The Cross House

An EXTRAORDINARY and Mysterious Discovery!

 

Just before Thanksgiving, while working to get some A/C ducting installed, I discovered something…bizarre. In the basement is absolute evidence that a large square opening had been cut into the first floor and then later covered over. (Note: The wires are temporary.)

 

This is the first floor. The red square approximates the area where a hole had been cut into the floor, just at the foot of the grand staircase.

 

Huh?

Why would anybody cut a large hole right at the foot of the stair????????

The hole was not original. And there is no trace of the hole today while standing on the first floor (the oak flooring on the first floor is circa-1950).

Justin and I stood in the basement staring at this extraordinary discovery.

WHAT had happened? WHY was the change reversed?

I could only think of one explanation. What follows is total conjecture:

I believe the boilers (and coal room) were originally in the carriage house, with underground pipes leading to the Cross House. This was not uncommon.

The carriage house was was sold off circa-1921. Thus, the Cross House suddenly had no heating source.

The least expensive solution would have been to install a furnace in the basement with a single large grate above. I have been in many houses with such a situation. Note how the floor opening is right in the center of the house; ideal for gravity heating.

This single large grate would have been the only heat source. No other grates or ducts were installed in the house.

Then, this furnace was removed, and a boiler was installed so that the radiator system could be reactivated. Was this done in 1929 when the house was converted into apartments? Or in 1950 when the house was converted into the Palace Motel? The former seems more likely. But…but…when Bob Rodak purchased the house in 1999, he removed an ancient boiler and installed four new pulse boilers. But the boiler he removed did not look like a 1929 boiler. It looked more 1950.

So, well, umm, I just don’t really know what happened.

But what else would explain a huge hole being cut into the floor of the stairhall?

It is also amazing that I never noticed this before.

Golly.

 

 

30 Responses to An EXTRAORDINARY and Mysterious Discovery!

  1. I love that your house is still showing you new mysteries, it’s so cool. Sadly I have no explanation for the mysterious ex hole. It did however just occur to me that your house would be an amazing place to hold murder mystery nights. A bit like a life sized game of Cluedo.

  2. I’m with you in thinking that this is a furnace grate from the 50s. It would have been a common solution to the heating problem when the Mouse family converted to a motel. Noting the ducting with the old boiler, it would have given the best heating to the basement and the upper floors. I think that the old laundry chute was one of the ducting points to the upper floors.

    Where I’m not with you is the idea that the coal room and boiler were in the carriage house. I think that they were in the house itself. Why? Because of the two sloped window sills in the basement, one to the left of the laundry room where the ac wiring was and one where the current boiler wiring exits the house. Remember that coal wasn’t considered “dirty” like today’s standards. It burned efficiently, gave great value for the money, and was also a source of kitchen fuel. The boiler of 1894 would have been a closed system and, as you noted, was the latest thing in heating with the radiators we all so love.

    I think that there has always been a boiler of some description in that location! Stoking the boiler in the 1890s wouldn’t have been a major production, it would have been a worm feed from a stoking box, IMO. That way, you would have only had to feed the box about once a day. So why is the sloping window sill a clue? In coal delivery, a wagon (in the original system’s day) could tilt from the wagon with a chute that the wagon had into a bin in the basement from that window. It’s designed to facilitate putting the chute from the wagon to the basement efficiently. It supports the dumping chute with that slope.

    So why two? One for the kitchen stove (the one near the stairs) and one for the boiler. Given the shaping of the stove alcove in the kitchen and it’s proximity to the stairs, that would have been a convenience for the kitchen staff to keep the stove going. No trotting to another location for a hod of coal. Efficiency, my dear, efficiency! The ashes would have gone back to the basement for washing. Washing? Yup. Washing powders weren’t invented until the 1920s. In fact, Tide powders weren’t introduced until 1950! Before then, lye was the preferred method of cleaning. And lye water is made of ashes. Mrs. Cross was the epitome of Victorian efficiency, as shown by her innovations in her house.

    Notice that there was a wall between the laundry room and that window. I think it was designed to keep the coal dust in the vicinity of the boiler…and keep the laundry clean. That one little space to the left of the stairs was the kitchen supply coal.

