Friday, December 31, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

This year I resolve to take life in small bites, to pace myself, to drink twice as much water as coffee, to melt dark chocolate into every bowl of oatmeal, and to make sure my energies exceed my commitments.

That would sound better in Latin, but that’s how it’s gonna be this year. If I remember.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

At times, I worry that a blog will reveal pitiful ignorance. This may be one, or it may be a rediscovery of one of the graces of the old kitchen ways.

It’s very useful to have a warming function. One bitter winter I cooked on a wood stove that had had an oil burner installed in it. The thing ran all day long-it was a source of heat as well as food-and I loved that elegant hunk of iron and nickel.

Over the cooktop was a warming shelf. A hot plate keeps food hot longer. There’s a chef in Napa county who cooks fish on one side only, using a hot stoneware dish to finish the job when he serves.

Recently, guests called to say they’d been delayed for dinner but were on their way. For better or worse, I carry on as planned when news like this arrives. I had fired up a midget cast-iron stove with half a dozen tea lights to use as a warming center, and I just parked the main course on it as dishes came off the grill and out of the wok.

Much of my training in cooking involved getting the timing of courses right so things were at their peak when they came to the table. The meal would have been a decent one by Northwest standards if it had been served on time. An extra forty minutes holding warm turned it into an old-fashioned down home spread, everything cooked a little too long, but over such gentle heat that nothing really suffered.

The oil-fired cookstove that taught me the value of a hot plate in an icy room also taught me the value of inefficiency. Its thirty by forty inch steel top was a forgiving surface to work on with an infinite range of temperature and ample space for any number of pots.

It’s damned hard to plan a party so that one can enjoy it oneself. Generous warming facilities and a country approach to cuisine take the sting out of timing.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas Clutter

Turning out three back-to-back holiday meals points up stagnant places in the kitchen, little spots where useless inventory has taken root, pull dates have expired, agendas have reached a dead end.

When you run across a petty stumbling block, let it go, and let it go fast. One day’s waste isn’t going to sink the planet. What counts is what happens on the other three hundred sixty-four.

Traffic engineers design facilities for the ordinary daily load and let peak demands fend for themselves. That’s the best way to get the most out of every dollar and every hour of labor.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Feast of Lights

Photo courtesy Flickr

It is said that a technology becomes art after it is rendered obsolete. Suddenly, I cherish incandescent light bulbs. I know they “waste” energy-that wasted energy is part of my heating system.

A fellow in the United Kingdom is marketing archaic incandescent bulbs. Don’t recall the details, but a local boutique has some of these things in its display window. I wasn’t quite ready to pay the price for one lightbulb, but I noticed the trusty Square Deal hardware store offers the same format in three watts on a chandelier base.

Rummaging around for tree lights the other week, I found a salvaged string of ten chandelier bases. It seemed ideal for deep-retro lighting, and after the in-house techie set up a dimmer, we are enjoying the subtle fire of ten glowing filaments amplified across three dozen two-inch glass gold spheres.


More after the jump.

Monday, December 27, 2010

After-Action Report 26 December

Photo courtesy Flickr

Every hostess secretly understands Christmas as the Long March. The three back-to-back holiday meals of Christmas’s Eve, breakfast, and dinner tax the best-organized households, all four or five of them, and the rest of us as well.

This year I nudged my partner out of the kitchen and tried to remember how to cook, after a year of steamed vegetables, whole grain carbs, and the odd bit of lean protein now and then. Planning meals on the morning of the twenty-fourth lent a mild urgency to the process that produced a new efficiency: I contracted the three menus into one extended presentation with few variables. If the guests change, the menu doesn’t have to.

Leftovers from Christmas Eve, traditionally a meatless feast, formed the first course of Christmas dinner. Newly inherited cocktail forks made it easy to tuck an ounce of seasoned crab into a juice glass and call it good.

Hey, all those courses evolved before refrigeration, when use or lose was the rule. I would have renamed December twenty-third’s curried chicken and served it over fettucini, but the gluttony meter was edging into red.

We expected a mid-Western pie champion to bring her very own triple-decker split hickory transit case, and no one was disappointed. Anyone who’ll bake Harry and David’s pears into a custard tart can show up on my doorstep any time.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Greetings

Urban gift wrap courtesy of the music community on Broadway.

Wishing you a merry pedestrian holiday. See you Monday.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Color can be maddening during a crunch. The community that wears nothing but black takes the easy way out. The international design body that co-ordinates fashion’s color shifts from year to year makes it possible to shop for new clothes without going crazy. This is good for the planet, because textiles are hard on the environment.

A friend grew up to be a dyer and told me recently about a non-color. It’s hard to obtain, because it involves bleaching already-dyed fabric. The process is toxic, and is called “discharging”. It results in a pale tan with nothing going for it at all.

As far as I know, this color does not have a name, and it seems right that a non-color should have a non-name. I suppose it’s like anti-matter, anti-color. And thinking about it, the correct term is probably “fade”, the great design of time that pulls all visual elements into one harmonious composition.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Looking Over the Boooks

Trajan's column in Rome, point of origin of all Western letterforms. Edward Catich photo courtesy Flickr

During Christmas decorating, I recklessly moved a bookcase in an attempt to gain a few square feet. The ploy’s gonna work, but there are ten years of dust in the corners. I’m grateful to have a HEPA filter on hand when I gently clap opened volumes to blow the dust out of their heads. (Books have heads, feet, foredges, spines, and gutters.) Old books printed on sulfite paper are brittle, so go easy if you try this move that drives dust out of the pages rather than into them. A good librarian dusts once a year, but since the air in the room is frequently filtered, it’s seldom necessary to get into a serious thrash with the contents.

Damp, fire, and insects are serious challenges to the future of a book. Sniff one you haven’t opened in a while. Mr. Peet the coffee man taught me to sniff like a hound: exhale onto the surface first to dampen and warm it. An off scent is a sign that storage conditions are wrong or that age is taking its toll. If you have a collection you treasure, do a little homework about conservation and maintenance.

I’ll reshelve the best titles out of direct sun. I’m down one small case, so this is a chance to highgrade the collection. An ordinary household is not likely to have even one real book on the shelf, since a handwritten or carefully printed and bound volume does not make its way to the average bookstore. My collection does not boast such things either, but I’ll be evaluating the stacks with an eye to children’s books, reasonably engineered and illustrated volumes of literature, references, and then whatever serves current needs. Glued paperbacks become naught but hungry ghosts: with age, the collector is advised not even to open the cover.

Electronic books are beguiling but even more ephemeral than cheap print. The in-house archaeologist tells me that most storage discs are good for five years, the fancy stuff for a few years more, so conserving our vast digital archive is a never-ending race against deterioration.

I once had the opportunity to write out a memorial message to be cast in marine bronze for the ages, barring a metal thief. That was one different job from knocking out a copy shop flyer for a yardage sale. As I look around the dusty piles of books that surround this laptop, I wonder if graving on jade might be a good idea or whether I should borrow a stone chisel and leave a mark or two on one of the rocks in the back yard.

