Wanna See My 1894 Ice Chest?

When the Cross House was built in 1894 it was state of the art.

Today, it would be like having a home built wholly wireless and with LEED green certification.

In 1894 this meant:

1) Both gas and electric lighting. The former was a proven technology; the latter was new and unproven. Hence, being modern in 1894 meant having both. The Cross House? Check!

2) Not just a telephone (oh, the wonder!) but having a telephone closet. The Cross House? Check!

3) Speaking tubes, the very acme of in-home communication modernity! The Cross House? Check!

4) Not just fireplaces (sooooo old-fashioned) but new-fangled radiators! The Cross House? Check!

5) A dumbwaiter. The Cross House? Check!

6) A laundry chute. The Cross House? Check!

7) A built-in ice chest. The Cross House? Check!

The miracle of the Cross House is that considering all it has been through (private residence, tea house, sorority, apartments, motel, several fraternities, boarding house, and private residence again) it is so wondrously intact.

All seven state-of-the-art systems which were installed in 1894 are still (mostly) extant in 2014.

1) Sadly, all the original gas/electric lighting was removed decades ago (sigh) but all the gas pipes remain. Kinda cool. I would not dream of tearing them out although I am ripping out every single other redundant pipe.

2) The telephone closet (with a stained-glass widow!) is extant. Not only will I keep this delightful feature but I will install a land-line telephone, a small chair, and a small shelf for a glass of wine. When you go inside the closet and close the door the acoustics are great.

3) The speaking tubes are mostly extant, and I will be restoring the system.

4) All eight(!) coal-burning fireplaces are extant, and their mantles, and over-mantles. Truly a miracle. The radiator system is intact and has four new high-effeciency pulse boilers (and I love love love them).

5) The dumbwaiter is partially extant. I will fully restore this cool feature.

6) The laundry chute is partially extant. I will fully restore this cool feature.

7) The ice-chest is fully intact.

I have never seen a fully intact 19th-century ice chest, and have no idea how the Cross House ice chest managed to get through 120-years without being fully removed or partially torn apart.



ABOVE: On the back porch of the Cross House is the outer door to the ice chest. It is up kinda high. I have NO idea of how the ice man would have gotten heavy blocks of ice up to the door. As you can see, the door is fully intact, including all its hardware. I cannot wait to get this all painted, and the hardware burnished. The door is currently surrounded by an array of electric boxes; these are all going to be removed and dropped into the basement. Why? Well, they distract from the beauty of The Door.



ABOVE: Inside the pantry is the main ice chest door. It is about five-foot in height. Again, it is fully intact. I am uncertain if it was painted originally or finished bright. The bits of what look like wood are brown paint under the white paint.



ABOVE: When you open the door there is this incredible stepped edge. Wow. And the door is THICK! I imagine the inside is stuffed with sawdust, right?



ABOVE: The inner stepped edge. Geez.



ABOVE: The whole interior is lined with galvanized metal, and with built-in shelves. I have no idea of how to clean the metal but am determined to have the interior gleaming one day.



ABOVE: The drain from the upper compartment (where the ice would be stored) to the basement, where it connects with a main drain pipe.



ABOVE: Looking at the top of the main compartment. Until I saw this image I had no idea that the top was wood! You can see the drain. I have never looked inside the ice compartment itself (and did not even realize this until writing these words. So, a new adventure this week! Update to follow!).

A part of me would love to have some sort of modern refrigerant thingy (a compressor?) installed so that the ice chest could act as a refrigerator.

Another part of me does not want to alter this time-capsule in even the tiniest way.

Another part of me longs for a state-of-the-art refrigerator in the kitchen. Thus the ice chest, even though fully restored, would likely be relegated to a broom closet.

As the renovation of the kitchen is a while away I have plenty of time to ponder options.

Your thoughts are invited!


  1. Traci on December 15, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Ross!
    Can you show pics of the dumb waiter?

    I’m thinking about your ice closet now.

    Also, did you get my email about the NY Times article?


    • Ross on December 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Traci!

      I will be doing a later post on the dumbwaiter.

      Yes, I did get your NYT note. Thanks! I enjoyed the article!


  2. Chad's Crooked House on December 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    What about a wine cellar? I feel like that’s in the spirit of the room and a lot less invasive than trying to retrofit it into a usable refrigerator. I’d even be inclined to leave it (slightly) dirty for that purpose.

    • Anne Moore on March 27, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      They were my exact thoughts – perfect for a wine cellar but also a root vegetable cellar would keep them nice and fresh.

  3. Lady Cynthia Dschankilic on December 17, 2014 at 4:15 am

    Oo! I like the wine cellar idea! The stepped edges are remarkable. And a dumbwaiter? Swoon! You really do have all the modern amenities! Can’t wait to see the dumbwaiter post.

  4. Betsy on December 18, 2014 at 2:48 am

    An extra refrigerated unit certainly would come in handy for parties. (Or to keep a side of beef ) . Perhaps one could set it up so you could only turn on the compressor when desired/ needed ?

  5. Sandra G. McNichol on February 19, 2015 at 1:54 am

    Wow! I also love your totally cool (pun intended) ice chest – wow! That stepped edge thick door, the tin, the drain pipe going to a basement drain – how great to be able to learn about, and see, such a contraption.

    My 2 cents worth on its future function: I would keep it as it is, get it all cleaned up, test it out and if all works as it likely will, I’d get & put ice blocks in it, and use it to keep things cool that don’t need to be as cool as in a fridge – like fruit, butter, jams, pies, etc. I LOVE this contraption.

