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The Work Space

Welcome to 2024. It's a new year and there are a lot of interesting things going on out there. Today, however, we're going to take a little detour into the past.

I belong to a couple of geezer sites on social media and one has to do with Chicago's cultural past, which includes a lot of interesting photos and descriptions of buildings that may or may not be extant. Recently the topic had to do with the Emil Bach House on North Sheridan Road. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915, and has that open drawers look to it.

I lived around the corner from the Bach in the 1970s, and sometime during that decade, it was for sale and my sister, brother-in-law and I took a look. It had had some unfortunate alterations to it, but overall, it was a beautiful design. The owner told us a couple of funny stories, which I will get to in a minute.

On the geezer site, I mentioned that we. had recently toured the house with a docent, and the difference between the 70s and now was breathtaking. It had been painstakingly restored to its original look with the help of a bunch of the local architectural artifact junkies who had paint samples and samples of plaster and every other minute detail that would have been used in the home's construction. The owner, one of the Pritzker family, had done an outstanding job of completing the work begun by the previous owner.

One of the geezers commented on the size of the kitchen. So that's today's topic, and the juicy tidbits are for later...

If we think about kitchens of today versus those of the early 20th century, there have been many changes, not only in the amount and size of appliances, but also in terms of the tools the average cook used. At the time the Bach was built, gas ranges were not actually the norm. Interestingly enough, they had been popular in England and widely used by the end of the 19th Century. They didn't catch on in America, however, due to the cost of gas. So the typical range was likely a cast iron coal fired range, which was kept in tip-top shape by means of EZ Polish Range Polish! (Made in Chicago, of course.) The gas range in the photo is from about 1920, and the only reason that baby got to be popular was that electricity was becoming more widely used for lighting, and the gas companies suddenly had serious competition. They looked around for a way to get ahead of the game, and the gas range was it. The beauty of the gas ranges in those days were that they didn't take up a lot of space. They were easier to maintain, and much more convenient.

In 1915, the Bach family likely had an icebox in that small kitchen, but then again, maybe Emil Bach could afford one built by the Wolf Mechanical Refrigerator Company, also in Chicago. Those began to be manufactured in 1914.

I laugh at those so-called farmhouse sinks people are all gaga over. I have been in a number of real farmhouses in my day, and I can assure you, most had a wall hung porcelain business, with drainboards on either side, and a little curtain suspended from a line that was affixed to the front of the sink. They often had a cabinet of some sort on one or both sides. Even into the 1930s, homes were built with those kinds of kitchen sinks. Every farmer's wife I knew was hot to get rid of the darn thing and have a new double tub porcelain sink in a regular kitchen cabinet, but that's beside the point. That would have been the standard for the Bach House.

Many homes had a Hoosier cabinet for storage and food prep. They often came with a flour bin and a built in sifter, which was quite the convenience. The majority of a household's baking utensils and mixing bowls and such could be stashed in one of those. The actual work was often done on a small table. A lot had an enameled surface with a stencil design around the perimeter of the top. But you were just as likely to find a small wooden table that wasn't in overly pristine condition. The underside of the edge would bear the marks of where the meat grinder was clamped on, or the apple parer.

Our kitchens today need to house our KitchenAid stand mixers, our food processors, the coffeemakers, the blenders, the toasters, the countertop ovens, microwaves, etc. While Hobart was manufacturing an industrial dough mixer (the original KitchenAid) as of 1909, the average home didn't have a Sunbeam Mixmaster. They were around in 1910, but not in widespread use until the 1920s. In about 1913, electric toasters were available, to the tune of $12.50. In today's money, that comes to close to $400.

And so, even if the appliances were available downtown at Marshall Field & Company's State Street emporium of everything imaginable for you and your home, the cost may have been prohibitive.

The size of the kitchen in most FLLW homes is always a hot subject. The man despised basements and attics because they collected junk. He also was stingy in the kitchen department because in his day, people hired a cook/housekeeper, and she was the only person in that kitchen. (Here in the South, we'd call that a One-Butt Kitchen.) As I have pointed out, appliances weren't terribly common, and an egg beater doesn't take up the kind of space a KitchenAid does. Food preparation was simpler, the ingredients not nearly as diverse as today, and the pantry consisted of the foods she canned in the summer, as well as whatever was harvested from the family vegetable garden (if they had one). In more urban areas, grocery stores were smaller, apt to be on a street corner on a main drag, and they actually delivered. The butcher knew what the cook liked, and she developed a tight relationship with all her suppliers. The milkman delivered, and life was a whole lot less complicated.

Viewed in this context, the size of Wright's kitchens never needed to be particularly spacious. His idea of "open concept," was limited to the living and dining room areas. He dubbed the kitchen The Work Space, and, as a rule, tucked it wherever he could, and gave it short shrift. (Only one homeowner managed to browbeat him into a large kitchen, but she was a farmer's wife and as she so cogently pointed out to him, having grown up on a farm, he had to have a clue as to her needs!)

The Juicy Bits

Mrs. Bach was, by all accounts, an attractive lady. Wright was a notorious flirt and womanizer. One day he showed up, unannounced, with a Japanese screen tucked under his arm. He was offered tea, and he set up said screen near the fireplace - it was perfect. He attempted to make time with Mrs. Bach, but the lady rebuffed the efforts and off he went. Some years later, he dropped in again, just to see his creation... (You get to execute a giant eyeroll, here.) He spied the screen and supposedly exclaimed, "I wondered where I had left that!" Folded it up, stuck it under his arm and bid her adieu!

The third tale occurred in the wee hours. The primary bedroom overlooked Sheridan Road. The Bachs were awakened by the sound of someone muttering and some sort of activity just below. Mr. Bach looked out and saw someone yanking out the shrubbery they'd planted in the space at the front of the dwelling. He called the police to report a vandal, and was shocked when Chicago's finest attempted to arrest someone who haughtily cried, "Unhand me! I did not design that for this space! It must be removed! I am the architect!" (Or words to that effect.)

I sincerely doubt FLLW would have barged in and demanded they remove a kitchen appliance he didn't approve in the plans, but he sure didn't like when the plantings weren't maintained to his specs!

In the 1970s, we had a raccoon in the neighborhood, and by all accounts it resided in the Bach's rather unkempt grounds. At the time, there were large homes on either side, so the space between Bach and the house to the south was slim. The raccoon, the size of a bear cub, could often be seen lumbering across four lanes of busy Sheridan Road. On the west side of Sheridan, on Fargo, there resided my dear friends, the Klings. They owned a two flat just past the alley, and Marita had a vegetable garden on the roof that was lots of five gallon buckets. Chuck ran a hose up through the trap door in the roof of the porch, and she would climb a ladder that was attached to the back wall of the building to get up there.

One evening, after work, she went up to see how her tomatoes were doing, water and generally do a little maintenance. The garden was a shambles. Nary a bucket had been ignored. Vegetables were strewn everywhere. As she went down the ladder, she spied a watch in the gutter.

"Well," she quipped, "it appears that raccoon left me a watch to repay me for his good time!"


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