What really counts are the messages that are learned by heart and shared with others.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Have Yourself a Raku Little Christmas

Photo courtesy Flickr

Traditional Japanese ceramicists make a special kind of ceramic called “raku”. Sometimes, raku cups are built, fired, and used to drink tea all in one session.

PBS Sunday mornings hide a treasure at dawn: the series “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly”. It’s hosted by Bob Abernathy, a pillar of broadcast news when the networks were powerhouses. Yesterday’s segment on church theater made me realize that every midnight feeding, every diaper, every weary trek to child care was the price of admission to the rarest ticket in town: the homegrown Christmas pageant.

This neck of theater is like the paper chains and gnarly strings of popcorn on a low-tech tree: the margins of error are wide and forgiving, the result surprisingly graceful. Like a raku bowl, the lumps and glitches enliven and beguile. A local musician and painter told me once that the accidentals are where the spirit enters. I wasn’t quite able to comprehend when I heard that, but time has brought understanding.

No hand is gentler than a child’s.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Truly Christmas

Last Friday, BBC news broadcast a look at the designer tree in the lobby of the Tate Gallery. This year’s conifer is ten meters tall, beautifully shaped, and devoid of ornament.

In art history, I learned that the traditional tree is a living one dug up, brought indoors, decorated, and returned to the wild after Twelfth Night. The formative nineteenth century image is of a Norwegian spruce small enough to handle conveniently, placed on the Renaissance revival table characteristic of Victorian parlors: a small, square structure, eating height, with outwardly slanting legs and a shelf about fifteen inches off the floor.

If I hadn’t had a child, I would have repeated this tree format every Christmas since learning about it, and not for lack of choice: I inherited a major collection of ornaments that I cheerfully distributed to the friends and relations who had enjoyed my mother’s tree, which took two weeks to decorate and tended to attract journalists.

The ur, off-grid tree is decorated with strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper chains, fruit, and, originally, candles. Hot glue ornament hangers to nuts for easy decoration. Kumquats, jalapeno peppers, and lunch-box sized apples work well. One year I used mini-flashlights to replicated lighting without wires.

Electricity distorts Christmas. Artificial light impoverishes natural decorations, and feeds the market for bulky sets of fragile baubles that open every holiday season with cartons of allergenic mite waste and shards of glass. Strings of lights distort Christmas Eve, since lighting candles on the tree and making sure the house itself is itself not set alight required group observation, at least part of which was sober. It may be that the quiet hopes expressed in Christmas carols were in part amplified by the suspense of watching burning wicks on conifers.

There are hidden benefits to the purist’s tree: it’s less likely to catch fire than a cut one, it should be kept in a cool room, which saves heat, and the carbon footprint may be smaller. Best of all, after Twelfth Night, it’s fun to set it back outside and watch the birds eat the decorations.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Innocent Abroad

Photo courtesy Flickr

In 1962, I visited Buck Island Underwater National Park. It had just been established thanks to the efforts of the oceanographer who had been offering tours of an exceptional local reef for several years. Our party sailed there on a typical small Caribbean working boat.

We stopped to lunch in a shallow lagoon. When the meal was over, I asked if I might venture over the side to feed the fish. The water was sapphire, the sand white, the underside of the boat a cool shadow poised overhead. The instant I opened the package, hundreds of small neon fish appeared from three dimensions to tug sandwich cookies out of my hand and wrestle into the cellophane on their own. They made off with the contents in seconds, and disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived. The feeding frenzy was over so fast I wasn’t aware that I was free diving.

As I made my way back up to the deck, I was grateful I hadn’t gone over the side with hamburger. We digested for a while, and then took a short sail to the park itself. Having been raised in and near Mt. Rainier and the Olympic mountain range, clumsily routed park graphics in earthen colors were familiar, but it was surreal to coast toward a little bay and find a painted sign that said, “Trail starts here”, with an arrow that pointed straight down.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wool of Another Kind

Photo courtesy Flickr

A simple technical change can blow away complicated chores. A house cleaner who does restoration-quality work clued me to the value of ultra-fine steel wool in maintaining glass. That’s OOOO steel wool.

Jake said steel wool is the key to removing the god-awful urban haze that occludes the exterior surface of old window glass. It’s the haze, I think, that destroys neighborhoods. In this dim, gray climate, clean windows are imperative for good morale. Get the window clean before you start working gently with the steel wool, and tiptoe until you get the feel of the task. A light hand is the key to success. As with using a paint scraper, work in one direction only.

Fine steel wool is the applicator of choice for refreshing vintage woodwork with penetrating oil, and I like to use it for the first round of polishing a fresh coat of “briewax” on a wax-finished table. Steel wool seems to be the best thing to remove gook from the painted wainscoting in the bath, it wipes away grunge in the tub, and it pulls spots off brightwork. Used with alcohol or vodka, it details the maple chopping block in the kitchen.

A light hand is the key of keys. I try steel wool on any hard surface that’s not what it might be, excepting noble metal. This product recycles or could reasonably be composted. A perforated plastic vial of steel wool will absorb the oxygen in a sealed container, protecting the contents from time. Museum conservators call this “potato chip technology” in honor of the oxygen-free packaging that has replaced preservatives. Seal a piece of furniture in plastic, including a container of steel wool, and you will kill pests in upholstery without risking toxins or changes in color and finish.

In my inventory, a single package of four-ought, weighing a few ounces and stored air tight in a zipper lock, replaced a couple of cubic feet of clumsy cleaning aids.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Worth Its Weight in Wool

Photo courtesy Flickr

Esther and John Wagner’s Gift of Rome points out the importance of sheep in republican Rome. Greek legend has Jason chasing a golden fleece, and Brooks Brothers sells it. I have no doubt that fleece truly is golden. The current revolution in wool underclothing must surely have displaced at least one tanker load of oil.

That Queen Elizabeth sits on a sack of wool when she opens Parliament each season speaks to the value of the product and to its place in history. The climate of Western Washington is like that of England. In my experience, wool is the one and only first layer that will fend off chill. With wool in place, one can ignore the weather, casually adding and subtracting tops as activities change, but constantly sheltered from that final loss of body heat.

I use a quarter of the heating oil I did the first year we lived in this low-tech 1890 house. We added storm windows and insulated a small room on the second floor, but there have been no other structural changes in the building. It’s a development property, and we’ve made our decisions year to year, keeping one eye on the neighborhood and the other on our wallets.

Living here is bliss, heating the house a contest between retarding global warming and feeling sheltered. The key to conservation has been clothing. Wool or cashmere next to the skin, a down vest, and a tightly knit furry beret from the big name English hatter cushion thermal stress and let us ignore heat as any kind of issue at all.

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Monday, December 13, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Things maintain themselves whether we’re around pestering them or not. Our efforts control results, not processes.

For several days, local weather reporters have been making noises about a storm moving in from Hawaii. They call it the Pineapple Express, but I much prefer the tribes’ term, Chinook, for the same west wind Longfellow includes in his poem “Hiawatha”.

