that promotes energy efficiency, a refrigerator made before 1993 uses twice the amount of energy as a new model does. Imagine the decades of technological advances that occurred after those post-World War II candy-colored behemoths went out of style. These machines are energy wasters and will drive up your electric bill.

If the idea of an old refrigerator appeals to you — or if you simply like a punch of color in your major appliances — check out Big Chill, a company that makes retro-inspired refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers. You can also swap out smaller appliances, like mixers, coffee makers or blenders. KitchenAid makes them in colors that sweep across the rainbow.


Lamps: Go retro.
Why: Light up your life — but with new wires.

Add some charm to your home with vintage lamps and light fixtures. This retro project can really help transform the character of your house, especially if every lampshade you currently own is a bland white. Rewiring a lamp or fixture is easy, too. It's such a common DIY job that you can buy rewiring kits at just about any hardware store for under $20.

If working with electronics makes your skin tingle in anticipation of a shock, you can hire someone to do it for you. It's a service a lot of small hardware stores offer, particularly shops that do things like cut glass for windows.

But don't be surprised if you have to pay a bit more to rewire your retro lamp than it would cost to buy a new one.

Finding a gem of lamp is easy. Resale shops and yard sales are full of these treasures.

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