    So that’s my theory. Tracing the radiator pipes would give other clues about it. I think that the system built so long ago is still the most efficient heating system to date for Cross House.

    • The floor grate would have been gone by 1950, when new flooring was installed in the house. I am guessing that the grate was installed in 1921.

      The duct shown in the boiler image (next post) was an exhaust duct, not supply. And the laundry chute was never used as a duct.

      Also, ALL the exterior stone basement window sills have a slight slope. This is standard for sills (even wood ones) so that rain will fall away from the house rather than to it. There are some wood interior sills (and these are flat) but most of the basement windows have no sill. Rather, the thick stone walls slope down. This is a common detail as it allows more light to enter a basement.

      There is no evidence of coal chute in the basement. Nor do the original drawings indicate one. Also, there is a detailed newspaper description of the house when it was new and no mention is made of a boiler even though the basement (and laundry room) are.

      Yes, it is certainly possible that the original boiler and coal room were in the basement of the Cross House. But no evidence supports this.

      • There wouldn’t have been a chute installed in the house. The chute is always attached to the delivery vehicle, like a cement truck has, only flatter. Coal trucks have it attached to the tailgate and the bed of the truck is tilted to allow the coal to feed down the chute, through the “window” (ours tilted inward, not outward) to a “hopper”. It’s not unusual for a ton at a time to be delivered in this manner. So that’s the reason I asked about those two windows. It looked familiar to me the way the slope was built into the sill.

        • The small window at the bottom of the interior basement stairs does not have a sloped interior sill. It has a flat wood sill.

          The original drawings show this window lighting a small room, and with the stair being open to the room.

          I doubt this room was a coal room. Much more likely? It was a root cellar. My grandmother had one in her basement.

          The basement was fully heated, save this one small room, and another small room opposite. A root cellar at the bottom of the stairs would have been highly convenient for the kitchen.

  3. When we bought our (small) 1919 Bungalow in 1994 we took up the carpet in the living/dining room and found a square of plywood filling in a large hole between the rooms that had been the furnace grate. My husband was able to patch it in beautifully with some old Maple flooring salvaged from one of the local elementary schools that had been torn down. There is also a small metal grate in the living room ceiling into the upstairs hall floor. Heat rising through the floor grates used to be the only heat source upstairs in cold Northern MN. I’m glad we have forced air heat now!

    Thank you Ross for putting your time, energy, money and love into the Cross House!

  4. I don’t know anything about heating systems so I can’t really comment on theories about that, but I. like B. Davis, was wondering if it could have been for stairs to the basement. With all the different changes to the house, there may have been a time when another entrance to the basement was needed. For example, when Mr. Mouse Sr. turned the house in to apartments in 1929, he may have wanted to allow the tenants access to the basement to do laundry without having them all going through his kitchen to get there. Is there even room for stairs in that area? In the blueprint for how he originally intended to build the stairs, it looks like there was a door leading into the library. Was that entrance ever built or was it moved to the south hall when the stair design changed? If the entrance was built as drawn, then maybe it was moved at the same time they needed room for the new stairs to the basement.

    • That was my first thought, too, but the hole in the floor is RIGHT in front of the main stair.

      So, people would have come down the main stair, and fallen down any steps into the basement!

      • That’s too funny and explains why I’m not a house designer! But, seriously, I didn’t realize the hole was RIGHT in front of the stairs. I think your theory is the only one that makes sense.

  5. IF the original boiler was in the basement, and IF Mouse replaced it with a smaller one because he wanted additional space for the basement motel rooms, could the hole have been cut to remove a mammoth old boiler prior to installing the smaller 1950s one?

      • Ah. It was unclear how big the hole in the floor was. Must be narrower than the door. I have great faith that you will solve the mystery in due time.

        • Am I the only one who sees that as an unlikely location and unusually large for a furnace grate to me. Why would you want that right at the bottom of the stairs – seems like a very ugly location choice, especially in a magnificent home.