    My aunt & uncle lived in a family built beautiful 3 story 1880’s farm home outside of Grandview, Manitoba. It had 2-2nd story sleeping porches and is still a stunner. Going there as a youngster is probably the reason that I have loved old homes my entire life. The 2nd level of one of their barn-like outbuildings was filled with sawdust and they would store huge blocks of ice cut in the winter from nearby Blue Lake, and would then move ice blocks to a cistern in the basement of the home if it was a dry spring or summer. My uncle opened up the door to that level when I was visiting one hot summer, chipped off a hunk of ice for me, told me to wash off the sawdust with the garden hose, and enjoy it – that ice was clear as glass, and slightly blue in color – I was fascinated by the whole scenario. This was in the late 1960’s, and they still had ice in that building! How it didn’t melt during 100 degree temps in the summers I have yet to understand.

  6. Del on June 11, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Love the idea of your amazing ice chest being used for a Wine Cellar, or a cool room for preserves, jams, fruit etc Perhaps if it is still in working order, it could still, on the occasion be used as a ice room for when you have gatherings, parties etc. I have inherited, a beautiful small Early 1900’s Portable Upright Wooden Ice Chest with Metal Enamel Interior, (the front door of it looks like a mini version of your magnificent one) that belonged to my Great Grand Mother, & was A Wedding Gift to her & was probably thought of at the time as being the height of modern kitchen appliances. I currently use this in our 1940’s Double Decker Bus, which has been turned into a Two Story Tiny Home on our 10 Acre Bush Block. These are just amazing, & are so practical, & stay cold for days, even in the hottest of Australian Summers. Am enjoying reading your amazing blog, just fantastic!

  7. René Moortgat on February 18, 2016 at 4:52 am

    Hi Ross!

    I absolutely love your blog. First time poster, I’ve just discovered it, and spent the whole night reading the posts from the beginning.

    When I saw your ice box I knew I had to comment! The insulation of these old ice boxes is amazing. I work at a historical hotel (The Chateau Laurier in Ottawa Canada, opened in 1912), and in our basement ALL of our refrigerators for ALL of the hotel kitchens are very similar (but larger) to your ice box. All the doors are original, with original hardware, and the inside is all galvanized metal, like yours. All were originally ice boxes. They have been repurposed as walk in fridges, but retained their original doors and interior. This wasn’t done for historical preservation (this is an area no guest ever sees), but because after 104 years they remain remarkably efficient as insulated spaces. It’s really cool to something (mostly) original still in hard use after a century.

    Anyways, your post reminded me of them, so I though I’d share 🙂

    Love your work!!!

  8. Michael Mackin on February 20, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    I recently did some design work for a client that bought an old house in town. In the kitchen they showed me an original ice box, still intact with the door to the exterior for ice delivery and a door also opening up to the kitchen. It was one feature they wanted to keep. They didn’t have any ideas as to how they were going to use it but they saved it for the sake that it belonged with the house and should stay.

    I think it’s great that you saved it. I hope you have found what you plan on using it for.

    • Ross on February 20, 2016 at 8:39 pm

      I might, might add some refrigeration coils in the basement, and use the ice chest as a wine cooler.

  9. Brendan on February 21, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    Hi – You commented that the exterior ice door was kind of high – I seem to remember reading somewhere that the ice man would make his ice delivery with the block on his shoulder, a leather pad on his shoulder to keep it dry. Might your door be at shoulder height for easy delivery? Also, you would want the ice at the top of the ice box to cool from the top down.

    • Ragnar on January 9, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      That’s exactly what my dad told me! He grew up in post-war Austria and they actually had an ice box well into the early 50s! The ice-man wood come in a wood-burning(!) Ford truck and deliver half or whole blocks of ice on his shoulder.

  10. Patricia on December 3, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Hello Ross,

    Reading your blog is like experiencing an opera. There’s drama, there’s comedy and breathtaking visuals.

    I laugh, I cry, and can hardly wait for the next delicious scene…

    You totally inspire me.

    Thank you for breathing life into this magnificent house!

    All the best,


    • Ross on December 3, 2016 at 11:26 am

      An opera?

      I love it!

      Thanks so much!

  11. Old house friend on December 12, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    Hello Ross,
    Just found your blog and am loving it. As friend of the the Toms family, I visited the house numerous times in the late 70s and early 80s. I am so happy to read your accounts and to know that the house is being loved and restored properly. The ice box always was so interesting to me. I was amazed that it still existed in 1980 and so hope that you find a way to maintain it and make it useful again. Keep up the great work.

  12. Pam L on June 21, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    Ross, if you can find a really good boilermaker, maybe he can make a modern frig without touching the original one.By doing something down in the boiler room and pumping it into the frig. Galvanized pipe can be cleaned with a course to a fine polishing sander. Then you can polish like silver.I did it with an old rusty looking cart for my dad and it gleamed when I got done.

  13. Anne Moore on March 27, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    If you havent already I would see if you could get somebody in to sandblast the tin for you, then polish it and seal it with a clear rust kill/protect product if you have such over there it would preserve the tin to ‘new’ and the clear sealing (turp based) would protect it from re-oxidation.
    Anne in Australia

  14. Carolyn on March 28, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Fascinating! I love learning about and seeing these details in old houses. Thank you for sharing it with us!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will NEVER be made public or shared, and you may use a screen name if you wish.