Armour-Stiner Octagon House, Irvington, New York
The octagonal house dates to 1860, but was significantly altered in the 1870s with additions in the Second Empire style, most notably an enormous domed roof. The appointments in the “ladies finishing kitchen” were influenced by The American Woman’s Home, an 1869 book co-authored by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), which argued that the lady of the house should be more involved in preparations of the family meal. (At the Armour-Stiner house, staff did the heavy cooking in the basement kitchen.) The original cast-iron Richardson and Boynton Company wood-burning stove remains in place. The stove has been electrified but can be reversed back to wood-burning.
Hermann-Grima House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Built in 1831, this house in the French Quarter features its original open-hearth kitchen. Typically, two to four enslaved workers would handle kitchen chores. One, usually a child, would light the fire in the pre-dawn hours, and older cooks would arrive at sunup. While breakfast was prepared, a worker would visit the local market to find ingredients for the rest of the day’s meals.
A crane allowed for pots and kettles or a griddle to be suspended over the hearth fire. Cooking speed and temperatures were regulated by swinging pots above or away from the fire. Mounds of hot embers might be shoveled onto the hearth to create extra “burners” for cooking pots.
Four ranges known as “stew-holes” are arrayed before a backsplash covered in hexagonal tiles. Heated with charcoal, these ranges were used to simmer meats, beans, and soups over a long period of time. Baking was done in a beehive oven—named for the shape of its interior—adjacent to the hearth. Veteran cooks gauged the temperature of the oven by sticking an arm inside, experience telling them when it was hot enough for baking.
The Gamble House, Pasadena, California
Completed in 1909, the Gamble House was one of the grand bungalows designed in the American craftsman style by the architectural firm of brothers Charles Sumner Greene (1868–1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870–1954).
The kitchen was designed to be airy, spacious, efficient, and hygienic. The walls are lined in glazed subway tiles and the floor is covered in linoleum. The central worktable, designed by Greene and Greene, is made of solid maple. The drawers run continuously through the table and can be opened from either side. The wall-hung cabinets are also made of maple, and the countertops below them are sugar pine.
The gas range dates to 1909 and was manufactured by the New Process Stove Company of Cleveland, Ohio. An enameled sink for washing pots and pans is mounted directly across the room. The adjacent screened porch is where domestic staff took their meals.
Williams House, Deerfield, Massachusetts
In the 1810s, Anna and Hinsdale Williams began renovations on a house originally built in 1730, adding about ten rooms and renovating the older part in the then-current neoclassical style. The kitchen was part of that addition, and the space was further updated at a later date, likely in the 1830s, with an expensive cast-iron cookstove. (The probate inventory of the estate of Hinsdale Williams [1761–1838] valued the cookstove at $30.)
“This kitchen documents the transition between cooking on the hearth—over an open fire or using coals on the hearth as burners—and cooking with a stove,” says Deerfield’s chief curator, Amanda Lange. “For someone like Anna Williams (1770–1852), who had grown up cooking food on the hearth, this transition probably wasn’t that easy—sort of like adopting any new technology today. Between the firebox and the chimney, a series of manual dampers and levers controlled the air and smoke flow, the rate of burning, and consequently the cooking temperatures. Even with manuals and cookbooks educating people on how to use stoves, there was a learning curve and early users often burned their foods.”
The positives outweighed the negatives, Lange notes. Cookstoves were more efficient than open hearths, using less fuel as New England experienced deforestation and a shortage of wood in the 1830s.
Items like washtubs in an adjacent storage space called the buttery—not because butter was kept there, but rather casks, or butts, of provisions—point to the ancillary functions of the kitchen.
Miller House, Columbus, Indiana
Twenty years before the Miller residence was completed in 1957, the typical kitchen in a wealthy family’s home would have been hidden away out of sight, the sole province of domestic servants. But industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia, wanted the kitchen to be a core, convivial space for themselves and their children.
Three greats of modernist design had a hand in the making of the Miller House. Eero Saarinen (1910–1961), best known for the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York, was its architect. Alexander Girard (1907–1993) designed the interior decor, and Dan Kiley (1912–2004) devised the elegant landscaping that surrounds the house.
Girard’s eye for energetic color and pattern shows to great effect in the kitchen. He designed the custom-made rug, and the bright curtains are made of his Eden pattern, designed for the Herman Miller Furniture Company. DKR chairs by Charles and Ray Eames—better known as “Eiffel” chairs—surround the table. For many visitors, the kitchen’s most memorable feature is a blacksplash made of azure Venetian glass tiles.
The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island
After the original wooden version of the Breakers—purchased from tobacco tycoon Pierre Lorillard in 1885—burned down in November of 1892, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899) resolved to make the new limestone and steel Breakers as fireproof as possible. He made sure the kitchen in his new house was strategically located as a separate wing on the first floor, not in the basement, as was the case in other houses of the period. The space was also well ventilated, which was beneficial for the staff and kept cooking odors from lingering. The kitchen retains all its original features and serves as an example of a well-planned, turn-of-the-century food storage and preparation space.
French-style wood- and coal-burning cast-iron stoves stretch over twenty-one feet—affording plenty of room for the team of cooks who prepared meals for the Vanderbilts and their guests. There are no individual burners—the whole cast-iron surface heated up like one enormous griddle. There are three ovens below, and two broiler units with a rotisserie for turning meat on a spit.
At the far end of a long table covered with zinc is a large marble mortar used to crush herbs. Although the original copper pots were donated by Gladys Moore Vanderbilt, Countess Széchenyi (1886–1965) to a scrap-metal drive during World War II, they have since been replaced by similar pots donated by other Newport families whose homes are of the same period.