Kitchen Archaeology | The California Cooler

Our neighbors Rob and Marti are carefully and heroically remodeling their 1923 bungalow kitchen. They’re doing a great job. We’ve been following their progress and in a recent driveway conversation, Rob held up an old house part (the square frame in the photo below) and asked a kitchen archaeology question we thought other old house readers might be interested in reading about too. Recognize this?


It’s the face of a vent removed from an outside kitchen wall, one of two that were part of an early and natural cooling method known as a “California Cooler.” In a time before refrigeration—and borne out of the bungalow ethic of keeping things simple and natural—these indoor cabinets were the next best thing and were built into many eastside kitchens and homes.

Here’s another look, showing the frame in the original clapboard siding, which was shingled over in the 1950s (thanks to Rob Donnelly for the photos):


Here’s how they worked: the vents were stacked vertically one at the bottom of the cabinet and one near the top, and always placed on an outside wall. Maybe you have seen the exterior evidence: two small frames with screen or mesh on an outside kitchen wall. Here’s what they looked like from the inside. The old cupboard has been removed showing just the vents.


Inside the kitchen, the vents led into a cabinet with shelves, which were often just slats with space between to promote ventilation. The cabinet or cupboard had a door on the front, just like any other cupboard in the kitchen.

But the physics of convection made this cupboard different: warm air would escape through the top vent, which acted like a chimney, and cooler air was drawn in through the bottom vent. The result was a measurably cooler space that kept foods fresher longer, and promoted cooling for just-baked items.

The extremes of summer and of winter obviously weren’t optimal (“honey, why is it so cold in the kitchen?”). But they did work, and were omnipresent in the older homes we love. Today, some kitchen designers and builders interested in sustainability and energy efficiency are even recreating this old technology for the same reasons they were first installed a century ago.

Now that you know what to look for, keep your eyes peeled when you are out and about in the neighborhood for twin openings on an exterior kitchen wall, and chances are you are seeing evidence of a California cooler. Do you have one? Send us a photo.

Recovering Alameda real estate market means an increase in construction activity

Alameda residents have been building, rebuilding and changing the neighborhood now for more than 100 years. While most of the initial home construction in Alameda took place in the 1920s, a look back through historic building permits reveals a constant stream of repair, remodeling and renovation. History-inclined neighbors with an appreciation for period detail will agree that some of this work has been for the good, and some…well. That’s life: change is the constant.

This spring, change continues to shape homes here in Alameda. A strengthening real estate market, low interest rates and an improving overall economy have meant homeowners and developers are more willing to invest in work.

Alameda and other nearby northeast Portland neighborhoods have experienced an 18.4 percent increase in real estate values over last year at this time, according to the Portland Business Journal. In the first quarter of 2013 alone, there were 62 pending and closed property sales in the neighborhood. The result of this strengthening market is plainly visible in the form of renovations, additions, complete tear-downs, and partial re-builds.

Here are a few of the visible projects we’ve seen progress on during our walks through the neighborhood. Not an exhaustive inventory of major works underway, but a list of interesting projects to watch.

28th and Hamblet

As of mid-May, this double lot just north of the Alameda Ridge is a hole in the ground where once stood a stately 1922 Mediterranean style home built by Frederic Bowman. The home was demolished in February, and the lot subdivided in two. As a demonstration of Portland’s policy on infill development and the improving market conditions, developers of this project closed the door on the possibility of adaptively reusing the original structure, subdivided the lot, and decided to start over from scratch. Neighbors had to say farewell to the historic home, and now get to watch as construction of two houses unfolds—both with architectural styles that will attempt a linkage with the past.


37th and Bryce

OK, it’s technically just east of the Alameda neighborhood, but it’s a particularly interesting project to watch because the new structure is using some of the original materials and structural elements. We watched as the house was disassembled this spring and it looked like much of the original building material was stacked and recycled (unlike the demolition at 28th and Hamblet). Entire interior partition walls are being repurposed, and even window headers and doorframes now feature some old and some new material. Original foundation walls have been retained and new sections added. We remember this as a bungalow.

