Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tubes and tubes! Hollows and hollows!

There are all kinds of mysteries that turn up in renovating an old house. In some cases, the mystery is “what were they thinking when they built this?” and I’ll go on about some scary examples of that in a bit. In other cases, the mystery is more basic—“what the heck is this thing?” It's the sort of question that arises when you hand a 10-year-old a floppy disk. Technology and fashion in homebuilding have changed quite a bit since 1936.

I alluded to my job of removing spider webs from the basement, and part of what I’ve been doing down there is removing this:

A wooden tube, connected to a screened window in the above-ground part of the north side of the foundation wall. When we first toured the house, we had the question, “what the heck is this thing?”… maybe some way to load firewood into the basement?

The other end of this curious structure was connected to the kitchen, as was revealed when I pulled up the hideous tile floor:

Curiouser and curiouser. Once the previous owner removed the piles and piles of stuff from the attic, we found this:

A sort of twin to what was in the basement, connecting the kitchen ceiling to a window in the attic.

So, basement and attic had similar structures, vertically aligned in the kitchen. We were looking at the remains of a cooling closet, and ingenious device common in pre-1930’s California bungalows. The odd ducts in the attic and basement were connected by a floor-to-ceiling closet with lattice shelves. The warm air in the attic would rise out, pulling in cool air from the basement. As it flowed through the closet, it would keep perishables cool (but not cold—that was what the icebox was for!).

Such a device was perhaps a little exotic for Oregon and out-of-fashion in 1936—neither our realtor nor contractor had seen one before, and our house appears to have been wired for electricity from the get-go. We found out what it really was from the daughter of one of the previous owners. A little more reading on the subject turns up this tidbit from “Under the Sky in California” by Charles Francis Saunders (McBride, Nast & Company, New York, 1913):

The kitchen is a compact little room, airy and light, and provided with various ingenious modern helps to lessen labor. Adjoining is the invariable screen-porch where are laundry-tubs, ice-box, cooling closets, et cetera, the cooling closet being a built-in cupboard with open, screened bottom and top and perforated shelves through which a vertical current of air ascends continually from under the house to roof, and, in this land of cold nights, makes the housekeeper measurably independent of ice even in summer.

(The book is an amusing artifact of my native state a hundred years ago, available free from Google books. The above excerpt is from the chapter “Residence in the Land of Sunshine—I: Life in a Bungalow”. It’s a quaint fossil of the California that was so avidly sold by Collis P. Huntington and his ilk. I wonder whether my great-grandparents, resident in San Diego and Oakland in 1913, would recognize their lives in this book. The above extract is about how wonderful life in a bungalow is for the homemaker, and is preceded by:

The servant problem, indeed, has been solved in Gordian-knot fashion by doing away with the servant; for, given a reasonable degree of strength and skill on the part of the womankind of the house-hold, a servant is not needed, and in the democratic West no lady loses caste by the fact of doing her own housework.)

Returning to the 21st century, we will of course have a ‘fridge, but there will still be a flow of air out of the kitchen. We just got the fume hood installed:

I wonder how that will look in 76 years.

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