A chinook is a warm, wet front that moves in during winter. In the poncho that’s the high-tech substitute for the tribes’ cedar-bark cape, one can cheerfully tromp barefoot on a soggy December lawn during a chinook, and do the least damage to the turf in the process. The chinook is the heart of our climate, and it grieves me to hear weather readers treat it as a problem. A chinook is bounty, the future of the woods, the great design factor of the Northwest environment, and we are fools if we don’t respect it.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Last week-end I had the privilege of staying two nights in a masterpiece of Queen Anne architecture. I’m not unfamiliar with Victoriana, but six thousand square feet of continuously maintained lumber cut from virgin timber made an impression. It’s not surprising that the place was the cover shot for American Heritage magazine’s 1976 bicentennial issue. The building’s in beautiful shape and has not been hacked up by expedient remodeling.

The upstairs hall was lined with a display of “whites”, the meticulously sewn and embellished lightweight cotton dresses that women wore for special occasions. Oddly enough, white fabric is the easiest to maintain, since it can be bleached. My grandmother’s high school graduation dress was a white, and once in a while a cousin gets married in it.

I’ve had ample opportunity to examine and experience wearing that dress; to drink from, wash, and occasionally break the cut crystal that set the table from which the wearer dined; and to lay, clear, wash, and iron the embroidered cloths that pulled meal together. Living in a 1910 environment is an exercise in fine motor skills.

I read recently that the late nineteenth century was the pinnacle of craft in the West. The finesse and discrimination that fine hand production fosters and demands is characteristic of the period: the better a piece, the more hand labor there was to it, the more expressive the ornament, and the better realized the designer’s vision. “Dainty” was a big deal in period advertising, but there’s more to it than that: it’s about dignity and self-respect. There’s no arguing that conspicuous consumption was a factor, but behind it lay self-determination.

Much of what we think of as Victorian is sadly compromised machine production from the big mail-order operation. This stuff has its charms, but the forms can be mean-spirited and superficial. The best of the period requires conscious attention: the dress to comportment, the crystal to careful handling, the linen to dignified table manners. Interestingly, this house and others I saw last week-end included a ballroom. I suspect that having room to dance privately is a good way to train the family in the give and take between fine and gross motor skills that is at the heart of being human.

I have also read that eye-hand management takes up about niney-seven percent of brain capacity. From that perspective, the twentieth century was a long exercise in de-skilling, ceding manual gifts to machines until labor was debased to a toddler’s exercise in sorting, be it burger to customer or pre-fabricated construction modules to a foundation.

The arts and crafts community bewailed this decline of skills, but I think they are back with a vengeance, fostered by computer games and the affordable musical instruments that have once again made live performance more the rule than the exception. Coupled with the behavioral changes necessary to survive AIDS and reinforced by on-line reputation systems, guitars and state of the art phones have restored the social matrix of the nineteenth-century, fostering the customs that are the whole point of the buildings and artifacts.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thirty-three for Dinner

Photo courtesy Flickr

Photo courtesy Flickr

Over a B and B table this week-end, I met a couple who were celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Sarah looked around the main floor of the elaborately decorated six thousand square foot 1889 monument that had sheltered us for the night and said, “Maybe we should buy this. It’s big enough for Christmas dinner.” Frank remarked what a shame it would be to move away from extended family, and we started discussing how valuable and rare it is to live close enough to family to be able to rummage freely in the refrigerator when visiting.

Their four children had had children of their own, and the clan has grown to the point at which Sarah was distressed not be able to squeeze a sit-down dinner into her house. I mentioned that East-siders here in Seattle throw big parties in their garages-food for thought, but apparently the garage is spoken for.

I made noises about the history of English domestic architecture and how knowing the evolution of household practice frees one to innovate on a conservative base. The fixed-function room is a recent development, and one that squanders capital.

Frank and Sarah have a barn, but it has a whale in it (I am not making this up), so the barn was out as well. It turns out that their property is the one the family likes to play on: for holiday meals the guys build a fire outdoors, smoke cigars, practice their marksmanship, and horse around on four-wheelers. Sarah said there are big, comfortable houses in the family, but parties at their place are apparently more popular. We also agreed that having the place the kids like to visit after school is a very good thing indeed.

Their back yard is miles of forest that end up at one of the local mountains. At one point in the discussion, Frank said something about the carport, and it took seconds for us to lay out plans for propane heaters and weatherproof curtains (possibly the white poly tarps that transmit beautiful light). Problem solved.

The formal table we all enjoy is a survival of everyday life in the Middle Ages. In the hall house, often as small as ten by twenty feet, behavior under the roof was ritualized, a sensible way to keep people out of each other’s hair in crowded quarters. Some of these rituals survive in the public ceremonies of the British royal family, and others survive at grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving.

It may be that the formal table is the backbone of society, the training ground for the decent socialization of children. The table itself was originally a board and trestle, which is to say planks and sawhorses, covered by a long cloth that was also used as a napkin. It isn’t much of a leap from board and trestle to folding office tables or a ping-pong setup and a high thread-count cotton drop cloth from the Square Deal hardware chain. The table was set up and knocked down for each meal, to free the hall for other activities. The dormant, or fixed, table developed after there was a shortage of “house carls” (domestic roadies) to make the arrangements. People sat on portable thrones, aka director’s chairs, or stools, and children stood, which is very sensible.

I find it pleasant and comfortable to drape the dining table with a plain floor-length cloth and top it with an heirloom cloth or something easy to wash. Between the two I place a waterproof layer to protect the major cloth from stains. The long cloth acts as a stadium blanket, keeping diners warm and allowing me to conserve heat. If I had a dog or two under the table, it would be more medieval, but allergies in the house have forced me to experiment with electric heated plant seedling mats, heated reptile basking stones from the pet store, and finally, a three by five foot under-carpet heat mat, which is heaven to the toes.

Dining in a carport in a Northwest December will be a challenge to the toes, but a good excuse for the women to wear long skirts. It was central heating that gave rise to short skirts and shirt sleeves in the 1920s. There is ample precedent for covering the floor with straw, and if fire is not much of a concern, that might be a hoot. Generous strings of Christmas lights would set just the right level of illumination and would look wonderful from the outside. Seattle’s local Highlander hardware chain carries white plastic tarps. Lighting experts say that a white plastic shade transmits just the right light from an incandescent bulb. It might be worthwhile to light the carport from outside as well. A back-lighted translucent wall provides a very pleasant experience of space.

Substituting a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of lights and tarps for a million dollar building makes sense for a need that comes up just two or three times a year.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

The Mother Lode

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday I toured four huge Victorian houses in Port Townsend, Washington. The places on display offered the full spectrum of restoration: two showpieces, one stripped and brought back to clean plaster and bare wood, and one so early in the curve that it made me miss the good old days of improvising around faded wallpaper and the water stains that marred a few areas in my otherwise gently maintained 1890 house.

I am seeing dismal differently this morning: as gravity rather than privation, as driftwood rather than decay. The house that is just beginning to be restored was until recently full of junk. The third-story ballroom, a common feature, was stuffed with bags of old clothes. Now it's a clear collection of sound dormers lined with fir wainscoting. The best kind of restoration is a simple housekeeping exercise that merely uncovers what is in place. The space has no electricity and was lighted for the tour with several kerosene lamps and a collection of candle lanterns.

