Updating a kitchen in an 1880s federal-style house requires careful thought and planning. The goal is to create a functional, beautiful kitchen while maintaining the historic character and architectural details of the home. This article provides tips for updating an 1880s kitchen while preserving its unique federal-style charm.

Assessing the Existing Kitchen

The first step is to thoroughly evaluate the existing kitchen space. Consider the following:

  • Layout – Does the general layout work or does it need to be reconfigured? Pay attention to work triangles between sink, fridge, and stove.
  • Cabinetry – Are the original cabinets solid wood and worth restoring? Assess condition and estimate cost of refurbishing vs replacing.
  • Countertops – Most 1880s counters were wood or ceramic tile. Evaluate condition and whether original materials should be repaired/restored or replaced.
  • Flooring – Many federal-style kitchens had wood plank floors. Assess condition and determine if floors need refinishing or partial/full replacement.
  • Walls & Ceiling – Note type of plaster and evaluate condition. Repairs may be needed prior to painting.
  • Windows & Doors – Are original windows and doors repairable? Consider adding interior storm windows to improve efficiency without altering exterior appearances.
  • Plumbing & Electrical – Assess capacity and condition of supply lines and wiring. Upgrades will likely be needed to support modern appliances.
  • Appliances – Decide which appliances need replacement vs refurbishment. Vintage styled appliances may be preferable to maintain old-house charm.

Thoroughly documenting the existing conditions allows informed decisions when designing the kitchen remodel.

Developing a Kitchen Remodel Design Plan

With assessment complete, the focus shifts to developing a kitchen remodel design plan. Key considerations include:


  • Work triangles – Optimize placement of sink, fridge, stove/ovens.
  • Traffic flow – Ensure aisles accommodate multiple cooks.
  • Storage – Include sufficient cabinetry and pantries for storage needs.
  • Island or peninsula – Can add prep space, storage and casual dining.
  • Breakfast nook – Incorporate if space allows. Great for casual meals.


  • Period appropriate – Design choices should suit federal-style homes.
  • Details & moldings – Incorporate crown molding, raised panels, etc.
  • Hardware – Opt for vintage styled bin pulls, knobs and hinges.
  • Lighting – Pendant lights, sconces and chandeliers should be period styled.
  • Countertops – Butcherblock, soapstone or ceramic tile recommended.
  • Cabinets – Custom wood cabinets fit federal-style best.
  • Backsplash – Beadboard, tin backsplashes or ceramic tile appropriate.
  • Appliances – Vintage styled appliances reinforce old-house charm.
  • Floors – Wood plank, hexagonal tile or stone floors preferred.
  • Walls – Beadboard wainscoting adds character.
  • Windows – Consider adding interior storm windows.

Create inspiration boards pulling together desired design elements. Work closely with contractors to develop a cohesive period-appropriate design plan.

Selecting Period-Appropriate Materials

Choosing materials that reflect the federal-style of the home is key for an integrated updated period kitchen. Recommended materials include:


  • Butcherblock – Classic, suits federal-style kitchens beautifully.
  • Soapstone – Elegant stone with great prep properties.
  • Ceramic Tile – Hexagonal, rectangular or square tiles appropriate.


  • Beadboard – Timeless wainscoting perfect for federal-style.
  • Tin Tile – Vintage tin tiles or reproduction tin ceiling tiles.
  • Ceramic Tile – Small rectangular, hexagonal or square tiles.


  • Wood Cabinets – Custom wood cabinets fit the period best. Raised panels and crown molding.
  • Glass Front – Glass front uppers provide displayed storage.
  • Buttery – Traditional larder cabinet for additional storage.


  • Bin Pulls – Oval or rectangular pulls perfect for shaker cabinets.
  • Knobs – Porcelain, wood or crystal knobs.
  • Hinges – Brass or iron hinges.


  • Wood Plank – Refinished original wood floors or new oak plank flooring.
  • Hexagonal Tile – Small glazed ceramic tiles in patterns.
  • Stone – Slate, bluestone or limestone appropriate.


