Uncovering Buried Treasure – Radiant flooring from 1946

Vashon discovery menage
The evidence

I’ve been re-reading Betty MacDonald’s book Onions in the Stew, her book about her house on Vashon, a house that I now, serendipitously, own. I’m hoping to uncover the mystery of the radiant kitchen floors. I was told when I bought the house that the floors in the kitchen and dining room – part of an addition built by Betty – were radiant heated. After moving in, it was clear why. Even on the hottest Vashon day in the middle of August (75 degrees in the sun), the kitchen stays a frigid 55 degrees. The floor itself, about 45 degrees. Foot coverings are imperative and dogs beg to always be on laps. Betty’s description of the house when she first saw it, long before she had the addition built, belies her innocence to the house and to Vashon. The kitchen she describes was eventually hoisted by crane (positioned on a barge at the beach, 200 feet below the house) up and over the main house to become the guest cabin in order to make room for the addition she would build.

The house, built of hewn fir timbers, was snuggled on the lap of the plump green hillside.   The roof was hand-split cedar shakes, each shake at least an inch thick.   The rain and the salt air had turned it all a soft pewter color.   The kitchen, which was small, had knotty pine walls with a bricked-in electric stove and a trash burner across one corner. Against the windows which looked at Puget Sound and Mount Rainier over an enormous window box filled with pink geraniums, was a Flemish blue drop-leaf table and four stools.   The drainboard and insides of the cupboards were the same Flemish blue.   The floor was pine planks put down with wooden pegs and calked.   The living room, which opened from the kitchen by a swinging pine half-door, was about forty feet long, had the same plank floors (four by twelves), an enormous stone fireplace that went up two stories, a small rustic stairway leading to a balcony from which opened three small knotty pine bedrooms and a bath.   At the south end of the balcony was the master bedroom.   It had a beamed ceiling, pine walls and a fireplace with a copper hood.   In all the rooms were hand-braided rugs and lovely pine furniture made by the doctor.   There were two patios, one off the kitchen, one in the angle of the ell formed by the master-bedroom wing and the living room. They were made of rounds of cedar with flowering moss in between. Around the south patio was a rockery filled with heather.   Above it on a knoll was a gnarled old apple tree.   The ground under the apple tree was carpeted with blue ajuga and yellow tulips.   Across the front of the house and available to the living room by French doors was a rustic porch overlooking the water and the sandy beach and facing Mount Rainier.

MacDonald, Betty Bard (2012-07-02). The Onions in the Stew

image courtesy of Darsie Beck
image courtesy of Darsie Beck

I can’t imagine that radiant heated floors were a common amenity in 1946, but if you read any of Betty’s books, you will know the woman was always cold. Perhaps she was the innovator of such cutting edge technology. I’m sure using terra cotta tiles on the floors made sense at the time, knowing they would always be warm, but I wonder if she ever thought about how cold they might feel if the heating system failed to work, as it has, as far as I can tell, from about 1962 onwards.

A few years ago, I had a guy take a look at some pipes that protrude out of a stone wall behind the fridge to see if they might be the origin of the heat for the floors. After “pressure testing” the pipes, he said that the floors were inoperable, probably because in those days they were galvanized steel, which by now had surely corroded from the inside, clogging themselves with a gooey mess. I brought my old slippers from home, a floppy dog bed and called it a day.

For the past year, I have watched and helped Jim (yes, he has a name and has given me permission to use it) install radiant floor piping in his basement. I have happily secured plastic ties to the bright red “pex” tubing, ensuring that it doesn’t come away from the mesh when concrete is poured on top of it. Along one wall, each neatly lined up red tube is fed into the mothership, making the back wall of his basement look like the control panel of a nuclear power plant. I have placed my hand in the dust of the finished cement floor marveling that it feels like a stone that’s been basking in the sun all day. Dreams of such sunny tiles in my Vashon kitchen didn’t seem so impossible anymore.

Thus is should be no surprise that Jim has embraced Vashon and has taken up the cause of the radiant floors. I am learning how tenacious he can be when on a mission. He loaded the car with a 100lb giant vacuum-cleaner-like contraption whose only saving grace was wheels. His latest organizational innovation of “bins” were filled with tools and tubing and bits of copper pipe, electrical tape and wire cutters. Trips were made into town for missing items (namely flashlight, which you might assume would be imperative equipment in an old house on an island). He later lamented that he remembered everything but a change of clothes which became necessary after chasing a river otter under the house, but that’s a story for another post.

Soon the fridge was in the middle of the kitchen and we were walking around garbage pails and recycling bins and under a ladder that jutted into the ceiling of the mud room. Ancient thermostats that were assumed to have once controlled the heat for the floors were taken apart and their guts littered the kitchen counter. Dangerous looking wires poked out from the walls. The enormous vacuum-y thing barred the front door and was capable of ear splitting whines as it forced its compressed air into a long wiggly orange tube attached to the pipes in the wall. New copper fittings were cut and greased and soldered. Gauges and more copper tubing were attached to the mysterious pipes behind the fridge. Discoveries were made:

  1. An unnoticed ancient red metal dial was discovered under the sink under the little bathroom. When turned, water came rushing out a cut off pipe in the ceiling above my head as I stood under the trap door in the mud room. I rained indoors on my head. Tap has been capped off before some four year old comes along to try it out.
  2. There is a giant tank in the attic above the mudroom that the house must have been built around. Assumption is that it was some kind of water heater or converter. No pipes from it into the floor could be seen.
  3. Pipes behind fridge didn’t appear to go into the floor, but up into the ceiling above the mud room, once connected to the now cut off pipe and leading to the heat converter.
  4. Extensive searching which included impaling kitchen cabinets, hunting the exterior of the house for pipes, opening the trap door of the old coal bin, and pulling out every large appliance from the wall, revealed that not one pipe could be found that might be the origin of the so-called galvanized steel pipe that was rumored to be embedded in the floor.
  5. The ancient thermostats were still connected to live electricity and emitted enough electricity to power a significant electrical heater or perhaps heated floors, but no connection to the floors could be found. They have since been decommissioned so as not to set the house on fire which seemed appropriate after 50 odd years of being in this condition. Judging by the gunk found inside them, the house was once home to some copious cigarette smokers (of which Betty was one).
  6. Chloe is a maniac for a flashlight and with very little effort it’s possible to make her spin in circles until she’s drunk with dizziness.

Chloe meets Flashlight

Later, after the river-otter adventure, Jim stood barefoot on the cold floor wearing a towel and my old bathrobe, looking up into the trap door with a beer in his hand as I assembled a lasagna. Soon only the towel and bare feet could be seen standing at the top of the ladder, the rest of him disappearing into the attic.

At the conclusion of the weekend, he said, “You know, if it wasn’t for her daughters mentioning in your copy of “Nancy and Plum” that they finally had warm enough feet that they went barefoot in the winter, I would say that the radiant floors were non-existant.”

I have skimmed Onions in the Stew now several times. How nice with a Kindle version that I was able to search on “floors.” There is no mention of the radiant floors at all. I called the woman from whose family I bought the house and she only knew that the thermostats in the dining room and the kitchen were supposed to have controlled the floor’s heat. I have been in touch with Betty’s nephew who had no memory of the floors but who put me in touch with the original realtor of the house, who I still need to contact along with my older neighbor on the beach and whoever else I can think of that might know anything about the now mythical radiant floors.

The hunt for The Holy Grail continues.


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