In fire light, old fir glows amber. The varied texture and color of aged grain jump to life as wicks flicker, and the whole room becomes a display screen. When the house was built, the wood was harvested from virgin rain forest, timber that had never been logged, and every stick is a section of a forest giant hundreds of years old. The voice of the wood is as loud as anything can be, and I can’t imagine the room ever looking better than it did last night.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

The Snow Pug

Photo courtesy Flickr

The day after last week’s storm, when the sidewalks became as sloppy as they usually are when the thaw sets in, I found myself walking down Broadway behind an irresistible middle-aged pug. It was not a cute doggie moment: that beast had character.

Lumbering down the sidewalk like an old smoker, he was portly, out of shape, and dressed for the weather like a tradesman: tiny rubber boots on his tiny feet, a well-worn rain jacket, and an equally worn dog t-shirt hanging out from under the top layer. He looked like a plumber crouching over a job, and he was wonderful. A Friday beer to him and his handler.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Arctic Air Mass

Photo courtesy Flickr

That phrase was common in East Coast weather reports when I lived in Baltimore, though I had rarely heard it growing up in Seattle. Our weather usually cruises in from the southwest, all damp and comfortable off the Pacific ocean.

Last week’s powder snow and day of icy, sparkling sun lit up the interior like a glossy shelter image of a Swedish living room. The nineteenth-century Northern European style known as Gustavian captures every bit of precious winter light over the months when night dominates. Neo-Classical wood is painted white, floors are bare, and upholstery is righteous, with the frame of a piece on display.

That rare kind of winter sun points up tiny failings in maintenance that can’t be detected on Seattle’s gray winter days. Since I’m usually housebound when it snows, it’s easy to catch up. Get the most out of the least effort by keeping glass, including light bulbs, sparkling clean, polishing wood and hardware as they were meant to be maintained, and grooming soft furnishings with a gentle brush from a tack store. Make-up artist’s special-purpose cotton swabs are ideal for details. Keep bedding and clothing fresh for maximum insulating value.

It’s important to filter microscopic dust out of a sealed winter interior, since ultra-fine dust is most dangerous to the lungs. The HEPA air filter that keeps allergens at bay in warm weather also eliminates most housecleaning. Use it while you dust and vacuum to double or triple the interval between sessions. A photographer’s equipment brush, like a shaving brush on steroids, will snap dust out of details on furniture and electronics. Hold the vacuum hose close while you’re using it. The feathery synthetic dusting wand that looks like a hippie bottle brush does good work on dusty planes. Knock it against the side of the air filter to capture fine particles. If the room is well-lighted, you’ll be able to watch the air clear itself like water in a well-tended aquarium.

Clean, spare quarters are decent in the chill, easy to maintain, and most healthful. Protect the light, and you’ll protect morale. A thermometer or two set around the interior will tell you how cold it really is, rather than how cold you fear it might be.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wear Clothes, Not Oil

Photo courtesy Flickr

Seattle had hard weather last week. Not like Fairbanks, where you have to worry about your eyeballs freezing, but a definite challenge to the ordinary Baltic chill. This happens every three years or so, just seldom enough that someone who doesn’t ski debates the wisdom of holding a down coat, Balaclava, and shoe chains in inventory. It’s worth it.

Every time I clean out my side bag, I look at the pepper spray and wonder why I bother. Then I recall a Navy Seal who wrote, “You never need it until you really, really need it.”

From time to time, I read a summer newspaper discussion of comfort, climate, and air conditioning. The consensus seems to be that it’s best to keep the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors at or below fifteen degrees, so the metabolism is not shocked by the change. Fifteen degrees’ difference might not fly over the winter, but I find it heartening to live as close to the weather as I can without risking my health.

The climate of Western Washington is like that of England, and this English-speaking Oregon territory was disputed by the American and British empires recently enough that local housekeeping practices were truly Anglo. Even prosperous households kept the heat below sixty-two, wore wool instead of burning fuel, and reserved shirt-sleeve temperatures for special occasions. Insulated houses were rare, as were storm windows.

If your house is routinely cool, and you choose to get around on foot, it’s practical to own the kind of clothing that will keep you warm and safe when bitter weather moves in. Good gear is not cheap, but it lasts a long time, and using it many days a year cuts the cost per use to nothing, especially when you factor in the oil you’re not burning.

LA punk designer Rick Owens included a Balaclava in his collection a couple of years ago. Like the tight-fitting knit hood/wimple combination, his extra-long jerseys embody the field wisdom of the best outdoor gear. My mother, a fourth-generation native of Western Washington, was a gifted and enthusiastic knitter. Her sweaters always had sleeves long enough to cover the knuckles and ribbing that nearly folded when one sat down. She knit so fast that I always assumed she simply failed to stop in time to mimic the skimpy lines of commercial fashion, but I know better now.

We put our lives at risk when we chance foul weather in mean clothing. A down coat can live in a pillow cover when it’s not working outside, the Balaclava’s good back-up to carry for extra warmth when one ventures outside minimally dressed for the forecast, and featherweight shoe chains take up just a few cubic inches in a winter kit. Top off the collection with a simple dust mask that makes an instant difference is holding in body heat. A mask at the face warms the toes.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Macedonian Living Room

Photo courtesy Flickr

This year’s cold spell reminded me of a traditional room I saw in a book about Greek style. It was in a house from the mountainous north, a stone structure like an inelegant version of Georgian architecture. The small, barred windows and studded door suggested bandit country and Alexander the Great’s roots in the region.

Bandits or not, cold is a thief itself. One of the rooms in this house was laid out for comfortable lounging around a small stove. There were beds set along three walls, as close to the stove as safety permitted, with natural daylight behind each couch. The space was full: there was nowhere for a draft to gain velocity.

This responsible version of a crash pad makes good sense in hard weather. It might feel squalid year round, but when the chips are down, 98.6 is what counts. Lightweight furnishings make it easy to improvise.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Snow Bones

Photo courtesy Flickr

Western Washington cheerfully loses its mind when it snows. Immigrants gripe about our inefficiency while local gardeners rejoice in a good slug-killing freeze. My grandparents lived half a block from the best sledding hill in their small town. When it snowed, they'd order a cord of wood dumped in the alley by their garage, then spend a day sipping "moose milk" (with bourbon) and watching the kids take wood for a bonfire.

A snow-covered landscape is easy to critique. Look around, take some pictures: the underlying structure will be clear. When the weather lifts and the ground is not too muddy for foot traffic, it will be easy to edit and plan the next season’s operations.

A simple process, a huge payoff.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Photo courtesy Flickr
Downsizing in place left us with an empty basement, two slick porches, and a guest room devoid even of guest. It is deeply soothing to know that the peripheral rooms in the house are under control, with no dormant inventory moldering in place. It’s easy to control allergens and stale pheromones in a room with nearly nothing in it, and it’s heartening to know that if we suddenly want a good few cubic feet of space, it’s ready.

This house was built before people had living rooms, when the residence was a center of production rather than consumption. To the left of the front hall, just outside the main traffic pattern, is a formal parlor, and to the right stands the family parlor with the kitchen just off it.

