Vintage appliances with high-end appeal

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-07-03T12:20:26Z Vintage appliances with high-end appealBy Gabrielle Fimbres Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

It must have been all the talk of the bridge club — the stunning, side-by-side Kelvinator Foodarama refrigerator freezer, considered to be among the finest in modern home conveniences more than 60 years ago.

The two doors — as if by magic — opened outward, simultaneously displaying the most discerning housewife’s array of chilled beverages, meats, produce and the earliest selection of tasty frozen dinners.

This gem from the annals of appliance history sits at Vintage Appliances and Restoration in Tucson, waiting to be scrubbed up, painted, rewired and completely overhauled. The Tucson company is known around the world — and in Hollywood — for bringing new life to very old appliances.

Nearly 1,000 refrigerators, stoves, iceboxes, washing machines, parlor heaters, automatic ironers and other antique appliances fill the grounds of Vintage Appliances, 3262 E. Columbia St., some in good condition, others cloaked in rust and disrepair.

There are old Coke machines, and stoves and refrigerators showing off every possible innovation and convenience as appliances evolved — from lazy Susan refrigerator shelves to built-in salt-and-pepper shakers on stoves.

It’s like an appliance museum, with pieces from the 1800s through the 1960s, waiting to be transformed for customers willing to pay thousands of dollars to make the old new again.

“I think we have a little nostalgia in all of us,” Rich Allen, owner of Vintage Appliances, said in explaining the attraction to his business of renovating aged appliances.

Customers range from “Star Wars” director George Lucas — who is having a 1920s Baldwin icebox fully restored and converted to a frost-free refrigerator — to Ann and Jim Walgreen, of that Walgreen family.

Allen’s appliances have appeared in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — where one of his fridges protected Indy from an atomic blast — as well as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” an “X-Men” flick and others.

Allen’s customers are connoisseurs of vintage appliances from around the world.

“I have people fly in from England to meet with me,” he said. “We deal mostly with the 1 percenters.”

Refurbishing the pieces can cost between $5,000 and $50,000, depending on the size of the appliance and the work entailed. Some latches, knobs and hinges are fabricated to identically match the original, with hardware cast in brass, copper, nickel, chrome and even 24-karat gold.

The business started out simple enough. Allen, a longtime Tucsonan, was in the heavy-machinery business and then moved into real estate and opened a chain of travel agencies.

Fifteen years ago, he started a company called Appliance Plus, which repaired appliances, often in apartment complexes. He stumbled across older appliances, and that’s where Allen found his niche.

“Now we don’t do anything other than antiques,” said Allen, 74.

His favorites are the old iceboxes that are refurbished and converted to frost-free refrigerators. His company — with a staff of seven — also builds new iceboxes that have all the modern conveniences but look old.

Some of the finished products fill his showroom, but none is for sale. Everything is custom-made. “You pay a deposit and wait in line. We have a six- to eight-month waiting list,” Allen said.

Some customers ship the piece they want refurbished — often a family heirloom — to Allen. Other times he provides the appliance to be refurbished.

Nearly Every brand is represented — General Electric, Tru-Cold, Frigidair, Westinghouse, O’Keefe & Merritt, Hotpoint, Magic Chef, Philco, International Harvester, Coldspot and more.

“Appliances back then lasted forever,” Allen said. “A compressor could last 70 or 80 years. Now you are lucky if one lasts five or 10 years.”

With the new look come new parts, so they are at risk of breaking down after a few years as well, Allen said. But they engineer the appliances to be easily repaired with off-the-shelf parts.

Allen finds that customers want appliances in fun and funky colors — powder pink, red, purple, green and blue. A 1960s powder pink Tru-Cold refrigerator is ready to be picked up by a customer who works in Germany but owns a home in Safford. A Philco refrigerator is being painted orange and turquoise.

“For the man who has everything” — a 1949 Frigidare refrigerator is rigged with a 29-inch flat screen television on the door of the freezer, with two beer taps protruding from the refrigerator door, concealing two kegs. The freezer makes a perfect spot to frost mugs.

“I don’t think there is another one like this in the world,” Allen said of the custom-made “man cave” beer fridge.

The business also sells a line of new appliances that look old.

Allen said he knew little about old appliances before he started his business. Now he seems a walking encyclopedia.

“The icebox went out of favor for the refrigerator in the 1940s, and GE made the first commercial electric refrigerator in 1927 — the Monitor-Top.”

By the early ’50s, ice boxes — which kept food cool by ice delivered to the home — were mostly out of service.

The heyday of top-notch refrigerators lasted from the ’30s to the ’50s, Allen said. In the 1960s, thinner metal and cheaper materials were used, lowering the quality.

Allen is truly an entrepreneur of the Internet. It is how customers find him.

He enjoys wandering through his museum of old appliances, admiring some of the attention to detail and craftsmanship from a time gone by.

“I will never live long enough to fix all of these up, but it sure is fun,” he said.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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