Breathing New Life into Historic Homes

Oklahoma City was a thriving urban metropolis at the turn of the 20th century. People flocked to the oil-rich region in the hopes of striking it rich…and many did. Nearly a hundred years later, Jo Meacham is appreciating the city’s historic growth and its residents’ success.

The principal and senior designer of Urban Kitchens in Oklahoma City has built her kitchen and bath design business largely by renovating homes that were built at that time. With a master’s degree in architecture and historic preservation – she actually started her career in planning and preservation with the City of Oklahoma City before opening her firm in 1999 – she is uniquely qualified to successfully transition those historic homes into the 21st century.

“This place was booming between 1900 and 1930,” she says. “There was a lot of money spent on some really nice houses, so we have a wonderful collection of residential architecture from the first quarter of the last century.”

 

A business of inches

Preserving these historic homes is the lifeblood of Meacham’s business. But preservation is not without its challenges, she notes. Kitchens are typically small – as are home lots – and strict regulations concerning exteriors can make additions difficult, and expensive.

“When a kitchen is large enough to include an island, I get excited!” she says. “Sometimes I can take down a wall, but I don’t always gain cabinet space because there are so many windows and doors. Then there are the flues – which we can sometimes remove, and ‘camelback’ stairs – which take up a lot of space. I feel like I’m in the ‘inch’ business because these spaces are so small.”

It can also be difficult to make an older home modern, while at the same time maintaining its history. “I need to give a little more thought to color, door style, backsplash, etc. to make a new space look like it fits the architecture of the home,” she says.

That sentiment is an important part of her design philosophy: kitchens that are thoughtfully designed to embrace a home’s unique architecture, express the homeowner’s personality and enhance their lifestyle. “We look to the architecture of the home to inspire the design and details so the kitchen appears to have been built for the house,” she says. “This is particularly important with historic homes where the original kitchen is nothing like the kitchen of today.

“As far as personality, we listen to our customers and design a kitchen that reflects their personality…formal or casual, quirky or traditional. And, for lifestyle, we want to make sure the kitchen suits the needs of the homeowner. We go through scenarios with them so they really think about how they use the kitchen.”

The current mass appeal and availability of Shaker-style doors and subway tiles have actually been good for her. “They are historic and contemporary at the same time,” she says, adding that she can change the look as needed with hardware and accents. Flat-edge countertops are also the norm… “Everything is simplified. I have been doing Shaker-style cabinetry for years. It’s about all we see and feature in historic homes. I guess I’ve been ahead of my time!”

 

Being visible

Although many of Meacham’s designs are rooted in structures from long ago, she’s anything but dated when it comes to promoting her business. The designer maintains a visible presence with a 1,000-sq.-ft. studio showroom located two miles north of downtown where she can showcase contemporary and traditional vignettes with cabinetry, countertops and backsplashes…and lots of samples. It’s also where she hosts seminars to help clients and potential clients better understand the design process. “I did three last year,” she says, adding that they generated $100,000 in extra business for her.

Meacham also routinely attends museum openings and other community events and is often one of the designers featured in the Symphony Designer Show House.

She is also active in the digital world, jumping onto Facebook, Twitter and Houzz early on. In 2009, she rebranded her business from Vintage Kitchens to Urban Kitchens. “We felt the former name was a bit ‘granny-like,’” she says. “We felt people were putting us into a mold. At that time we were doing downtown projects, and the downtown area was hot, so we rebranded ourselves as Urban Kitchens.

“I also focus on doing good projects,” she continues. “I often get calls from other communities and we have done all sorts of projects in all price ranges.”

For the most part, empty nesters – who are willing to invest in their homes – are her core group of clients, followed by young families with small children who aren’t in school yet. “They have good jobs with the oil companies and they want to live downtown near the action and great restaurants,” she says, noting the downtown’s return to greatness. “We are having a huge rebirth,” she adds. “It’s a great downtown atmosphere, and everyone wants to be a part of it.”

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