I was fortunate to have been shown a similar place when we first moved here: a handy man gave me a tour of the first floor of a house he’d been tending for years. The ancient mistress had just moved into a nursing home. Her family parlor was set up as it must have been in 1900, with a generous walnut desk in the corner, a dining table, and some congenial upholstered furniture. The atmosphere was of cluttered comfort, convenience, and deep familiarity. It was not a room for the eye, but it was very appealing: archaic, but not an old lady’s space.

As I look back on the twenty or so places I have lived, I can’t think of any of them where it would not have been possible to divide the space into formal and family parlors. We use the formal parlor as a music room, which means every day we benefit from the cost of owning it.

When I was growing up, I overheard many conversations between matrons about floor plans. Energy and resources were cheap then, and it was assumed that a given room had a fixed function. For the things I do and the way I like to live, that point of view amounts to going through life with my shoes on the wrong feet. Weather Report’s song “Put It Where You Want It” set me thinking about the uses of domestic space, and Sir Terence Conran’s House Book opened my eyes to the adaptive reuse of old houses and old furniture. The book is hilariously dated now, unless you’re designing sets for a play about the Sixties, but the technical information has not been bettered.

At the moment, the family parlor is the room we are heating, and simply occupying the space generates the initiative to get things done. Moving the rolling tool cabinet into the kitchen reduced turn around time on projects from months to minutes. With the best loafing chair in one corner, a music system to one side, and a stack of dairy crates holding discreet projects, we can knock off one ossified chore after another with no effort, simply because there’s no commute.

The key to the system is keeping poison under control. It’s toxins that generate segregated work space in the house, just as pesticides segregate the garden into ornamentals and food.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Camping without Dirt

Photos courtesy Flickr

It’s a joy to live close to the weather, and it’s a special joy to do so within walking distance of downtown highrises. I like to stay close to the changes of the seasons, or what passes for them in a climate where any day of the year can be forty-five degrees and cloudy. Simply being able to breathe air that has not passed through someone else’s lungs is a luxury, although I have no intention of giving up the bus and my beautifully ventilated vegan coffee shop.

A long-term experiment in saving heat is yielding some interesting results. The attic has no insulation and was laid out as a small apartment for the petite and beloved housekeeper of the woman who commissioned this place in 1890. I cleared the space in anticipation of a roofing job and found that it is a glorious tent, secure and windproof right in the heart of town.

The attic can also be described as a traditional garret within which to freeze, although originally it was warmed with a radiator and the rising heat from downstairs.

Topped with a white wool coverlet instead of the rain fly, our generous dome tent sits in the dormer. The tent is a comfortable variant of a four-poster bed. It takes the curse off sleeping on a Western floor and would make a hospitable guest room or retreat on behalf of a guest, perhaps in a tidy garage. The key is luxurious bedding. I have seen documentaries about Mongolia that show the nomads’ traditional sleeping arrangement: a rectangular frame about four by four by seven covered with hides. In the bitter cold, one can sleep without bedding. On an unusually cold or windy night, covering the tent rather than my person is an effective way to stay warm. Like any experiment in economizing, it’s more fun when one doesn’t have to. It’s far better to learn habits of conservation before dire need sets in.

A Paris museum, perhaps the Louvre, mounted a show of Mongolian yurts about fifteen years ago. They looked really cool in front of the Neo-Classical architecture. A World of Interiors reviewer remarked that Mongolian herders know everything there is to know about living off the grid.

The attic is a convenient place to experiment with off-grid living. I fool around with new technology when attention and resources permit. It’s an easy way to indulge my gear habit without guilt.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Air Washday

Photo courtesy Flickr

I replaced a small automatic washing machine with a portable twin-tub model that is popular in the Alaskan bush and in Saudi Arabia. It’s available mail order, for heaven’s sake, from the great big box department store, and it weighs nothing enough to wheel home from the freight company’s concierge storefront on a hand truck. Costs about the same as a new coat.

This is the third twin-tub I’ve owned, and I was disappointed when it arrived. It seemed mean and flimsy compared to the vintage models I had found at a local dealer, but I have grown to appreciate this iteration of an efficient, economical variant of the early wringer washers of the twentieth century.

Knowing the history of the washing machine does not fascinate at parties.

After twenty years with small automatic machines, I grumbled at again having to tend loads, lifting wet clothes out of soapy water to transfer them to a centrifuge. The economies are worth the trouble, and the machine spins clothing dry enough, more or less, to wear right out the cylinder. It was a bother, though, to think about washing at all.

Last night I realized the full potential of the new system. I had come to realize that this particular featherweight twin-tub is not an inferior washing machine, it is an extremely sophisticated wash tub. Knowing that was not enough to silence the grousing, but I set up my laptop/air card on the kitchen counter to knock off some clerical chores while I kept the health department at bay. The combination of appliances digital and hands-on is just right.

Laundry and surfing are now a good brain-dead end of day exercise. I was able to wash two weeks’ personal laundry in half an hour and forty gallons of water while cleaning up the desktop on my computer. Each of these chores is a bother, but in tandem, they’re interesting and productive.

-30- More after the jump.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tools on Wheels

Technical difficulties still prevent images.

In a fit of mild prosperity some years ago, we invested in a top of the line tool chest on chest. It was an over-ambitious statement for a home shop, but coughing up the money seemed like a good idea at the time. Me, I’ll buy anything that’s the right shade of red, and this chest is as good a piece of furniture as anything in the house.

We’ve been downsizing in place, and I keep discovering how very pleasant it is to live with empty space. And how very easy it is to maintain space with little in it.

When we bought our first house, a six-hundred square foot working man’s cottage, a canny older friend reminded me to “leave room for people”. She also advised not to over-restore, but to respect the textures of old plaster and wood.

Leaving room for people has also meant leaving room for us, the best surprise of all my adventures in home furnishing. The peripheral areas of the house are close to empty, and it’s a snap to configure and knock down a room for guests or a big project.

The plan is to centralize the working tool collection on one side of the kitchen. I’ve never known a kitchen that didn’t have a junk drawer. Since my kitchen has no drawers, I have kept detailing gear in a plastic mechanic’s tool box. From that kit, it was a small step to persuade my partner to move the big rig up from the basement so we could enjoy it every day.

The thing is a feast for the eyes, and a feast for the hand, too. It’s easier to wipe clean than any furniture, cabinetry, or appliance I have known. Since each part of the unit locks, I can secure small valuables with no bother. It’s on really good wheels, so it can turn up front and center in seconds.

Most of our home maintenance projects take less than half an hour to finish, but until now, setting up and putting away has taken that long again, at least. I am very happy to be parking shop gear close to the food and graphic production areas of the main floor. I’ll segregate the work tops, avoid toxins, and do dusty procedures outside.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Potential Space

Dear Readers, Tuesday's windstorm took out my fast connection, so this is an image-free post. Back with pictures as soon as the utility is in one piece. Deft

Some lessons are never learned for good. A couple of times a year I cruise the property ridge pole to sump, fence to fence, looking for thickets of junk. The less stuff I keep around, the faster I can do the survey. It’s a red flag warning when dead inventory blocks active work. It means the engine of the household is seizing up.

