Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A room of one's own ... to cook, sleep or die

A long weekend in a distant town turned unexpectedly into a fascinating architectural history lesson. My friend Mary and I wanted to explore a new part of Texas, so we journeyed to the small, historic town of Salado (Pop. 3,500), some 50 miles north of Austin. Our intent was merely to relax, explore new spaces, see new aspects of Texas, and eat good food and drink some good wine. (Well, Salado is a dry county, so the wine came from our own cabinet.)

It's amazing what you'll learn when you go poking around. Among the interesting things we didn't know on Friday but know today: In 1859, Salado was home to Texas' second major college, Salado College, which now sits in ruins at the edge of town (pictured above.) Jesse James, George Custer and Sam Houston all slept in the same hotel where we stayed -- although not at the same time. Lyndon Baines Johnson's great-grandfather, a preacher, was from Salado and his house is now a B&B. All pretty trivial stuff (except to the locals) but still interesting enough for a blog.

But I was most fascinated by three MORE things I'd never known before, coincidentally all architectural. And in each case, we had simply wandered into an old place and asked some simple questions. Isn't learning fun?

Winter kitchen, summer kitchen

After dinner at the Barton House of Salado, an antebellum mansion now home to a restaurant called The Range, the night manager squired us through the old house, built by a young dentist before the Civil War. Of the many interesting historical features, one (or two) stood out: Like many 18th and 19th century homes, the Barton house had two kitchens, largely because of the great heat given off by wood-burning cookstoves. Summer kitchens were usually outside or attached to the back of the house, with several windows to allow hot air to vent quickly out of the room; winter kitchens were often down in the basement or the heart of the home, where the ambient cooking heat could serve the secondary purpose of helping to heat the home during colder months. Wealthier families might own two cookstoves, one for the winter kitchen and one for the summer kitchen, but poorer folks would be forced to move their single stove from kitchen to kitchen at the turn of the season.

The Stranger's Room

Salado sits on the Chisholm Trail and many a vagabond cowboy passed this way. In the frontier days before commercial lodging sunk its roots in this new territory, many well-off locals like Salado founder Sterling C. Robertson built their homes with a "stranger's room," or a place where travelers might bunk overnight, maybe even eat a hot meal. But the hospitality had its limits: These rooms were part of the house, but no door actually connected the "stranger's room" to the rest of the house. That's right. The owners were able to offer overnight hospitality to travelers without giving them access to the family areas. Hospitable ... and safe.

Death and life

Do you know why we call our great rooms "living rooms"? I didn't ... but I do now. We learned this at a tour of the O. Henry House and Museum in Austin. Here's a more authoritative explanation from American Rites of Passage:

"After a person died, he or she would remain in the home for a few days so that family members and friends could pay their last respects by viewing the body. This time was referred to as the viewing or wake and was often held in the most formal room of the house, which was typically the 'parlor.' ... By the early 20th century, funeral preparation and wakes began to be held outside of the home in modern day funeral homes [that's why we used to call them 'funeral parlors.'] However, the association between death and the parlor continued to linger. To change this perception, inventive furniture makers and home designers invented the name 'living room' to describe the parlor. This would associate the room with life not death."


SingingSkies said...

Salado's a neat little town, isn't it? I've a friend from Austin who makes an annual pilgrimmage there for shopping and a meal at a special restaurant that I can't remember the name of.

Thanks for the architectural info! I'd known about the summer/winter kitchen and why living rooms are called living rooms (as you might imagine). Had never heard of the Stranger's Room, though. What an interesting dimension to hospitality.

That's not to say that hospitality doesn't exist today. It does. However, I suspect most of us would feel more comfortable if those strangers stayed in a place separate from our homes (unless, of course, they were visiting via a group/place that we knew and trusted). In this day and age, this would be true for both our sakes. Wonder what that says about us (me!)?

lilfeathers2000 said...

Learned something new. Living rooms.Thanks

Anonymous said...

i had heard somewhere that the name was changed during the big death toll in 1918? has anyone else heard this part? 800,000 people in the us died and different stains killed millions in europe.