Image 2

This home at NE 37th and Bryce presents a reuse of existing structures and new materials. The old framing lumber appears dark in this picture, and new material is a lighter color.

Image 3A detail of the home at NE 37th and Bryce showing the original foundation, exterior wall and flooring system (left), joined with a new foundation and materials (right). Construction and remodeling projects across the neighborhood this spring are using a range of old and new materials.

21st and Regents

This corner bungalow has received a major facelift this spring. In the past, this house has been unsure if it wants to address the 21st Avenue side or the Regents side. Today, the house connects with both streets in its unusual position at the prow of the neighborhood. Siding, landscape and other upgrades are apparent.

30th Avenue, south of Fremont

Major reconstruction work on the bungalow on the west side of the street in the first block south of Fremont has removed the former Mansard-style roof (which was not original), expanded the footprint, and added back several traditional design elements including columns and a new front porch.

Alameda and Regents

Elements of the original house were retained and blended with a major expansion to the north, a new front porch (still underway), a completely new roofline and exterior shingles on the upper storey.

Mason and 27th

Work on this house is almost done now, but has involved a complete restoration both inside and out. Most of the original fabric of the home is still intact. This has been another interesting one to watch this spring.

One thing is for sure: in a neighborhood of older homes and with an improving real estate market, continued investment and renovation will shape the neighborhood. Do you have favorite home restoration projects you’re watching?

Window Inspiration

We’ve always enjoyed walking the neighborhood and contemplating the many layers of history here in Alameda. It’s also always interesting to see how past and current homeowners have responded—or not—to the history of their homes. Sometimes inspiring; sometimes perplexing.

One neighbor at the corner of NE 32nd and Mason has been busy putting things back like they were almost 100 years ago when this Dutch colonial was built by Portland homebuilder Frank E. Bowman.

Constructed originally for $6,500 for H.B. Oakleaf and his family, the home changed hands across the generations and along the way stylistic “updates” and maintenance began to change the look of the home’s exterior. Aluminum siding was put up over the original cedar shake siding. Wooden windows were pulled out in favor of the dreaded aluminum slider windows. Wooden trim, sills and lentil molding were removed. Much of the original charm seen in this photograph — which ran in The Oregonian on September 6, 1914 — was slowly drained away.

Fast forward to this summer, when Alamedans Steve and Teresa Goodman made good on a long-time goal: replace the aluminum windows with traditional wood windows; remove the 1960s siding and restore the exterior to more traditional cedar shakes.

That’s 36 windows to be exact (wood clad, low-E, double-hung, double glazed and argon filled windows) and if you look closely, complete with lintel molding up top and wooden sills below. Steve and Teresa have been thinking about this since the 1980s, and as Steve says, “better late than never.”

So, if you are looking for a little inspiration about the value of restoring your home to its more traditional roots, walk by 32nd and Mason and take stock. Nice work, Steve and Teresa.

September 10th Post Script: An interested reader wanted to see what it looked like before. I’m sure Steve won’t mind if I share this picture, which he took…

Gems from the Treasure Trove

It’s been quiet on the Alameda old house history blog for the last month or so, but time to get back into the swing of things as the kids return to school, and as the weather transitions to more research-friendly conditions like cloudy, cool and wet. Actually, I think this stretch from now through late October holds some of my favorite Oregon weather.

In addition to perking along with a few research projects this summer (but not much blogging), we’ve been working on a kitchen remodel in our almost-hundred-year-old house. We’ve tried to be faithful to the historic design concepts even though we are using standard current kitchen technology. We’ve been fortunate to have a great architect in Arciform and an excellent contractor in Joe Petrina and Petrina Construction. You can read more about our kitchen adventure here, and maybe share your own pearls of wisdom about surviving a kitchen remodel.

