Friday, March 14, 2014

Above: The kitchen of the Woodrow Wilson house at 2340 S Street NW in Washington, D.C., as it appeared in 1924.

Below: The same kitchen in 2012.

The house was built in 1915 by Henry Parker Fairbanks, a Boston businessman and carpet industry lobbyist. It was designed by celebrated architect Waddy Wood. After Wilson's second term as president ended on March 4, 1921, he moved into this house with his wife and two servants. Crippled by the 1919 stroke that ended his presidency, Wilson died in the house on February 3, 1924. Knowing she wanted the house to eventually become a museum honoring her husband, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson photographed and documented each room extensively -- including the kitchen.

The sink is a "vessel" (or freestanding) "London sink" -- a shallow ceramic sink with no overflow weir. This sink was undoubtedly used not for food preparation but for dishwashing (as noted by the drying rack and the kitchen utensils hanging overhead). The kitchen had hot and cold running water, a rarity (only about one in four kitchens had sinks with running water).

The oven is a commercial-grade, cast-iron stove made by Duparquet, Huot & Moneuse Co. The cooking stove was originally fired by either coal or wood, but later was half-converted to natural gas. It occupies most of the western wall. A food warmer is on the left-hand side. Two round stones were heated on the griddles or in the ovens, and then placed in the bottom of the box to keep food warm. The top and side (on the left) opened, to allow plates and dishes to be inserted on racks inside. The four-range stove features a grill on the left, two griddles in the middle, a built-in wok, and a soup cooker (a hole into which pots could be placed, setting them next to the oven for heating). On top of the stove are placed a waffle iron and a boxy popcorn popper. A barrel-shaped metal range hood with a ventilated stovepipe carried smoke and heat outdoors.

Like most kitchens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it lacks amenities. Kitchens were places for work, for the servants, and rarely seen by the family in wealthier homes like this. The walls were painted light green (a popular kitchen color in the 1920s and 1930s), and the floor is linoleum (which is durable, easy to clean, easy on the feet, and a little rubbery so that dropped dishes don't shatter). The linoleum at Woodrow Wilson House is almost all original, with only those in front of the heavily-used oven having been replaced (due to excessive wear). Interestingly, the doorknobs facing the kitchen are made of white porcelain, which was considered hygienic. The doorknobs facing outward to the public areas were expensive nickel-plated ones. The lighting fixtures are pendant, wall-mounted brass tubes with simple white bell shades. A plain molding runs around the room at eye height, and is set with hooks for hanging utensils and towels.

Waddy Wood knew what he was doing when he built this house. It has high ceilings to trap heat away from the people working below, and transom windows over doors to encourage air circulation. The top row of panes in the nine-over-nine (!) double-hung windows are corrugated to diffuse sunlight, which keeps the room cooler.

In addition to an icebox and some free-standing tables, a wall cabinet with sliding paned glass doors houses the Wilsons' blue-and-white china. This heirloom porcelain came from Edith's family, and was for day-to-day use.

The dining room is located on the second floor, two stories up. A dumbwaiter was used to send food up to the butler's pantry adjacent to the dining room. There, another warming oven kept food while the family prepared to eat or dined. This pantry also held the "good china" which the Wilsons used for important guests.

Woodrow Wilson House - first floor kitchen 10 - 2011-12-04

Woodrow Wilson House - first floor kitchen 09 - 2011-12-04

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