Inspiration > A Complete Kitchen Makeover

The Portsmouth Music Hall’s Kitchen Tour is all about fantastic kitchens, from the sleek and modern to the cozy and quaint. Jay Armstrong’s kitchen manages to be all of this, but two years ago, no one would have envisioned it being functional, never mind on the tour.

“The kitchen was the worst room in the house,” Armstrong says. “It was dark, in disrepair and cramped. It was also completely nonfunctioning. In fact, it was a condition of our home loan that we prove that the kitchen could be made livable.”

In 2005, Armstrong and his wife, Therese LaGamma, purchased a three-story 1855 Colonial home on Cabot Street in Portsmouth. Armstrong had grown up in an old house and liked the idea of being able to renovate an historic home. The couple also appreciated being near the downtown, and were charmed by the large yard and big tree out front. The run-down kitchen was just a challenge to overcome.

But it wasn’t the only challenge, as the entire home needed work. There wasn’t a first-floor bathroom and previous owners of the house had used the basement as a dumping ground for construction materials. Fortunately, Armstrong has a design-build business, and he’s an experienced woodworker and furniture maker. After six months of hard work the house, and kitchen, began to take shape.

“The kitchen ceiling had five layers of Sheetrock,®” Armstrong says. “We gained four to five inches in ceiling height just by removing those layers. After stripping that away, we were standing in a pile of debris three-feet high.”

The bones of the house were good and Armstrong kept the original windows, which front the wrap-around porch and the spacious yard. But the original flooring was not salvageable. Instead, Armstrong found large-board white pine at Rand Lumber in Rye and the light yellow wood, combined with soft white walls, brightened the space considerably.

Because Armstrong wanted to keep the windows, finding a refrigerator became a challenge: wall space was not in abundance, which meant that any refrigerator had to fit between the two side windows. After much searching, he found a model that slipped perfectly into that space. Under the two windows, he built cozy seats with storage below. The nooks are perfect for relaxing with a cup of coffee and, of course, are favorite perches for the couple’s cats.

Combining old and new

Near the window seats, Armstrong crafted a small workspace with a wallmounted microwave and counter area. This—combined with the longer counters, and the sink and stove being across the room —allows three people to work comfortably in the kitchen.

Designed and built by Armstrong, the cabinets are rich cherry with a satin veneer and echo the square, raised panels of the kitchen doors, which are original. Recessed lighting under the cabinets makes cooking easy at night and the honed black granite of the countertops wraps the room in sleek lines.

Along the far white wall, a giant golden beam, original to the house, leads the eye to the wine rack near the stove. Crafted by Armstrong, the rack’s proximity to the stove keeps wine handy for both cooking and serving.

“Planning made the kitchen feel spacious and gives us the room we need,” Armstrong explains. “We could have had a thirty-six-inch stove, but then we would have lost counter space on one side of the stove. By going with a thirtyinch, we could keep workspace on both sides, which makes more sense.”

Center stage is a walnut dining table that has been in Armstrong’s family for years. Around it are modern chairs in leather and metal. The contrast works and is, in fact, repeated throughout the kitchen—from the modern line of the faucet to the sleek, brushed-nickel drawer pulls. “I think mixing old and new draws attention to both,” Armstrong says. “Having that diversity gives the kitchen an element of playfulness.”

The home’s central chimney dominates one wall, and previous owners had a giant wood stove connected there. But for now, the couple has decided to forego a stove. Instead the chimney leads to a handy bookshelf nook, and Armstrong plans to add another sweep of countertop around that corner in the future.

The personal touches

The kitchen is filled with lovely personal touches and unique finds. Opposite the porch doors sits a giant butcher-block table, lush with plants. Armstrong carefully restored the piece, and its jigsaw-like top is amazingly smooth to the touch. Around the corner is a long Queen Anne bench, perfect for resting while removing shoes or boots. Armstrong found the bench on a curbside, cleaned it up and placed it in the kitchen, where it looks right at home.

Artwork on the walls is a family affair. A stunning painting of the White Mountains is displayed above the bench, while a colorful photograph of an African outdoor kitchen has the place of honor above the butcher block. Both pieces were done by Armstrong’s brothers-in-law.

Far from its dismal beginnings, the kitchen is now a warm, inviting space and has become the couple’s favorite room. Still, Armstrong is not quite finished. “I have a few more ideas for the kitchen, and we may add a dining area,” he says. “We’ll have to be on the tour again in a few years so you can see what we’ve done.”

Take the Music Hall’s Kitchen Tour

Step into some of the most beautiful kitchens on the Seacoast during The Music Hall’s Annual Kitchen Tour, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 12. Now in its seventeenth year, the tour features the kitchens and dining spaces of historic Portsmouth.

“We’re excited to be back in Portsmouth this year,” says Mary Horigan, director of partnership and foundation giving at The Music Hall. “Our tour is self-guided and will weave through the downtown area. An easy-to-follow map is provided so tour-goers can start and finish the tour anywhere they like.”

For visitors looking to turn their own kitchen dreams into reality, the distributed tour guidebook describes the kitchens and lists the craftsmen, artisans, designers and architects involved.

Tickets are $20 for Music Hall members, $23 for nonmembers, and $25 if purchased the day of the event. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at The Music Hall box office (28 Chestnut Street in Portsmouth), by phone at 436-2400 or online at On the day of the tour, tickets can be purchased at The Music Hall box office starting at 9:30 a.m.

The Music Hall Kitchen Tour is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year and attracts more than one thousand visitors annually. Proceeds from the tour help offset operating costs for The Music Hall, which strives to provide the best in performing arts for the Seacoast community.