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?

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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):

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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?

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