  • Pendants – Vintage or reproduction pendants over sink and island.
  • Sconces – Wall mounted lighting with period flair.
  • Chandelier – Ornate focal point lighting.


  • Interior Storm Windows – Increase efficiency without altering exterior.

Preserving Original Architectural Details

Federal-style homes boast exquisite architectural details that lend historic charm. Preserving original features helps maintain the home’s period integrity. Key details to protect include:

  • Door & Window Trim – Elegant crown molding and casing trim.
  • Baseboards & Chair Rail – Tall baseboards and picture rail molding.
  • Built-in Cabinetry – Salvage & restore any original built-ins.
  • Interior Doors – Protect & repair original paneled doors.
  • Hardware – Save vintage hinges, knobs, hooks, pulls, etc if possible.
  • Wall & Ceiling Treatments – Preserve any tin ceilings, ceiling medallions, or decorative plaster.

When openings need to be added or changed, aim to match existing trimwork and design details. Reclaimed period elements can sometimes be sourced. Work closely with contractors to protect special vintage features throughout the remodel process.

Recommended Layout Configurations

While each home is unique, there are some typical layouts well suited to federal-style kitchens:

Galley Kitchen

A single-wall galley is often found in urban federal-style row houses. Maximize storage with floor-to-ceiling cabinetry and consider adding a floor-to-ceiling buttery. Open shelving provides display space for beautiful dishware.

L-Shaped Kitchen

The L-shaped kitchen efficiently positions the sink, fridge and range along two adjoining walls. An island or peninsula can be added for more workspace. Built-in cabinetry like a hutch or buttery boost storage.

U-Shaped Kitchen

The U-shaped kitchen offers a highly efficient work triangle with sink, fridge, and range along three walls. There is abundant room for built-in cabinetry and pantries. An island can add more workspace but may disrupt traffic flow.

Consider bumping out or reconfiguring walls as needed to achieve a well laid out work zone. Place windows to maximize natural light and ventilation.

Integrating Modern Conveniences

While maintaining period charm, it’s important to integrate modern conveniences for functionality. Strategies include:

  • Add extra circuits and outlets to support appliances.
  • Increase lighting with historically styled fixtures.
  • Upgrade plumbing lines for adequate water pressure.
  • Install commercial grade range hood vented outside.
  • Conceal small appliances like coffee makers in cabinetry.
  • Install pull-out trash/recycling bins.
  • Include deep drawers for cookware storage.
  • Add a beverage/wine fridge or second fridge drawer.
  • Incorporate a charging station or convertible workstation.

With careful planning, many modern necessities can be seamlessly incorporated without detracting from the traditional federal kitchen design.

Recommended Appliances

Appliance finishes and styling should align with the period kitchen design. Recommended options include:

  • Range – Restaurant-grade gas range with commercial vent hood. Opt for a color like Chief Red.
  • Refrigerator – Counter-depth or integrated fridge paired with bottom freezer drawer. Consider a SMEG or Big Chill.
  • Dishwasher – 18” integrated model or farmhouse style. Opt for paneled front.
  • Microwave – Build into cabinetry or buy retro-styled model.
  • Sink – Farmhouse, apron-front cast iron or hammered copper sink.
  • Faucet – Brass fixture with porcelain handles. Gooseneck style.

Prioritize performance and select appliances with high-quality materials and craftsmanship that will stand the test of time.

Creating Period-Appropriate Storage Solutions

Storage is a key challenge in a small 1880s kitchen. Solutions to maximize space include:

  • Butler’s Pantry – Adjacent pantry provides storage and prep space.
  • Hutch – Glass front hutch displays dishware while storing necessities.
  • Buttery – Freestanding cabinetry traditionally used for larder storage.
  • Pantry – Floor-to-ceiling cabinetry maximizes storage.
  • Drawers – Customize cabinetry with pull-out drawers.
  • Built-in Bench – Bench seating with storage beneath.
  • Open Shelving – Display collections of ironstone and vintage dishes.
  • Beadboard Backsplash – Adds character while concealing functional shelf.
  • Nook – Breakfast nook bench can incorporate storage.