          If they were replacing the flooring there as part of the renovation, it would possibly make sense to create the opening to get bulky/heavy equipment in and out. Think about the effort required to take an 6-800 lb boiler up and down stairs with, I assume, a low ceiling. It might have been easier to winch it up and then take it out the front door.

          • And I question why a single floor furnace in such a huge house? Maybe. But I don’t think it would have heated much more than the stair hall, which is huge. They would definitely have had to supplement with the fireplaces.

          • Hi, John!

            As mentioned above. the basement has a stair leading directly outside.

            Old boilers are commonly broken up in situ. New boilers were commonly assembled on site.

            Also, a forced-air furnace, with a single large floor grate, could actually have heated the house. I lived once in a house heated as such. As long as one kept interior doors open, it worked surprisingly well! The floor grate was huge, and was, inexplicably, right between the living room and dining room. One had to walk over it to get between the rooms.

          • Ross, maybe so, my why would use what would seem to me to be a very inefficient system? And why would you place an ugly grate in such a prominent location? In the 50’s ducted vents were common. That would be much more efficient and I would think relatively easily installed if there was no ceiling in the basement. Was there a ceiling to your knowledge?

            If a grate was truly placed there, I imagine the original architect was rolling in his grave.

            [Ross: Again, all this is conjecture: I am guessing that the original boiler was in the carriage house. When it was converted to a house circa-1921, the Cross House lost its heating. So, a CHEAP quick fix was to install a large furnace in the basement, and with but a single supply vent: A huge grate in the floor directly above. The location makes sense actually as it was in the center of the house.

            (This was not uncommon. As I mentioned, I once lived in a house with exactly this, and one walked over a huge grate to go from the living room to the dining room.)

            Later, the furnace was removed after a new boiler was installed and the radiator system reactivated.]

  6. I read a newspaper article dated 2/08/1927 that reported on the conversion of the house into apartments by Mr. Mouse which stated that new oak floors had been installed throughout the house. This would date the floors to 1927, wouldn’t it. A new steam heating system was also being installed as well as new wallpaper. All four of the apartments were on the second floor and were rented furnished. The third floor “ballroom” was going to be used for community meetings and gatherings. (The reporter called the third floor a “ballroom.”).

    • Hi, Claudia!

      I have read conflicting information about the non-original oak floors.

      My impression is that the second floor received new oak flooring when apartment units were created in the late 1920s. The first-floor received new oak flooring when the house was converted into a motel in 1950.

      However, physical evidence indicates that the second floor was AGAIN refloored in 1950.

  7. My first thought was an old elevator until I realized it would have blocked the stairs. 🙂

    What’s the interior width of the basement stair doorway? Is there a turn/landing? (I can’t remember ever seeing the basement stairs in detail.) Maybe something from the ’29 conversion that’s now gone was too large. Or just construction materials were fed down there rather than having to go up and down stairs with cast iron tubs and the like? Those double front doors would be a lot easier than back stairs for oversized bits.

    Heating grate makes sense. Flooring over something no longer needed makes sense. Portal is definite possibility. (It could explain how all those bits ended up in Aladdin’s Cave.)

    • You are forgetting the “storm cellar” doors to the right of the back porch that Ross redid this past spring. I think that those are the ones he’s talking about, not the service stairs that run the height of the back. There are two different structures.

      • Righto Dodi! I agree that the storm cellar doors to right of back porch would be correct & servants stairs are different constructs—latter are one of Ross’ favorite things.

    • Surprisingly, I was referring to the basement stair with the bulkhead doors.
      (Although the inner dimension of the interior service stairs door would be interesting as well…) There is most definitely a landing in the servants’ stairs – it has that lovely stained glass circle.

      My grandparents had a row house in Queens, NY and the outside entrance in front was a set of bulkhead doors. The steps were steep and the door at the bottom was on the right of a fairly small landing. Getting any furniture in or out was a nightmare with that turn! More recently, a floor loom was supposed to go in the basement of my dad’s house and ended up in the living room because there wasn’t enough vertical clearance between the bulkhead stairs and the house.

      Was just wondering if perhaps the bulkhead or any interior door at the basement level might be narrower/shorter than the front doors or have a turn. Maybe a surviving Mouse might remember a large hole in the floor?

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