Earlier I discussed
the mysterious meaning of beadboard:
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In making my graphic tributes to lost places I use a lot of beadboard surfaces.
From 1880 to 1920, beadboard was nearly universal on inner walls of commercial buildings and schools, and often on the utility parts of residences. The 'nice' rooms had plaster walls, and the laundry or back porch had beadboard.
Beadboard would have been hard to clean and hard to paint. Wood is more resilient than plaster, so it could take bumping by furniture without chipping or cracking. But wider slats forming a flat surface would have served better. Tongue-and-groove wood flooring would have been easier to paint and clean, and would re-use existing materials and installation skills.
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I got sidetracked by the acoustical and optical stuff and slid past the important point, the social signal
of beadboard. When you were in plaster, you were in the leisure class. When you were in beadboard, you were a tradesman (iceman, milkman) or a servant or a boarder.
Before WW2 it wasn't uncommon
for small residences to have live-in servants or lodgers, so it made sense to have special sections
for servants or lodgers.
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One beadboard area that resonates especially in memory is the back part of Grandma's apartment. She lived there for 40 years, and I did some 'handyman' work for her at various times, so I knew most parts of the building.
These two buildings were elegant
when first built in 1910. They had terra-cotta facades echoing the Ponca landmark Arcade Hotel. The facades were removed later.
Like NYC apts, they had separate Plaster and Beadboard Zones, separate areas for the residents and the servants or boarders. Separation made sense in a NYC highrise with dozens or hundreds of units, but it was hugely inefficient in a fourplex. I've lived and visited in plenty of apartment buildings, large and small, and never saw this separation anywhere else.
Here's my initial attempt to redraw the plan from memory. This is the second floor. Grandma's apartment was the left upper unit, so I've placed furniture and doorways in that one.
The front stairway for the Plaster People is wide and varnished, and leads to the small front entry hall for both apts.
The Beadboard Zone (shown with lighter-colored walls) isn't part of the main building. It is built lightly, sitting on concrete blocks.
The back stairway is a tight squared-off spiral, gray painted** wood in beadboard walls, leading to the back hall and then the Mystery Hall. From the back hall you can directly reach the Beadboard Zone for servants or boarders. The small room could have been a bedroom or closet, and the large room could have been the 'living room' for maid or lodger. The boarder's room has its own entrance to the bathroom, and can reach the kitchen via the Mystery Hall without going through the Plaster People's bedroom.
The iceman and milkman had to climb the twisty little staircase to leave milk in the back hall, or deliver groceries to the kitchen via the Mystery Hall. Note that the Mystery Hall doesn't open
into the front entry, even though it bumps directly against the front entry. A door would have made sense for traffic flow, but the designer wasn't interested in traffic flow.
My memory is solid on the Plaster Zone but vague on the Beadboard Zone. I couldn't figure out how the Mystery Hall was set up. I remembered it as a continuation of the back hall, perhaps with a door to a brief short section between the kitchens.
As I tried to draw the digital plan, this didn't make sense. The bathrooms were too narrow this way, and there should have been a division in the floor between the back porchy part and the front main-building part, but there wasn't.
I looked at Googlestreet, hoping to get a sense of the interior from the windows. Googlestreet did me an even bigger favor!
The left building has been abandoned for a long time. The right building (where Grandma lived) has remained occupied. Now the Beadboard Zone of the left building has fallen off, leaving the original doors and windows of the Plaster Zone exposed. The center doors (arrows) told me that the Mystery Hall ran all the way back to the Beadboard Zone, with an outside-type door between the back hall and Mystery Hall.
This makes complete sense, even though it doesn't match my vague memory.
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For comparison, here's a Sears manufactured fourplex
of similar style and form. It has the same front stairway and a basic porch on the back, but no Mystery Hall.
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** I remember that the tight steep spiral was painted gray. I never stopped to wonder why it was still fully painted in the '70s after 60 years of use. The answer is obvious. This was Oklahoma, not NYC. The NYC custom of separate trade entrances and separate trade halls never caught on, which is why I never saw them in other buildings. The iceman and milkman simply used the wide varnished front stairs like everyone else. The back door at the bottom of the spiral was never opened, and the Mystery Hall was only used when the 'handyman' needed to replace a fuse or climb through the hatch to the roof. It was a time capsule.
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Modern footnote: Unlike the trade entrance, the custom of renting the sunporch to boarders was still widespread in the '70s. I remember three examples. One was a great-grandma on the other side of the family, boarding on the back porch of another elderly lady. Two were impoverished hippies.
Now the custom of keeping boarders has returned, thanks to the wonderful Share Value economy of globalism which lifts all NYC boats to the heavens and bombs all other boats to bedrock. Modern houses don't have sunporches or grade entries
so they make do with RVs or garages. BUT: I've noticed that several of the boardinghouses in this neighborhood are default bilevels,
essentially the modern version of the grade entry, allowing lower-level boarders to enter without passing through the upper-level rooms.
Labels: Alternate universe, coot-proofing, Leth