Life is sweet when cupboards are less than three-quarters full. The house can then inhale new inventory; the housekeepers easily use it; and, with luck, use it up. Or at least use something else up.

It doesn’t take much effort to keep the place in trim, but it’s hellish to have it capsize.

Different locations will dictate different ways of managing storage. It’s folly not to keep at least a month’s staples on hand, and it’s amazing how little space that requires. The more remote the site, the deeper the reserves should be. In a city, the stores themselves are, uh, storage areas, and it’s slick to let paid professionals keep the shelves in order and refrigerate edibles at commercial power rates.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


1867 Stanley rule and level wood planer photo courtesy Flickr

I had a week-end of my favorite kind of housekeeping: cleaning a shop. My grandfather kept me at his side in his basement workspace, and one of my dearest memories is of sitting beside him on his tool chest while he took a break. My brother laid that chest on me a few years ago: it will impress no one, but it was made around 1905 for “going West”, and the zinc top is comfortably coved from years of use.

The interior of this chest is soaked with the oil used to lubricate stones, and it’s not a pretty, domestic thing to have around. It is, however, a darned useful piece of gear, and it lives upstairs. I’ve been able to tame it with Magical Sliding castors, some gaffer’s tape around the top to keep slivers at bay, and a Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings sheepskin for upholstery. This is seating at its most fundamental, so to speak, and it’s as comfortable a perch as anything in the house.

English wives of the imperial Raj travelled with utilitarian chests that were little more than glorified painted crates. They used them as side tables and covered them with quilts. My aunt did the same thing with foot lockers when her husband was with the Marine Corps. Transit cases are absolutely basic furniture, dating back to the Middle Ages. They’re called trunks, and some have domed tops, because they were originally hollowed out from sections of trees.

I still have many of my grandfather’s hand tools, and I still have many early memories of exploring his inventory. He had the wit and wisdom not to protect me from cutting edges. I was free to learn how to handle and manipulate real gear from the beginning, and did no harm except to whack my thumb while getting acquainted with a full-sized hammer. A more dedicated craftsman might have been concerned about protecting a carefully honed edge from childish clumsiness.

Turn of the century hand tools were styled like Art Nouveau furnishings. They’re similar in feel and appearance to Singer’s treadle sewing machine and to the platen hand press of the period, although the finishes are a little rougher.

It took me a long time to realize that my passion for old iron is, at its heart, an affinity for the carved wooden models from which the parts are cast. The expression of the skilled hand is inescapable, and it comes to life as I clean, sort, and stow the collection.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Alan Turing via Flickr

Economist Paul Hawken, of the original Smith and Hawken, published a book in the late Seventies called The Next Economy. In it, he discussed his concept of money, namely that the real currency is a barrel of oil. During this period, inflation was terrible, and interest rates rose to thirteen percent.

Hawken pointed out the advantages of buying what he called intelligent products, ones with more in them than might meet the eye. This was the same year he and his partner bought a container load of hand-forged English tools and sold them through a tiny, modest, black and white mail-order catalogue.

I ate up their prose and bought a small border spade for my first garden. Living with an archaeologist, I was no stranger to a shovel or twelve, but that little spade, which still gets used three or four times a week, was a revelation. Using it introduced me to iron that keeps an edge (sharpen a shovel and it will do three quarters of the work), a stout oak handle that raises few blisters, good balance, and a blade so sophisticated in shape and scoop that I don’t need a trowel.

I could have bought a two-bit shovel at the hardware store and replaced it six or seven times in the ensuing years, but I would have been using a tool that required me to serve it, that caused pain, and that didn’t do its job very well. The border spade, which cost about twice as much as I really wanted to pay, is the fruit of a long tradition of horticultural hand tools. They were being produced long before mass manufacturing, and I hope they will still continue to be supplied. Any blacksmith could copy my blade, and even I could cobble together a handle.

The culture of hand production worked out design solutions over millennia, while the culture of electricity is bringing literally intelligent products to the market in great springing leaps. Every dollar spent is a vote for something: choosing a candidate is as risky as an election. Modestly informed guessing has left me with an inventory that is profitable, although not impressive.

An intelligent product holds good surprises, solves problems of which one was unaware, and is on the bonny side of the eighty/twenty equation in which twenty percent of the products (or, sadly, people) do eighty percent of the work.

-30- More after the jump.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

I love the way grass grows, with the fresh structure emerging through and displacing old material. On the phone and my nth cup of coffee one morning last week, I made noises about not needing anything except dirt, a laptop, health insurance, and a gym. The young arts graduate on the other end of the line suggested a blog. It’s important to visualize with care, and I’d hate unwittingly to shed something important, but that laptop has become the navel of my life.

In one of his novels, Neal Stephenson describes a Victorian farmhouse whose parlor is strewn with computer terminals and hazardous extension cords. That single image turned my idea of space management inside out, and I decided to get on with things rather than trying to perfect scenery for a script that was obsolete before it left the printer and not my idea to begin with.

In a sunny Haight Ashbury dining room around March, 1967, an amateur scribe gave me a broadside of one of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems. The focal point was the phrase “right now” written six inches high in the medieval English book hand that is the parent of all upright type faces with serifs. I thanked him and fussed about a frame. The writer said just to pin it up and enjoy it. He had given me the work as a sample of an ink recipe. The writer became a pillar of computer security.

Futurist Buckminster Fuller published a book called I Seem to Be a Verb. Fuller’s insights and his willingness to reconsider language-he once kept silent for three years-have informed world culture. It’s useful to wonder whether verbs or nouns have the upper hand at home.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Anything Can Be Anywhere

Photo courtesy Flickr

I called on my godfather several weeks ago. He worked as a librarian and has always loved antiques. (March 3, 2010) I have always loved to study basic activities, and reading a book is as basic an action as I can imagine.

Visiting Uncle Landon and Aunt Eleanor’s retirement quarters is like going to the Makah Tribal Museum in Neah Bay: moment to moment opens to unfold unexpected levels of insight about familiar experiences.

Uncle Landon pulled a book off the shelf and sat down to show me. The last time I remember someone being excited enough about print to wave a book around was someone palming a copper-stapled copy of the Hsin Hsin Ming, Richard Baker’s work I think. The last time someone sat down to read to me was 1948.

The title was The Conquest of Mexico, written late in life by one of Cortez’s companions. It seems to have been intended to increase the man’s estate. Uncle Landon and I shared a good hour’s discussion of the text, the edition, and the archaeological context of the work.

I felt like a retriever with a goodly duck to be able to comment about Spanish influence on calligraphy*, the engineering marvels of bookbinding (December 31, 2009), and my second-hand archaeology of the indigenous trade route from Mexico to Canada. Those guys got around, and there’s a stone-age billboard in Naches whose bas-relief condor looks over the trail and across the valley.

Novelist Larry McMurtry wrote a book about an antique picker named Cadillac Jack, whose motto was “Anything can be anywhere”. That’s a lesson I hope to continue to learn every day for the rest of my life.


