Santa Rosa weather usually gives no reason for complaint, so the recent cold snap, where thermometers struggled to climb much beyond freezing even in afternoons, came as an unwelcome surprise. When it's this frigid, Comstock House can seem like a big old barn of a place that sucks in the chill - or, it can be reasonably warm, even comfortable. It all depends on how well you understand the house's systems, and how willing you are to work with those systems instead of fighting them.

Most everything about this house was designed for the comfort of the Oates family in 1905, and the first step to living happily in this old house is embracing their standards of comfort. Not every corner of every room can be brightly lit in the evenings as many people today desire (more about that above), and some bedrooms will be warmer than others because they have larger radiators.

And you can also forget the gratification of instant warmth on a chilly morning by jacking up the thermostat; the hydronic radiators can take more than an hour to make the slightest difference if they started cold. The Oates family likely either ordered a servant to fix the fire in the cast-iron boiler several hours before they arose on a winter's morning, or left coals burning overnight so the radiators never cooled. The former owner of this house chose to use a timer that kicked the boiler alive before dawn (she was apparently not bothered by the hammering that results as hot water begins flowing through stone-cold iron pipes, and unworried that the shock of doing same every day might crack the century-old plumbing). We instead are setting the thermostat low overnight, but never turn it off completely - the equivalent of letting the coals die down.

But when the weather turns this extreme, no radiator management is enough to keep our house comfortable; somehow the main source of the seeping cold must be also blocked off, and here that means closing down all of the servant's portion of the house, including the kitchen.

Architect Brainerd Jones may have tended well to the comforts of the Oates family, but his disregard for the people who worked for them was deplorable. In the blueprints there was only a single toilet for the help, and it was accessed via a nook on the kitchen porch. The only radiator in that entire section of the house was specified for the upstairs servant's bedroom, and it's the tiniest radiator in the whole place. Mercifully, the contractor varied from the plans by adding another radiator to the "sitting room" (which we believe was more likely the cook's bedroom) and installing a toilet in the second upstairs bathroom.

The lack of radiators aside, Jones' design is also much of the reason why this northwest corner of the house turns arctic. The sitting room juts away from the house, exposed on three sides; the kitchen and hallway wrap around the back porch, which has no basement underneath it or second story above it to help insulate (no second floor above the sitting room, either).

In the Oates' day, only if the poor servant(s) kept the stove red hot all day could these rooms be usable, but the family probably rarely experienced their employees' discomfort. Every path into the kitchen/sitting room has a pair of doors that can be closed to buffer smells and cold from the main portion of the house. The most obvious pair are the swinging doors on either side of the china pantry, which allows it to function as a kind of airlock.

Today, the design allows us to zone off the old servant's portion of the house, which means that there is about 7,000 cubic feet less for the radiators to heat. While the results aren't perfect, it makes a noticeable difference. On a recent night where temps plunged to 22 degrees and only slightly edged past the freezing point by noon, it was a tolerably-comfortable 65 in the main part of the house, while in the zoned-off section it was 42 degrees.

Obl. history sidebar: The original post about our heating system neglected to mention that most homes built in that era didn't have radiators and hot-water heating, but instead used a gravity furnace. Here warm air from a coal-fired furnace positioned in the center of the basement drifted upwards through ducts (wrapped in asbestos, natch) to registers in the floors or baseboards. Besides being ridiculously inefficient, the furnaces were labor-intensive because they needed to be kept as hot as possible, requiring frequent trips down to the dungeon to "fix the fire."

it wasn't until after WWI that the first furnace blowers became available to force the air upwards using a propeller-like fan, and about the same time oil burners began to replace coal fires. The switchover to heating oil was encouraged because of war-related coal shortages that led to a "coalless Monday" order that lasted into 1918. Unlike coal - which was needed to fuel transatlantic ships - there was no rationing of oil whatsoever.

(BELOW: Cartoon from the November 3, 1907 Press Democrat. CLICK to enlarge)

The first in a series of essays on the architectural background of Comstock House is now available. Behind the Design, Part I lays the groundwork by covering the Colonial revival fad and the emergence of the Shingle and Queen Anne styles in the late 19th century; the next entry will cover how these elements further evolved in the 20th century San Francisco Bay Area.

Demolishing the front steps meant removing the handrail as well, with no tears shed; it was a plain wooden pole added in the 1990s, and we know from historic photographs that no earlier rail existed. But when we rebuild the steps, should we install another handrail, albeit something nicer? There was also pressure that decisions needed to be quick coming; if a support post was to be added, a footing had to be ready when the new concrete pad was poured just a few days later.