As we’ve worked through the remodel process, we’ve kept a keen eye for clues from the past, and we’ve found some interesting items…nothing earth shattering, but some quaint signs of the time. Thanks to some insulating material (as in crumpled up newspaper) we confirmed the long-held thought that a back porch extension was made to the house sometime in 1930.  Below is a clip about the Reo Convention coming to Portland, from the Sunday Oregonian on February 2, 1930.



Here’s an interesting scoop about the world’s largest passenger plane — a 30-seat Fokker – coming to Portland. And below that, from January 26, 1930, a story about a record order expected for new Chevrolets to keep up with a booming demand for new cars. Apparently, the market had not yet found the bottom. Hmm.


Exhibit 8


But probably one of the most interesting finds during the remodel was the signed name of our original builder, William B. Donahue, who we have profiled here on the blog. We found this little gem buried deep inside a wall, signed in what looks like blue grease pencil or blue chalk on the back of a wainscot panel that faces our breakfast nook, on the other side of the kitchen wall. Check it out:


Because we’ve found documents and letters sent by Donahue years after his construction endeavors, we think we can recognize the handwriting. If you look to the left of the crossbrace, you can see the “#1.” Could be that Donahue was sorting out the plywood he wanted for the wainscot, and this had a number 1 grade side (the other side). Not sure. But it sure was a treat to find.

When you are working on your renovations, be sure to tell the contractor and the crew that you are interested in old house archaeology. You might even ask them for their stories about the most unusual items they’ve ever found working on these time capsules we call our homes.

What have you found?

Don & Peggy Sarason Re-Craft the “Library”


Since last fall, Alameda neighbors have watched with interest as the brick house at NE Dunckley and Regents has had a major overhaul. I had been particularly interested in the house after hearing (and debunking) an urban myth that it was built as a library, which I wrote about here on the blog back in January 2008.

The home was originally built in 1923 by C.O. Waller at a cost of $12,000, which was a lot of money for a house at that time, even in this neighborhood. 

As the construction project has entered the home stretch, I’ve wondered—as an amateur old house archaeologist—about what clues the owner may have found, and of course about the extent of the remodeling work. So, last week I dropped in on owner Don Sarason for a visit and a walk through the house.

The word remodeling doesn’t quite do it. Let’s stick with construction project. Here’s why:

Sarason and his contractors have virtually rebuilt the 6,000-square foot house, almost literally from the ground up.

The sun porch on the southwest side of the house, with the distinctive bank of windows, as well as the front porch area, is being rebuilt.

The brick exterior was in serious need of tuck pointing, so all of the old bricks have been removed and a fully new brick exterior is now in place.

The heating system wasn’t operating well, so crews removed the old radiators, put in a new boiler, and added radiant heat into the floor surfaces.

The plumbing system needed an upgrade: out with the galvanized and in with the PEX.

Wiring? That’s been upgraded too. Sarason added a 400 amp electrical service, and category 5 computer cable throughout to boot.

One of the most distinctive features of the house—its windows—needed help too. The originals have been sensitively replaced with all new insulated aluminum-clad wood windows. And the unique oculus window above the front door has been added.


Don Sarason stands in the sun porch area backed by all new wood windows. It's an impressive space.

The Sarasons chose the house when the family moved from San Francisco to Portland in May 2008. The family of five—two boys and one girl—was drawn to the neighborhood because of its location and character: all the big city amenities very close to home. “When we saw this house in this neighborhood, it became clear what this ‘once wonderful’ house could become again,” said Don. The family purchased the house in May 2008 and by August 2008 had secured necessary permits for the work.

The project might be a classic case of being glad they didn’t know then what they know now. Like most remodeling jobs, it’s turned out to be more work than they expected. But with all of the system upgrades and expansion,  it’s also turned out to be more house.