*The models for the popular Italic hand were Renaissance ones from Spain. The handwriting of the Spanish colonial bureaucracy in the Southwestern border states was Italic, and the emperor Trajan, whose memorial column in Rome holds the master models of Roman capital letters, was from Spain. There’s a copy of the Trajan column in Astoria. More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Simple Table

Photo courtesy Flickr
It’s a good year to feast lightly.

It’s hard to improve on a table that doesn’t wobble, comfortable chairs that seat people eye to eye, a white cloth (butcher paper, even), simple cutlery, glasses, and plates, and a careful setting. Get the basics squared away, and it’s fun to improvise.

Keep the centerpiece low, the lighting kind, and put out the best bread, cheese, drink, and fruit that you can find. It’s easy to elaborate on a simple base, but damned hard to simplify a thicket of excess.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Dish of Tay

Photo courtesy Flickr

That’s what my Irish grandmother called it. The formal Japanese ceremony serves tea in bowls. Western ceramics retain a vestigial bowl, the saucer. Old style Navy mugs were steep-sided bowls with no handles and an irresistible heft. It wasn’t long ago that country folk stopped drinking tea or coffee out of the saucer, a practice derided in the twentieth century as rustic.

Making tea bowls is high art. From time to time, Seattle’s Asian Art Museum displays world-famous examples. To the best of my understanding, the most highly regarded ones are from Korea, ordinary products of ordinary people. Tea masters value them for their lack of self-consciousness. That may be why a heavy white Homer Laughlin mug sitting on a diner’s boomerang-printed Formica table is so irresistible. Willow imagery denotes Korean origin.

In the Fifties, several tea rooms in the downtown retail core allowed matrons to take their leisure while shopping. Except for Frederick and Nelson’s, tea rooms disappeared during the Sixties. They reappeared a generation later. I presume it took that long for women to realize that it was time to sit down and catch their breath.

High tea is named for the “high” or relatively large numbers of the hour of its service, around five in the afternoon. High tea serves meat and whiskey to the weary.

Tea seems to be big business now. Rarified pickings cost hundreds of dollars an ounce. The bibliography has expanded, and no doubt traditional Eastern (which is to say west of Seattle) training in tea and wider trade with Asia have influenced the market. The health aspects of tea are touted in the media. Commercial tea rooms serve aggressive, sophisticated, and highly specialized menus.

I would never argue with the evolution of a food technology, but I think the essence of tea is the company of a friend, a safe and tranquil place to drink, a fire, simple vessels, and good water. The leaf is the variable. Each variety serves its purpose.

Tea can be formal or informal, private or commercial, but rightly, tea is attentive, careful, relaxed, and a little high-minded. I don’t see a place for ambition at the table, if any. It’s a wonderful way to learn the difference between precious and valuable.

More after the jump.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Doormat

Photo courtesy Flickr

I have often wished to live in a house that flushes. Come to think of it, Hercules tackled this problem. The closest I got was a concrete building in Puerto Rico with a drain in the tiled ground floor and eighteen-inch high tile baseboards. The floor was washed every day, imperative in that climate. Several years ago, I toured a new locker room at the Y with a woman who had raised her family on a five-hundred square foot houseboat. We agreed that the generous wheelchair-friendly shower stall would make a comfortable sitting room.

My partner came home from some field work in Eastern Washington to tell me that one of the local mountain lions had set up housekeeping in a culvert, novel enough, but especially noteworthy because the cat had pulled a deer hide onto the sunny stoop of its lair. There may be the kernel of a usable idea in this semi-ghastly but thought-provoking strategy. I knew that small cats like their comfort, but I have never known one to arrange furniture.

A few years ago I chatted with the housekeeper-in-chief of Seattle’s public housing. We agreed that recent immigrants keep exemplary homes and have much to teach us, and that home ec classes that cook lobster instead of egg are off target, especially here in Dungeness crab country. She clued me to the basics: quarters should be decent, safe, and sanitary. That leaves room to quibble but no doubt about the essence.

-30- More after the jump.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Roll On, Columbia

Photo courtesy Flickr

My partner brought welcome second-hand blog feedback from a recent business trip to Coulee Dam. A reader lives in a neighborhood of subsidized housing built for the managers who supervised the construction of Grand Coulee. She has a three-month old baby, a house that resembles Albert Balch’s first developments in Seattle, and a generous lot.

I hear the neighborhood is a good one, the location convenient, and the schools so-so. The following comments honor a modest school of architecture that designed full-scale versions of the Monopoly house and does wonders for home economy. World War Two housing projects, both on and off military bases, have the same qualities in multi-family units. The essences of the design are a square, low-ceilinged interior that saves heat and spaces that are oriented toward manual skill.

Albert Balch developed the early postwar suburbs of Seattle. One of his first neighborhoods was Wedgwood in Northeast Seattle. The houses resemble the efficient Cape Cod design that Mr. Levitt’s crews cranked out by the thousand on Long Island. I believe this design was the winner of a national architectural competition for veteran’s housing.

Over the years, I have visited quite a few Balch constructions, both the early model and later versions that solve the same basic problem of housing a family efficiently. It’s fascinating to compare individual responses to the same design. Suburban monoculture was still controversial when I was a child. Levittown stunned the critics. The evolution of the neighborhoods has been instructive.

An informed carpenter can retrofit the moldings in one of these places and make it look like a million. An informed architect can make one look like anything she pleases. The modest scale makes it economical to replace old windows with efficient ones, and the original design supports easy maintenance and moderate heat bills. Small rooms and low ceilings were an eighteenth-century response to keeping warm. The ceiling itself was a luxury.

Modest late pre-war and early post-war family housing is the most efficient I know, frankly designed for a literate, middle-class housekeeper who stayed at home with her children, the ideal strategy of the time. Until World War Two, a buyer had to raise a fifty percent down payment, so service areas were designed to please a woman who knew something about the finer things in life and was unwilling to work herself to death. She would have been well-trained in the domestic arts for social reasons and because the first wave of women’s liberation had concentrated on scientific home management. Housekeeping was her occupation, her labor respected, and she would have called the shots at home, since she was traditionally responsible for the moral atmosphere under the roof. She might have been the first woman in her line to keep house without having someone in service.

The great gains in labor-saving appliances were all in place by the Thirties. Electricity had displaced hauling solid fuel to cook and to heat water, and it eliminated the heavy labor of washing clothes. Susan Strasser’s Never Done lays out the details of this evolution. Interestingly, President Dwight Eisenhower’s childhood home has been preserved as the textbook example of electrified housekeeping.

The small houses of this period function like free-standing condominiums. When they were built, timber was abundant, and consequently, one can count on finding irreplaceable straight-grain Doug fir framing under the fireproof lath and plaster walls. Some structures built during and just after the war had inferior wiring because of a copper shortage, but it is likely that any house from this period has had that problem corrected as well as toxic plumbing replaced.

It is also likely that any house from this period looks less beautiful than it was meant to, because the original cedar shake roof has been replaced by flat synthetics. It would be a small matter to make the next roof of fake shingles to restore the original charming texture of the roofline. A freestanding house on its own piece of land was intended to produce its own food. In the eighteenth century it was traditional to plant “marriage trees”, a pair of apples, on either side of the front door. The white picket cliche' is designed to keep horses out of the garden.

