A Couple Transformed Their 19th-Century Upstate New York Kitchen With Their Own Hands

The kitchen was completely empty with a Tuscan-style tiled floor, and the only appliance in the house was the stove. It was safe to say that the couple had their work cut out for them. “Our idea was to make it a silver box,” Ilias says, the kind of space designed for making a mess and the opposite of precious. Denney started in the dining room, the only area that wasn’t part of the house’s original construction; it was added in 2003. He stabilized, weatherproofed, and insulated it. Ilias got her hands dirty too: She joined her husband with brushes and tools in hand to paint and tile the fireplace. In the kitchen Denney took on a sometimes impossible task: assembling and installing IKEA cabinetry. He also tiled the floor.

Above the stately surround, Denney painted two double-sided paintings called Natural History and Political Year (from left). The art isn’t Denney’s only piece in the kitchen; the table, comprised of a salvaged Douglas fir from his native Oregon atop recycled steel, is also his work. “The Eames chairs were one of those lucky New York City dumpster finds from many years ago,” Ilias notes. The purple chairs, on the other hand, are vintage with original Jack Lenor Larsen silk velvet from the Hudson Mercantile

Photo: Amy Ilias

On the other side of the kitchen and dining area, the pair removed a wall that closed off a traditionally narrow and steep staircase. “Opening up that wall gave us a window, a view of the staircase, and light from the upstairs window,” Ilias says. Denney also added structural support to the ceiling and basement and a curve to the new sheetrock ceiling, and designed the steel railing above the basement stairs. After putting all of their personal touches on their new home, the husband and wife officially moved into The Lavender Ghost full time in January of 2020.

Amy Ilias’s DIY tips

1. Be practical: “Take the time to consider how you plan to use the room. How does it need to function for your particular lifestyle? So many of us use rooms differently and broadly—we read in our bedrooms, work in our kitchens and dining rooms, practice yoga in our living rooms. Think about your reality and work it into the vision.”

2. Don’t rush the demo: “Go slowly during demo. This process can be an archeological dig through the history of your home. We discovered things in the process that we would not have if a contractor had done the work. For example, when we took down the wall in the kitchen, we found a piece of wallpaper from the turn of the century. We were able to remove it carefully and we plan to reinstall it where we found it under glass.”

3. Make smart paint decisions: “Swatch your paint colors and stains generously—at least a two-foot square. Paint colors on all four walls and sit with it in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Make sure you see it on rainy and sunny days before you make your decision.” 

4. Be open-minded: “Sometimes your ideas will shift during the process.” 

5. Stock up: “Good snacks are the most important thing.”

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