From card bowls to laundry chutes, remnants of our housing history – The Boston Globe


From touches of Victorian-era Boston like coal hatches under front stoops to 20th-century trademarks like an unsuspecting toilet sitting in a home’s basement, historic features in Boston’s housing stock serve as important reminders of each property’s storied past. In some cases, they provide an extra dose of charm, like small love letters from an era when everything wasn’t done with a smartphone in hand. While the popularity of many of these items, like a slim closet with a built-in ironing board or a boot scraper by a front door has ebbed, it’s not unusual to find their remnants scattered around Boston.

Built-in ironing boards were in demand until the introduction of synthetic fibers that make clothes you don’t need to iron.Kate Ziegler

Victorian-Era Boston

Many of these historic elements once served an important role in the function of homes, such as heating, lighting, communication, and transportation. Tom High, the creator of BackBayHouses.org, cites ceiling medallions, which surrounded chandeliers that were lighted with gas or candles, as a long-gone functional element that occasionally pops up for aesthetic purposes. Another frequent sight in the Back Bay are former dumbwaiters, used during the delivery of food from the back alleys and sent upstairs to be prepared by servants.

Communicating with servants was an entire operation in historic homes. In some dining rooms, you’ll still find a button on the floor upon which wealthy homeowners would step to ring for their staff to bring the next course.

“Originally, you’d pull a chain or a rope or cord, and that would ring the bell. But then when they got big, fancy electricity, they would put these buttons in the middle of the dining room, and the hostess would reach out her foot and press,” High said.

Residents would use speaking tubes to communicate from room to room.Kate Ziegler

Remnants of this era can be seen in radiators with narrow trays on the end to pour water in to humidify the air, or the holes where speaking tubes used to sit, allowing people to communicate between rooms. But one of the strongest examples of Boston’s past is the former garbage disposal system. Think of garbage chutes that led to basement trash incinerators or kitchen stoves with built-in trash burners, a veritable nightmare to a present-day fire inspector. Outdoors — particularly in areas like Roslindale and Jamaica Plain — you’ll find subterranean receivers, or cast-iron canisters built into the ground, where people used to dump their garbage.

“You’ll still see them sometimes next to houses or in front yards at showings, and people are like, ‘Why is there this cast-iron hole in the ground?’” said Kate Ziegler of Arborview Realty, who noticed one near her own home.

This radiator has a humidifier tray.Kate Ziegler
Some Boston houses still have underground trash receptacles.Kate Ziegler

Sometimes these details provide intrigue for prospective owners. Ali Joyce of William Raveis recently listed a 690-square-foot unit on Norway Street in the Fenway that features an old horse-hitching ring.

“People absolutely go nuts for it,” Joyce said of the unit, located inside what was formerly the Boston Riding Club.

This condo listing on Norway Street in the Fenway was part of the Boston Riding Club. There’s a horse-hitching ring on the post.Hicham Bensaoui/Realty Plans

Midcentury Boston memories

Midcentury America brought its unique home features to the Boston area, ranging from pencil sharpeners installed in the basement for woodworking dads to central vacuum cleaners built into walls. Occasionally, Ziegler will be surveying a basement with clients and knows there will be a “creepy toilet” with no surrounding walls. Known as “Pittsburgh Potties,” the reason for their existence has ranged from a place for industrial workers to freshen up to a defense against a septic system backup.

“When listing agents tried to count that as a half bath, you’re like ‘No, that doesn’t count,’” Ziegler said with a laugh.

Screened-in porches that were walled off to create an additional room are another remnant of 20th-century Boston, particularly in areas like West Roxbury. While this was a viable solution in the past, today’s prospective buyers are a bit perplexed.

“Clients that aren’t used to older homes say, ‘Why did they do that?’ And it’s like, well, they had eight kids in the ′70s and they needed room,” Ziegler said.

A return to the old days

While a little bit of historical intrigue doesn’t guarantee modern function, certain elements from the past have seen a resurgence. You can still find basement bars, created for parents to enjoy a cocktail at the end of the day, built into ranch, Cape Cod, and Saltbox-style homes that popped up after World War II. Thais Collins, a realtor with Compass, recently sold her own ranch-style home in Woburn, which had one. But when the buyers moved in, they chose to keep it. Collins accredits that resurgence to the pandemic since it was a period when heading out to your local bar for a drink became impossible.

“I’m starting to see them, instead of getting rid of them,” Collins said. “I’m sure COVID did that.”

Other elements may be on their way back as well. Koller has recently seen several central vacuum systems installed in new construction since some people are hesitant to use ones with lithium batteries.

Central vacuum cleaners meant you had to plug a hose into wall outlets.Adobe Stock/GalinaSt – stock.adobe.com

But for others, some formerly popular features seem to be gone forever. Laundry chutes, considered an asset for upper-middle-class households of the ′80s and ′90s, are now seen as both a fire and safety hazard.

“I swear every kid got themselves stuffed down one by an older sibling growing up,” Koller said. “But if the fire was happening on the first floor, you want it to be contained, and that allows the fire to just go right up.”

Whether these pieces of history are long forgotten or still functional, they’re a keen reminder of a home’s extensive lifeline, long before and after a resident shows up. But no matter what you choose to do with the historic elements of the home, it’s likely the next owners will have plenty of thoughts.

“You have this house for a period of time, and you do what you can with it,” Ziegler said. “And then somebody will come along and question your choices in the future.”

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