Under the guidance of historic preservation architect Bill Hawkins, they have enlarged the existing dormers, added one more, and given them all a unique look that includes a graceful radius and distinctive trim that represents a combination of Craftsman and has Asian design.

In the public spaces, they’ve completely rearranged the floor plan and traffic flow on the first floor: you can now access the kitchen from the dining room. They’ve opened up the kitchen and family room area (including a spacious, barrel-ceilinged gathering space), added a direct link to the back terrace, and added more windows. Upstairs, they’ve taken what were two big, undefined spaces and crafted three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and some very nice “perching spots” to read or just look out the window. A haven for kids.

It’s basically a new house tucked into the original envelope that honors the original design. Take, for instance, the two beautiful tight-grained Douglas-fir fireplace mantles that have been carefully removed, painstakingly stripped, re-stained and put back in place. Or the ceiling cove molding, stripped clean of generations of paint and reinstalled. Or the decorative wall sconces, all cleaned up and put back in place.

Stripping the fireplace mantle on the first floor.

Stripping the fireplace mantle on the first floor.

During our walk around, I asked about what kind of clues had turned up from the past (“any old library books?” I asked with a smile). Nope. The biggest artifact was a built-in safe, which Sarason was able to open (thanks to finding the combination scrawled conveniently nearby). Nothing inside. And not too big a surprise…thinking back to the era of their construction and the crumbling banking system of the Great Depression, other Alameda homes had safes for the owners to keep a close eye on their precious assets.

During the construction process, several people who have lived in the house over the years dropped by, providing great stories about the home’s earlier years.

Sarason says the target for completion is the end of this month. The work is clearly wrapping up: the construction fences have come down and now it’s time for the final details.

And he’s proud to show off what has become a labor of love.

Of Purple Boxes

A great observation about old houses and their sometimes brash new neighbors. This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian on March 16, 2008.


One thoughtful reader, responding to Emma’s column, writes:

Don’t you wonder what story the purple box is telling us? If the older homes were about family, and a love of making things that are handsomely decorated, or about sitting in the sun on our porches, maybe the purple box is about amnesia, or something like it.

What do you think the purple box is telling us?

Time Treasures | What have you found?

In some ways, our old houses are like unintentional time capsules. The guys who built them long ago — and who have patched them together over the years — were resourceful, using materials at hand to get the job done. When we opened up a bathroom wall recently, we found handfuls of heavy wrapping paper used to prop up an electrical junction box (gulp). Packing materials from the original porcelain fixtures were used for shims or to frame out the medicine cabinet. Old newspapers were used all the time for insulation. These little treasures give us a moment’s glimpse into the past: people here in this room were trying to solve a problem and they used what they could get their hands on.

One of my favorite time treasures is a series of sketches found on the rough shiplap sheathing underneath the clapboard exterior of the house.


Our builder, William B. Donahue (or his mason), used some unusual brick patterns on his chimney exteriors (I’ve found four other Donahue houses in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post). On the outside face of the firebox he used brick to create crosses, patterns and other symbols. When we were replacing some cracked siding a few years back,  I found a series of sketches on the sheathing right next to the chimney that showed he was thinking about a cross.


Strangely, he didn’t put a pattern in our brick, but the sketches show he was thinking about it. Elsewhere — pretty much everywhere when we take something apart — are quickly scrawled measurements in pencil, signs of a carpenter at work almost 100 years ago.

Over the years, past homeowners and their families have surrendered all kinds of items, lost to the crack at the edge of the floor, the space behind the plate rail trim, or that hole where the radiator pipe goes downstairs. We’ve found an ivory diaper pin, a buffalo-head nickel and a lovely heart-shaped locket that escaped from a necklace. On the back is the inscription “From grandpa.” How long did someone look for that? Did grandpa replace it with another keepsake when no one could find the precious lost locket?


Who knows what else is here in the walls, under the floors, lost in the garden bed, or scribbled in some long covered-up corner. Whenever we’re working on the house, I’m always on the lookout.

What have you found?

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