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The lake forest dream kitchen

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“Not in a million years,” said Heidi Smith to anyone who asked. “Not in a million years will our old kitchen win the This Old House Dream Kitchen contest.”

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Wrong, Heidi.

After more than 1,000 proposals had been whittled down to six regional finalists, the Smiths – Heidi, Mike, and their 5-year-old triplets Belle, Kate, and Michael – found themselves sitting on a couch in their living room early on the morning of November 15, 2002, a TV camera in their faces, wondering whether they could have possibly won the online vote announced earlier that week on NBC’s Today show. Almost 36,000 votes had been cast during Today’s Dream Kitchen Week and – as the Smiths found out when the camera suddenly went live to New York – their little kitchen had garnered the most.

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As Matt Lauer and Steve Thomas congratulated them, Mike recalls looking over at Heidi, who had turned a funny shade of grayish-green. “Total, utter shock” is all that Heidi remembers. “We had no idea.”

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It’s hard to say why one kitchen won out over the others. They were all terrific, which is to say they were all hurting. In choosing the six finalists, we’d found dedicated homeowners with a vexing problem in common: they hated their current kitchen and were desperate to improve its functionality and to better integrate it with the rest of their home. Jim and Catherine Alexander – he a painting contractor, she a paint sales manager – used the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” to sing their hopes for a new kitchen in their 1928 Spanish Revival in Seattle, Washington. Steve Oreglia, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle sergeant, and his homemaker wife Liz were struggling to serve their three kids in a tired, vintage kitchen original to their 1958 Ranch-style in San Jose, California. Streck and Ann Clark – a tugboat pilot and a registered nurse – had, with their two children, lovingly renovated every room of their 1920 River Cottage in New Orleans, Louisiana, except the kitchen. Airline pilot Bill Shelton, his wife Richelle, and their three kids had a wonderful stone 1918 Center Hall Colonial in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, with a cold, poorly laid out kitchen last touched (and not very well) in the 1970s. Finally, historic home-renovators Christopher and Kristie Johnson, a lawyer and a homemaker, respectively, were facing the biggest project in their 1899 Queen Anne-style home in Pensacola, Florida – the kitchen, of course.

All of them – and most of the other 1,000 entrants – needed all the help they could get to transform the most important room in their house. The Smiths happen to be the ones who get us. Seeing their video – with the triplets crammed around a small table at the end of the narrow kitchen, and Mom and Dad eating dinner sitting on the floor – made it clear that, first and foremost, this was a challenge about space. The kitchen’s layout was more or less as it had been since the house was built in 1928 – a time when kitchens were not to be seen or heard. It had an old powder room at one end, next to a greenhouse that dated from the 1950s. All was not old, though: the room sported newer, plywood cabinets, twice painted, and a laminate countertop, itself painted – kelly green. We were impressed by how easily Heidi could turn her sponges green while wiping down the counter.

As Heidi’s proposal described it, preparing meals for five in an 8×14 galley space was no picnic: “Due to limitations with counter space as well as storage space (cabinets), I frequently resort to mixing and preparing in less traditional locations. The dining room table, the kitchen floor (with a towel beneath!) and wherever I squeeze in a little workspace. Efficiency is not a term that describes my current kitchen set-up. The largest of the two counter top areas is 3 ft in length and is consistently covered with dishes, food, papers and clutter….”

And that was before the kids came home. “At 3:25, three energized five-year-olds descend upon my cooking space and what so happens to be the hub of our household. Backpacks are dropped in the adjacent mud room that functions as a catchall for coats, boots, school supplies, and of course mud!” She neglected to add that the “mud room” was really only the landing at the top of the basement stairs.

So, what to do? Over the months before they submitted their proposal to our Dream Kitchen search, Heidi and Mike had been talking over possible solutions to their kitchen woes with a local design/build firm, lead by the husband-and-wife team of architect John Krasnodebski and designer Kris Boyaris. Unfortunately, their reputation and resulting busyness were such that it didn’t look like they’d be able to help the Smiths in the foreseeable future. After the Smiths were chosen, we called John and Kris and somehow were able to convince them to cram what would normally be at least a three-month project into two, much of it during the holidays.

Their design removes the bathroom from the kitchen area and sends it down the adjacent hall, along with the mudroom, which will abut the garage, as it should. The greenhouse will be converted to a light-filled breakfast room, windows will be relocated, and beautiful period-appropriate white-painted cabinets will surround a suite of new appliances. The result: more space, better flow.

The Smiths will live in the house during construction, eating out of a makeshift temporary kitchen. Given what they’ve been putting up with, that probably won’t constitute much of a nightmare – especially with a dream waiting on the far side.

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