San Francisco “California coolers” were ahead of their time

Illustration for article titled San Francisco “California coolers” were ahead of their time
Photo: joe daniel price (Getty Images)

Old houses can be full of anachronistic oddities, like coal chutes, ice doors, and secret passageways for committing murders and harboring spooky ghosts. In San Francisco, some homes built between 1890 and 1930 feature a kitchen “appliance” that eco-friendly West Coasters might be interested in bringing back into vogue: the “California cooler.”

According to SFGate, this retro kitchen quirk—also known as a “pie safe”—is a small closet built into a house’s exterior wall with vents that let cool air flow inside, and slatted shelves that let that air circulate. Thanks to the area’s propensity for fog and mild temperatures, SFGate posits the temperatures in these proto-refrigerators stay within the range of 50-65 degrees in the non-winter months. While not frigid enough to hold highly perishable items like meat (those would need to stay in a proper ice box), these cold chambers were ideal for holding fruits, vegetables, eggs and, of course, pies.

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Though these seem like a brilliant thing for homes to have in a state that’s forcing its citizens to go green in the kitchen, sadly, few have survived into the 21st century, and many who have them aren’t aware of their original purpose. When SFGate editor Tessa McLean took to social media to track down surviving California coolers, she found that most of the respondents were using theirs to store wine. Perhaps this is an architectural feature that needs to make a comeback. If you’re interested in adding some climate-friendly Victorian flair to your next kitchen remodel, SFGate helpfully tracked down schematics from a 1923 issue of Popular Mechanics. What other architectural features from the days of yore do you think should be brought back into vogue?

Allison Robicelli is The Takeout staff writer, a former professional chef, author of three books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Questions about recipes/need cooking advice? Tweet @Robicellis.

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DISCUSSION

szielins
Stephan Zielinski

1930 was ninety years ago. In the intervening century, San Francisco has become rather more densely populated, and much more intensely built up. The urban heat island effect has kicked in.

Indeed, they weren’t built after 1930 because they didn’t work all that well then, either.