PHILADELPHIA — They married later than some do; he is a school psychologist in Delaware County, she is a property manager. After the honeymoon, she moved in with her furniture, including an enormous family-style table, and together they concluded that his longtime man-cave kitchen definitely had to be redone — and redone on a budget.
Jim and Maureen Wolf decided to take out a loan to renovate the 1959-vintage kitchen — with its dark wood, beams, and original stove, low-slung ceiling, and linoleum floors — and replace it with an open-space concept. With the assistance of Patricia Nunan of Lifestyles Design in Perkiomenville, Pa., they created and installed what is known in the trade as a “universal access” kitchen.
Architects typically use universal design for seniors, so they can remain in their homes as they grow older. But the strategy also helps provide people of all ages and abilities ease of access through a living space.
Jim Wolf bought the house in 1989, after he began using a wheelchair following a diving accident. He had lived there ever since, first with his high school friends, then alone as his buddies peeled off one by one and married.
Some of Wolf’s friends eventually divorced and moved back in with him. The house stayed the same.
“We had a lot of fun, me and the guys,” he said. “We made a lot of noise and had lots of parties,” especially with a pool house he had built in the back.
Wolf had kept the kitchen’s linoleum floor because it was easy to clean, and “because I was cooking for myself and dropping things, and the guys I lived with weren’t the neatest.”
The dimly lit breakfast nook off the kitchen was barely used, save as a refuge for a futon and whichever pet slept there. Then Maureen came into his life — and his kitchen — for good.
“We never ate in there, it was too cold and drafty,” she recalled.
Moreover, the cabinets were 1950s originals, equipped with swing-out doors that now were difficult to open. Some universal-design features could help both of them as they got older, the couple figured.
They set a budget of $80,000 and saved where they could on the renovation. They bought appliances at Sears, snagging a refrigerator, cooktop and double wall oven at a buy-two-get-one-free sale.
To the Wolfs’ delight, contractor Eric O’Brien discovered wide-plank oak floors under the linoleum, which he recommended sanding down to a light hue.
“We didn’t realize that we could change the color of the dark floor wood just by sanding it,” Jim Wolf said.
They ripped out the low-slung ceiling, moved a load-bearing beam, and borrowed space for the hall from an outdoor porch. Now, with about 300 square feet for the L-shaped kitchen and dining areas, an airy loft, a ceiling fan, doors cut out for a view into the lush backyard, and a working fireplace, they have a light, warm hearth as well as a place to cook.
On a few occasions, they splurged. A modest person, Maureen Wolf never asked for anything she thought they couldn’t afford. But she wanted the wider, 36-inch cooktop so she could prepare meals for her husband after a long day at work. He insisted she that she have it.
Jim Wolf also insisted on a loft-style ceiling and speakers for his sound system. That way, he could rock out after his wife left for the office every morning at 7. Their pets, Labrador retriever Gunner and orange tabby cat Rocky, often join him, listening to favorites such as classic rock-and-roll, Amos Lee, and Trisha Yearwood.
The loft ceiling opened up the entire back of the house, and Lifestyles Design’s Nunan did a layout that created a sleek space from the cramped kitchen whose cabinets were scratched up from years of Wolf’s wheelchair jamming in there with them.
“After Maureen’s done cooking, I can wheel over and do the dishes,” he said.
“We’ll never have to move,” his wife said, because the widened door frames, easy-open cabinets, butcher block on wheels, and barrier-free layout will accommodate the couple as they age.
At Christmas and other holidays, the Wolfs’ extended family and their children now sit for hours in the kitchen and play table hockey, and swim in the pool.
“No one knows this is universal design,” Jim Wolf said.
Added Maureen Wolf, “And I always feel warm here.”