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)


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