Rustic in Allentown
Johanna Dominguez's kitchen
Photos by kc kratt
Near the lower end of Buffalo’s Mariner Street, just off bustling Allen, sits a residence that exemplifies our city’s slow but steady crawl toward rebirth. The billowing white curtains hanging around the patio indicate the fresh attitude that has taken root here, and the missing window at the top of the front door lets us know that, like Buffalo, this is a work in progress. But considering what homeowner Johanna Dominguez, a freelance photographer and social media strategist, has accomplished in less than two years since purchasing the property, it shouldn’t be long before those final details are attended to.
Though Dominguez used contractors for most of the work, her own personality and sense of design are woven into the very fabric of the space. “The style is just what I like,” Dominguez says. “I’d call it Spanish country if anything.” For the kitchen, Dominguez was influenced by images of painter Claude Monet’s kitchen. Though she opted for bright yellow and green as opposed to his light blue, the spaces share a bright and open quality.
Dominguez’s kitchen includes many attention-grabbing features, perhaps the most captivating is a beaded curtain concealing the pantry. The strands of beads create a composite image of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo against a background of clouds, her dark hair festooned with flowers. The curtain, which Dominguez bought online, sound like wind chimes whenever one of her three cats—Sirius Black, Merlin, or Weasley—walks through it.
Dominguez believes that there should be a triangle between the stove, sink, and refrigerator, but, when she bought the house, the appliances were installed in a line—that had to change. “The old owners are friends, and they told me that the sink would freeze in the winter, so we moved it,” she says. The old appliances have also been replaced with new Samsung models. The double convection oven has a dual opening feature that allows access to one or both oven compartments at the same time. Similarly, the fridge door allows partial access to the condiment tray only.
The exposed wooden ceiling is decorated with dried flowers, the same ones gifted to Dominguez at an early housewarming party. “I wanted to keep the original country-style ceiling, but it was falling down due to water damage,” she says. “I decided to keep the exposed ceilings. You can see the old wiring and plumbing; it tells the history of the house.” Fixing the wiring and sealing up the doors are projects on next year’s to-do list.
Though almost every aspect of the kitchen is new, from the cabinetry to the quartz countertops, Dominguez retained the original molding surrounding the doors and windows. “The contractor wanted to get rid of the molding, but I liked the chunky heftiness of it,” she explains, adding that the paint chips and other aspects of the molding add a great deal of character. “I don’t like modern design and sleekness.” Exposed brick and a Spanish tile backsplash purchased from a Talavera pottery seller also contribute to an antique look. Talavera-style door knobs serve as coat hangers and Talavera covers adorn the light switches.
Various reclaimed elements hanging from the ceiling add to the room’s rustic quality. A floating pot shelf over the sink was garbage-picked, and Dominguez has no clue as to the original purpose of the long, thick wooden board that is pocked with a series of holes. She also salvaged the metal baskets that serve as plant hangers; she believes that these were originally used for egg harvesting. A hanger for cat accessories and keys is fashioned from a branch cut from a backyard lilac tree; the fungus formed on the branch remains as an unusual decorative element. A knife rack near the oven is made from an old cedar post found in the desert; it’s been sawed down and inlaid with magnets.
Beyond her cats’ names, there are decorative hints of Dominguez’s love of fantasy literature. A toilet in the front hall bathroom has a Ministry of Magic sign and the wizard command “Expelliarmus!” printed near the flush handle. Valinor, the mystical home of the Valar in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe, is engraved in both a wine rack and the steps leading to the kitchen. “My grandma said that a house should always have a name,” Dominguez says. “To me, it means heaven on Earth.” She plans to paper the front wall and stairway with pages from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels.
Behind the kitchen, a three-season room provides access to the basement through the floor; that access was originally in the pantry, but the steep stairwell was a code violation. This room was caving in when Dominguez bought the property, and the space has since been rebuilt according to green construction principles. The walls, which are a foot and a half thick, are made from straw bales finished with plaster made from dirt and clay found on-site. Floor molding and decorative ceiling beams are made from reclaimed wood also found on-site, and the window frames were created from church pews. The floor of the three-season room is oak with plenty of exposed knots. “Knotted wood is typically considered to be of lesser quality but whenever I see knotted wood, I go, ‘Oh, character!’” Dominguez says.
The back door of the three-season room opens into the freshly landscaped backyard. Stone composite cement stairs give way to a path of flagstone walking tiles that travel along a raised garden bed blocked off by old cobblestones that prevent dirt drainage. The garden features fruit trees and bushes, including apple and peach trees already bearing fruit, as well as a native cherry tree grafted with five cherry varieties, Fuji apple, pear, blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry.
Along the side of the house, a revamped water feature uses reclaimed elements including a water-spouting pedestal taken from the home’s fireplace. An old carriage step bears the name “John Kennedy,” the original owner of the property dating back to the 1870s. “It has a bit of a tombstone feel,” Dominguez says. “After buying the place, I texted the previous owners to say, ‘Let’s hope that we don’t find any bodies here.’”
Having lived in Buffalo while an undergrad during the early 2000s, Dominguez was all too aware of the loud nightlife presented by nearby Allen Street. “This home came up on the market, and I didn’t even want to look at it; I wanted a place near Parkside,” she says. But sitting on the porch waiting for the real estate agent to arrive, she realized that the setting was much quieter than expected: “Mariner is a one-way street, so it’s not too busy.”
Although property prices in the area have increased, Dominguez notes that her purchase price would only have covered a down payment in New Jersey, where she lived previously. “It’s expensive, but still affordable on the market,” she says. “It’s worth it.”