The Quick 10: 10 Quirks of Old Houses

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I love old houses. We live in a 1923 Arts and Crafts with a lot of its original charms (see #1), so I might be slightly biased, but I really do think you get a lot of unique features you don't often see in newer houses. Here are 10 quirky things you might discover if you're house hunting for an oldie-but-goodie.

1. Mother In Law Bed. This is one of the weird things we found in our house. It's not a Murphy Bed, which cranks out of the wall - it's a bed that actually cranks out of the ceiling. I don't think you'd actually want to sleep on it, but we got great use out of it when we cranked it down and used it as the bar for a party last summer. It's kind of hard to tell in the picture, but if you look you can see the wires that crank it up into the ceiling and the exposed corner on the left that shows where you would insert the iron leg to keep the bed stable once you cranked it down to sleep on it.

2. Built-in-beehives. Don't call an exterminator - these beehives are supposed to be there. These were actually installed on purpose for the convenience of the beekeeping homeowner. Pipes go through the walls and behind the walls were beehives. The bees could move about freely through the pipes and make honey. When someone in the kitchen downstairs wanted honey, they simply trekked up the stairs, removed the back of the hive and grabbed themselves a little syrup. If they had a lot of honey to take back downstairs, hopefully they had #3 on our list...

3. Dumbwaiters. Any little kid who read Harriet the Spy when they were young wanted a dumbwaiter in their house, right? Or maybe that was just me. Despite what Harriet used it for (spying, of course), dumbwaiters were not meant to carry people - they were most often used as kitchen help, to carry dishes and things when the kitchen and dining room were on different levels of the house. They're still utilized in some restaurants today, and a more modern version can be found in libraries and large office buildings to ferry large amounts of books and files from floor to floor.

4. Coal chutes. This is another one we have in our house. It's all sealed up and isn't used, of course - we certainly don't heat our house with coal these days - but there's a big iron door visible on the outside of our house where shipments of coal would be shoveled in.

5. Servant staircases. Our house isn't nearly grand enough to necessitate a servant staircase, but in really large old mansions that required a large household staff to keep it running, servants were expected to stay out of sight. You wouldn't want your well-heeled guests running into the maid on the staircase, would you? How gauche. The solution was a separate staircase in the back just for servant use. If you've ever run across a kitchen or pantry that could be accessed by two staircases and wondered what on earth the purpose was, now you know. In modern times, I think a servant's staircase would nicely serve a teenager trying to sneak out of the house at night.

6. Phone Niche. Not so long ago, landlines were essential to communication. And they weren't the tiny little unintrusive devices we know today - they were big, heavy, cumbersome things that took up a fair amount of space. To try to keep them off of countertops and out of the way, home builders started making niches in walls. It seems as though a lot of people are repurposing the niches these days as a mail catch-all or a place to sit a plant or two. BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder found one in his friend's house (it was built for Jean Harlow!) and thought perhaps it was a place to store champagne or milk bottles; it was later concluded that the spot used to be a phone niche and was divided into a place to vertically store mail once the phone was no longer needed there.

7. Butler's Pantry. I wish this was one of the things that came with our house - how nice would it be to have a giant pantry separate from your kitchen? Old houses usually have such tiny kitchens that it would be nice to store your food elsewhere. But actually, they didn't all store food - some just contained extra counter space and sinks so the servants could do their thing out of sight (God forbid you should have to make eye contact with the help, right?). In Europe, the silver was often kept in the Butler's Pantry and the butler would actually have to sleep in there to guard the silver.

8. Milk doors. It's been a while since any of us had milk delivered to our back doors, I would think, but back when that was the norm, that feature was standard with a lot of houses. The milkman would open a tiny door on the side of the house, usually right next to the main door, and leave the milk in between the walls, basically. Then the homeowners could open the door on their side and remove the bottles. Voila! Fresh milk to go with your breakfast.

9. Root cellars. I have a grandma who still has a root cellar. I don't think she uses it now, but it's there! It looks just like the one in The Wizard of Oz - you have to go outside to access the cellar and it was the first place you'd go if you saw a twister off in the distance. As the name suggests, it was used to store veggies for long periods of time. My grandma used hers for canned goods - not tins of spaghetti sauce or Green Giant niblets, but veggies from her garden she canned in Mason jars (she still makes really awesome strawberry rhubarb jam from fruit she grows herself).

10. Cold closets. By the time I was born, my grandma (a different one than the one with the cellar) had owned an electric refrigerator and freezer combo for decades. But she still referred to the whole shebang as the "icebox." The icebox was a free-standing piece of furniture that held a big block of ice near the top to keep the contents frozen. Icemen delivered new blocks of ice every day, just like the milkman. But a cold closet was built into the house and couldn't actually keep things frozen, just cool - so while you could keep your veggies and cheese and meats cool, stocking ice cream in the cold closet would be a bad idea.

Do you have an old house with a quirk you love (or hate)? Do tell.

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April 5, 2010 - 11:36am
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