Sunday dinners, baking with family and other happy memories fill this vintage kitchen in La Marque
Catherine Polk’s kitchen is flooded with sunshine and frozen in time.
Equipped with double porcelain sinks, double pantries and cabinets from solid slabs of Texas pine, it was the very model of a modern kitchen when it was built in 1934. It even had a posh linoleum floor and a foldout ironing board.
The kitchen straddles the back of a handsome two-story Craftsman-style house designed by Galveston architect Ben Milam and built in La Marque, then a tiny town. That same year, the newly hatched refineries began operations.
“I moved into the house with my parents in 1951, when I was 16 years old, and nothing much has changed except the cabinet pulls and the wall color — the kitchen was painted a horrible seasick green,” said Polk, who had owned the house since 1968.
Her parents, Tom and Velda Merrell, owners of The Motor Mart at 21st Street and Broadway in Galveston, bought the house from Dr. and Mrs. H.J. Broderson, the original owners.
The fancy, black glass knobs and pulls for the kitchen cabinets were replaced decades ago.
“They were broken by my younger brother, who used them to hoist himself up to the countertop in search of cookies,” she said.
Now, the tidy kitchen is painted a bright white to highlight the black and white ornamental tile, which has an Art Deco flavor. In the late 1930s and ’40s, Milam, the architect, became known for his modern designs, including the Galveston Cotton Exchange and the SS Galveston/Mayflower Hotel, both built in 1941.
Although not big, the rectangular kitchen with 11-foot ceilings has bountiful natural light, superb storage and an easy flow.
The kitchen opens onto a breezy, extra-large screened-in porch with a ceiling fan and was a popular spot for club meetings and church functions in the hot summer days before air conditioning, Polk said.
The centerpiece of the kitchen is a 1939 vintage Chambers cook stove, which has never been repaired and continues to work perfectly, Polk said.
First manufactured in 1912, Chambers cook stoves use a patented insulation method, which makes it possible for them to cook on retained heat with the fuel turned off.
Polk’s mother bought the stove in Pasadena and it came with the family when they bought the house.
“It’s like this: you put a roast in the oven for 20 minutes at 500 degrees,” Polk said. “Then, you add the vegetables for 10 minutes and you turn off the stove. In three hours, you have a perfectly cooked tender pot roast.”
For Polk, the house is full of memories, but the kitchen holds the happiest ones — the pleasant scents and happy sounds of Sunday dinners and baking cookies with her mother and siblings — later, with her own children, and later still, her grandchildren.
The kitchen table was an early woodworking project of her son, who is now 62.
“When my children talk about home, this is the house that they mean,” she said.
The house has a ghost — her Great Aunt Elvie — who ventures on the stairs and halls and butler’s pantry, but never the kitchen.
Of all the kitchens Polk has known, this one is the first she remembers and her favorite.
“When I lived here with my parents, I wasn’t really allowed to cook,” she said. “Mother let me make the salad and the iced tea and set the table.”
After graduating from Ball High School, Polk attended Rice University in Houston, where she was on the dean’s list.
A blind date arranged by a cousin brought a certain 2nd lieutenant into her life. Cliff Polk was stationed at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.
“On our second date, we went to see Jane Wyman in ‘Magnificent Obsession’ at the Loew’s in downtown Houston, and when the lights came up, I saw there were tears running down his face, and I knew he was a good man,” she said.
Months later, the couple eloped, and she became a military wife. For the next few decades, she cooked in all manner of interesting kitchens.
“I lived in six states, two foreign countries and had four children in 15 years,” she said.
When they lived in the English Cotswolds near Oxford, she had an Aga cooker, a stove fueled by coal.
“I was told that English country women swear by their Aga cookers, but I only swore at mine,” she said.
She prepared meals on a bottled gas cooker in a tiny French apartment, and in all kinds of kitchens in military housing. Along the way, she learned how to cook.
“When you have five people staring at you with hungry eyes, there’s no choice,” she said.
Sometimes, Polk watches HGTV and is amazed by homebuyers who say they must have granite counters or certain types of appliances to cook.
“I say: ‘If you can’t cook in that kitchen, you can’t cook,’” she said.
Polk still enjoys cooking for friends and family, who all seem to gather in her kitchen.
Above the entry is a framed quote that she gave her mother many years ago. It says:
“Cheerful people eat well in my kitchen, complainers get dismal dinners.”