Careful cabinetry planning and multi-functional spaces allow ample storage possibilities even in a small footprint.

Recommended Floor Plans

The floor plan possibilities are endless, but here are some example layouts that could work well for an 1880s federal-style kitchen remodel:

Single Wall Galley Kitchen

[Insert sketch of long narrow galley kitchen with window and door on one long wall and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry and open shelving on other long wall. Buttery positioned near entrance to kitchen.]

This single wall galley takes advantage of the long narrow space with cabinetry and open shelving along one wall. The buttery provides auxiliary storage.

L-Shaped Kitchen with Island

[Insert sketch of L-shaped kitchen with windows on two walls. Sink and fridge on one leg of L. Stove and ovens on other leg. Island parallel to stove wall provides additional counter space and storage.]

The L-shaped kitchen efficiently positions appliances on two walls with ample counterspace and an island for additional workspace.

U-Shaped Kitchen with Pantry

[Insert sketch of U-shaped kitchen with sink, fridge, and stove/ovens on three walls. Floor-to-ceiling pantry cabinetry on fourth wall. Space for table in center.]

With appliances fully utilized along the three walls, the fourth wall is maximized for floor-to-ceiling pantry storage.

Consider traffic flow patterns and make adjustments to standard layouts to best suit the specific home. An experienced designer can help tailor the floor plan.

Design Ideas for Common Kitchen Layouts

Galley Kitchens

Maximize storage in galley kitchens with strategies like:

  • Floor-to-ceiling cabinetry and open shelves along one wall
  • Buttery or hutch positioned near entrance
  • Paneled refrigerator flanked by base cabinets
  • Stacked ovens or integrated cooktop to conserve space
  • Multi-functional island for extra storage and seating

L-Shaped Kitchens

Design ideas for L-shaped kitchens include:

  • Place sink and fridge on one leg, stove and ovens on the other
  • Incorporate glass door uppers to break up cabinetry
  • Add an island, hutch or buttery near the junction of the L
  • Use one leg for a butler’s pantry with storage and prep space
  • Include a banquette, window bench or breakfast nook

U-Shaped Kitchens

Make the most of U-shaped kitchens with ideas such as:

  • Efficient work triangle with sink, fridge and stove on each arm
  • Integrate glass door uppers or open shelves for displayed storage
  • Fourth wall utilized for floor-to-ceiling pantry
  • Island or peninsula added for extra seating and prep space
  • Breakfast nook tucked into vacant corner

Period Lighting Fixtures

Proper lighting plays a big role in achieving a period feel. Be sure to incorporate lighting design early in the planning process. Recommended lighting includes:


  • Suspended above the kitchen sink or island
  • Vintage or reproduction pendants
  • Gothic, Edison bulbs, or mercury glass


  • Flank the stove, sink, or line hallways
  • Swing arm sconces useful over counters
  • Glass hurricane lamp or candlestick inspired


  • As a statement piece over the dining table
  • Ornate styles with crystal accents
  • Brass, iron, or antique nickel finishes

Under Cabinet Lighting

  • LED strip lighting under upper cabinets
  • Illuminates counters and work zones

Mixing lighting types creates both ambiance and task lighting. Dimmer switches allow adjustable brightness.

Recommended Paint Colors

Paint colors should complement the home’s federal-style. Recommended palette includes:


  • Alabaster
  • Swiss Coffee
  • Edgecomb Gray
  • Accessible Beige
  • White Dove


  • Hale Navy
  • Harbor Blue
  • Coastal Fog
  • Rainwashed
  • Admiral Blue


  • Caviar
  • Rosemary
  • Sagebrush
  • Woodland Green
  • Chelsea Gray


  • Kilim Beige
  • Clay Beige
  • Potters Clay
  • Sunset Red

Stick with a color scheme of 3-4 complementary colors. Neutrals paired with blues, greens or reds work well in federal kitchens.