The original Cape Cod cottage was designed by shipwrights to hold together on the shifting sands of the cape itself, to be hauled to another site should need be, and to resist strong winds. The cottage is all of a piece, like a mobile home. This is earthquake country, and a small, square house built of fine timber is a good bet to survive, particularly one that is sited in the lee of prevailing winds. Global warming has multiplied natural disasters six-fold over the last fifty years, and a roofline that sheds wind is a wise, though perhaps unfashionable, asset.

In Seattle, Balch homes are found on choice sites, because they were developed so early and the city is itself so young. The attics have good headroom, and the basements can be amazing, with high ceilings, clean cement, and straightforward laundry and shop space. Dryers were unknown when the house was new, and laundry dried on lines indoors in the winter. This single practice extends the usable life of clothing many times over, maintains healthy humidity levels in the interior, slashes power bills, relieves textiles’ heavy load on the environment, and simplifies wardrobe management by keeping key items in the rotation.

In my county, a house is taxed on its habitable space, so an unfinished attic and basement are productive, usable, and very convenient assets. Home tasks and production are not taxed, so every dollar saved is worth the additional percentage of the yearly federal rate and the cost of earning it. There’s an opportunity cost to home labor-the time it takes can be spent earning money in the larger economy-but many hands-on chores are more convenient than their market equivalent, so there’s always the opportunity to finesse a benefit.

I don’t know of another house design that supports self-reliance, family life, and energy conservation (both personal and artificial) as well as a Cape Cod cottage. These places were rendered obsolete by bulky Art Deco appliances and electronics that were proportioned wrong for traditional architecture. Furnish with miniaturized electronics and the small-space seating that is now easy to find, though, and they’re better than new. It is easy to find traditional used furnishings for traditional architecture, and the eighteenth century designed the best small space furniture I know. Norma Skurka's New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration begins with a concise visual history of furniture.

Only a fool would follow my advice about the current real estate market, but I have read that it’s not realistic to count on home ownership to be a pot of gold. The wisest comment I know came in the late Seventies from Sylvia Porter, the money guru of her day, who pointed out that assessing the value of a house starts with measuring the dollar value of living there each month. Porter has interesting comparisons on owning versus renting. Unquestionably, all things connected with houses have been inflated, from size to furniture to expectations to risk, while the quality of construction has declined.

I once lived for several months in a thirty-dollar plastic, wire hanger, and 1x1 geodesic dome on big waterfront acreage. From that summer, I took away an appreciation for land over facilities. The current trend in housing, at least here in my home town, has been to build fence-line to fence-line. Though the new trend must have its virtues, the old way is more agreeable to me. Northeast Seattle was zoned for small urban lots. Many of the cottages in that area have been owned by wealthy families who also own places in the country. Houses lashed to additions break apart in an earthquake.

Were I to raise children in a cottage, I’d consider a putting a greenhouse on the back of the lot to provide playspace, produce, and a retreat. Here in town, I live as close to the outdoors as I can manage. A rustic shed, covered sitting area by a fireplace, and lattice-screened and glassed-in porches provide a spectrum of shelter that offers comfort and fresh air no matter what the weather, so the taxable luxury of habitable space can be minimal. The neighborhood would determine the level of security I’d design into the fence. If my fence were more secure, I’d sleep outside even within walking distance of downtown highrises, because the soundscape is so pleasing.

Vita Sackville-West’s classic Garden Book celebrates the cottage garden as a model of efficiency and a reservoir of heirloom plants. Restoring a period garden would frame a house to best advantage. It wouldn’t be a huge chore: a landscape architect could design edible ornament, and many of the period post-war plants, like the Peace rose, still survive. Old copies of glossy shelter magazines are good sources of period design.

Balch houses sometimes came with a solid double garage on a separate foundation. One would makes a good guest house or lofty party space, even unfinished. Current surveillance technology will reduce the risk of having children active under a separate roof. My bias is to make the most of an existing facility rather than dink around with remodeling. A local graphic designer was one of the first contemporaries I knew to buy a house, in 1973. He and his wife valued their Thirties Tudor because it had never been remodeled, and I’ve had a weak spot for original integrity ever since. A few hours’ reading and surfing will reveal the history of a building.

Flickr’s on line photo site is a gold mine of images for restoration, that can often be accomplished with bargains. Vintage domestic technology frequently saves energy and uses the space for which it was designed to best advantage. It’s worth the trouble to research period housekeeping when living in a period house, to avoid arrogantly dismissing an original amenity as obsolete. Original designs often save energy.

Historic preservation can be a canny strategy for boosting property values. Ravenna, a small neighborhood in northeast Seattle, is internationally famous for its reservoir of Arts and Crafts bungalows, and the prices are, or at least were recently, astronomical. Coulee Dam’s architecturally consistent neighborhood of management housing on one of if not the most important and critical public works projects of the richest and most powerful country of the twentieth century, which is to say in the history of the world, has historic value. It would be fascinating to play up the history of the site and keep on hand a copy of the PBS documentary about constructing the dam.

The reader in Coulee Dam, I am told, grew up on a ranch in Montana and is wondering about the kind of family home for her future. I have the sense that she is unfamiliar with suburbs. So am I, and if I were to start cold in family housing, I’d do a little reading in urban design rather than make expensive decisions based on media comments. There are national security implications to the network of highways, but I don’t understand them. We bought this place in lieu of warehouse shop space. My dearest mentor-in-housing was a Seven Sisters graduate who could have lived anywhere but chose a workingman’s cottage walking distance from Union Square in San Francisco. Culture is good caulking for status leaks.

I doubt that I would have made the same decisions had my mother been alive when I was house-hunting. I once teased a colleague about her kitchen layout, asking Jane what her mother would think about her choices, and Jane snapped back, “My mother doesn’t have my problems.” The original suburbs were pre-war zones of privilege for families who could afford the time and expense of a commute and of maintaining a large lot, not the dense postwar developments that resembled factory farms and depended on cheap oil. In either case, behind a suburb often lay a family of privilege forced to sell its estate because of progresssive taxation.

A wise matron wondered about my decision to buy close to downtown when the area was, to put it mildly, out of fashion. I said we had decided to pay private school tuition instead of putting money into a gas tank, and she relaxed, commenting that early education is the most important. This is now the most popular area in town for young adults, though older bigots retain obsolete preconceptions of the Hill.

Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor is a guide to improvising elegant, comfortable quarters in affordable neighborhoods. I know a surprising number of art names who live in areas that are usually mentioned with hesitation. Eleanor Roosevelt advised choosing to live in any neighborhood that does not actively damage one’s reputation. She also quoted her mother-in-law as saying furniture that is good enough to buy in the first place is good enough to keep.

When I’m in a design quandary now, I ask what the carbon load of a decision is likely to be. CO2 awareness was nascent in the late Sixties as I was beginning to consider housing, and I chose a dense urban area because I didn’t need a car to get around. When the oil crisis hit after Saigon fell, there were fist fights in gas station lines.

-30- More after the jump.