A conversation about the handrail was underway between contractor David Jessen, architect Mark Parry, and myself. We agreed that we didn't want to reuse the old "mop stick" handrail or replace it with a new but just-as-bad equivalent. Possible custom wrought iron rails were most often discussed; a thin black rod would be the less obtrusive option, for certain. But should it run along one side? Both sides? Down the middle? Have some curly decorative flair at the ends? Candice and I were simultaneously kicking around ideas for something fancier with both a top and bottom rail, either art nouveau grillwork or Roycroft-like Arts & Crafts ballusters between. Either might be period appropriate, but the debate itself was drifting away from the true question: what would architect Brainerd Jones have done?

Since Jones didn't specify a handrail, we could only guess what he might have done on these front steps, if it had been included. But in the rear of the house were two possible examples: the once-identical handrails for the kitchen porch stairs and the back stoop, both made of only wood and with Jones' hallmark "Union Jack X." Wouldn't he have used this same design in the front steps? I went further, and argued that such a rail would have been down the middle, rather than blocking the side wall/platforms, and cobbled together a crude Photoshop mockup of what this might look like.

Candice endorsed the concept, but our contractor objected strongly. If we were really restoring the house we shouldn't be introducing major new elements, such as a 4-inch-wide wooden railing. Plus, he insisted, the handrail would never have been placed in the center. "I'll bet I can find five examples of rails in the middle of steps," I pushed back. "Show me one," he challenged.

Since the Comstock House design is based on the shingle style country house of the 1880s, I looked first at houses designed by McKim, Mead & White, the most famous architectural firm for this school. Almost immediately, I found an example of a center handrail: The 1882 Isaac Bell House in Newport. But that was a simple metal pipe, and it wasn't free-standing - at the porch landing it terminated on a support column (not visible in this photograph). Only in the most technical sense was this a match, and search I might, no other examples could be found. Down-the-middle handrails rarely/never existed in the era, even expanding the search to late Victorians in general. Lesson learned: if you're lucky enough to have a contractor like David Jessen with decades of experience working on Victorian-era homes, pay heed.

But what did the old technical manuals say on the topic? Like shingle preservation and other obscura discussed here, the study of Victorian porch handrails lacked any easy Google answers. Turn-of-the-century carpentry books contained much on building stairs and handrails, but the focus was exclusively on construction of interior steps and fine joinery (gotta have a handrail punch to turn those handrail screws) and such complex craftsmanship as the geometry of making winding stairs. Rarely were exterior stairways ever mentioned, and never was found a discussion of center handrails. A passing reference to a center railing was found in the classic 1897 Practical Building Construction (which remained in print for more than thirty years), which implied using a center rail as a median divider when there was heavy foot traffic in both directions.

The period photographs also show that side handrails on entrance stairs began evolving -- and sometimes disappearing -- during the 1880s. Homes built in the Victorian Gothic Revival style usually had a first floor high off the ground, which required many steps; houses built during the Colonial Revival craze after the Centennial year were lower to the ground, with rarely more than a handful of steps needed. Victorian Gothic front steps were usually narrow and straight, almost like a chute; steps found on houses after that period tended to be much wider, and when there was a long distance to the front door, there were landings or switchback designs that broke the climb into shorter segments.

(Sidebar: After looking at hundreds of 19th century front steps, I've come to believe that Americans in the Victorian era mostly saw handrails as an aid to pulling themselves upward, not as a safety measure to prevent a tumble down. Examples abound of railing designs that would be be easy for climbing, but possibly dangerous for descending -- the rail is too short, begins at the third or fourth step from the top, is interrupted by a large newel post, and so on. Some academic has studied this to death, I'm sure.)

Above are details from a selection of examples from "Artistic Country-Seats" (1886, reprinted by Dover with new commentary in 1982) that show what happened to American front steps after the High Victorian era. In some cases, the sides to the stairs completely -- and dangerously -- disappear, but more often the sides evolved to frame the steps, integrating them into house design. In the middle example, the sides continue the spindle woodwork found on the porch balustrades. On the right, the steps are encased with a low wall that continues the shingling on the house, and is topped with a cap that could be used as a planter box or some sort of platform.

In the end, we were asking an irrelevant question: Brainerd Jones didn't neglect to build a handrail on the Comstock House front steps -- he did include it in his design, via a shorter and a taller sidewall that was completely appropriate to the 1880s style, giving visitors a bit of support while climbing the seven stairs. Or the two caps on each side could simply be used as a nice place to sit, which is exactly what the Comstock family did, posing for a snapshot during a 1937 reunion.

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