Budgeting for a Period Kitchen Remodel

Budgeting at least $30,000 – $50,000 will allow for a full remodel of an 1880s kitchen with period-appropriate quality materials and details. Exact costs depend on factors like:

  • Scope – Full remodel vs targeted updates
  • Market – Labor & materials vary regionally
  • Layout changes – Moving walls/plumbing adds cost
  • Appliances – Pro-grade and vintage-style cost more
  • Cabinets – Custom wood most expensive option
  • Countertops – Butcherblock, stone or concrete pricier
  • Flooring – Refinishing vs new wood floors
  • Lighting – Chandeliers and vintage pendants add cost
  • Plumbing & electrical – More updates equal higher price tag

Get quotes from several contractors before setting a final budget. Be prepared for some contingency expenses. The investment will be worth it for a beautiful period kitchen.

Hiring the Right Contractor

Hiring the right general contractor is critically important for period remodels. Look for these traits:

  • Experience with historic homes
  • Knowledge of federal-style architecture
  • Skilled at restoring original features
  • Access to qualified sub-contractors
  • Insured and licensed
  • Organized project management skills
  • Strong communication and responsiveness
  • Willing to source reclaimed materials

Read reviews and ask to see examples of past projects when selecting a contractor. Verify they have experience successfully completing projects of similar size and scope.

Preparing for the Remodel Process

Major kitchen overhauls require significant preparation:

  • Create a detailed project plan and timeline
  • Obtain all required building permits
  • Rent storage pod or offsite storage for kitchen contents
  • Plan temporary kitchen for cooking during remodel
  • Turn off water/power as needed and drain plumbing lines
  • Remove existing cabinetry, appliances, sink, flooring etc.
  • Protect remaining areas of home from dust and damage

Proper prep makes the renovation process smoother. Have contingencies in place for delays or surprises.

Sequence of a Kitchen Remodel

Kitchen remodels typically follow this general sequence:

  1. Demolition – Remove existing kitchen components (cabinets, countertops, sink, flooring, etc.)
  2. Plumbing – Reroute supply lines as needed. Update drains, sink lines and add new fixtures.
  3. Electrical – Run wiring for added appliances and fixtures. Install recessed lighting. Upgrade system.
  4. Insulation – Add insulation between wall studs if walls are exposed. Soundproof as needed.
  5. Drywall – Hang new drywall on walls or refinish existing walls. Tape, mud and sand.
  6. Flooring – Install new or refinished wood flooring or tile floor.
  7. Cabinets – Install custom wood cabinets secured to walls. Add hardware and trim details.
  8. Countertops – Take measurements and templates. Carefully install butcherblock, stone or tile counters.
  9. Backsplash – Apply beadboard wainscoting or mount ceramic tile backsplash.
  10. Paint – Prime and paint walls, trim, ceilings and cabinetry in selected color scheme.
  11. Appliances – Carefully install and setup all kitchen appliances.
  12. Lighting – Add pendant lights, sconces, chandeliers and under cabinet lighting.
  13. Finishing – Install door and window trim, hardware. Reinstall original salvaged items.

The process requires careful coordination of various tradespeople. Build in contingency time for potential delays and schedule changes.

Maintaining a Period Kitchen

A remodeled period kitchen requires some maintenance and care:

  • Treat butcherblock regularly with food-safe oil or wax to protect and maintain.
  • Seal natural stone countertops annually to prevent staining and etching.
  • Use cutting boards to protect wood or butcherblock counters. Never cut directly on the surface.
  • Clean wood cabinets with a wood cleaner and polish regularly with beeswax.
  • Use mild soap and water to clean tin, ceramic or glass tile backsplashes.
  • Vacuum or dust decorative tin ceiling panels. Carefully wipe with a damp microfiber cloth as needed.
  • Clean brass fixtures and hardware regularly with a brass cleaner.

With proper care and maintenance, an updated period kitchen can last for generations