In this regular series, we explore the history of housing and residential construction in the context of current events. Check out the last installment here.
It started with a simple question, which arose one evening on a walk in Washington, DC’s historic Georgetown neighborhood: Why would a century-old home have its kitchen located in the street-facing front of the house, versus the back, looking into the yard, as was the trend at the time of its construction and is today?
To satiate our curiosity — a perk of being a journalist, no doubt — we emailed a few architects and historians who we thought could answer the question. Within a few exchanges, it was clear there was no simple answer — possibly no answer at all.
Our contacts passed us along to other architects and historians, who passed us along to yet more of their peers who, we were told, might know more about the topic. The lack of a clear answer raised a flag, so we pressed on. As the game of telephone continued, sources pointed out websites, books and archives for our reference.
No person or resource offered a precise answer. Some people we met on our path down the rabbit hole told us our search was futile, but many more were intrigued and encouraged us onward.
Working off the assumption that there's no such thing as a dumb question, we pressed on.
A week into the search, our email chain hit a critical inbox: that of Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. If he didn’t have an answer, we thought, nobody would.
The ensuing phone call with Luebke had the format of a university lecture, in which this reporter listened intently as he explained the unique mix of architectural, social and economic factors that would put a kitchen in the front of a row house.
Here’s what we learned:
The sample of houses is small. These houses, attached in rows, were built before the Civil War and renovated in the mid-20th century. Initially, they comprised undifferentiated rooms for socializing, cooking, eating and sleeping. Cooking areas at the time were typically located in the rear of the house, because many of the related functions — laundry, extensive food prep, wood chopping and more — happened in the back yard. "It was the working side of the house," Luebke said, adding that owners invested in their front, street-facing social rooms.
The advent of modern technology — from refrigerated rail cars and electricity to home appliances and packaged goods — had the overall effect of condensing the space required for food prep while turning the middle-class household into a domain to be managed rather than (for its owners, at least) a continual source of manual labor. That's according to "The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses" (University of Virginia Press, 2011), one of the many resources we were directed to as part of our fact-finding mission.
Meanwhile, Georgetown was undergoing a demographic shift. Long a "quiet, disinvested part of the city," Luebke explained, it became attractive to young adults who were moving there to work for the expanded government under the New Deal. "Bright young people are coming to Washington, moving into Georgetown and renovating these houses," he said. "Georgetown suddenly goes from being a quiet backwater … to becoming sort of hip."
That changed who lived in the homes and how they used them. No longer a utilitarian place for preparing poultry or hanging laundry, for instance, "the backyard becomes ... an extension of the living space for pleasure," he said.
This is where our kitchen makes its move from the back of the house to the front.
As these up-and-coming government workers rose through the ranks of their occupations, their station improved and, with it, that of their homes. But they had little space to work with when renovating. Arranged in rows and so typically abutted by other houses, the homes couldn't be expanded to either side, and midcentury owners had limited real estate forward and backward.
That constraint coincided with modernism, which by then had trickled down into mainstream architectural decisions. It emphasized an extended living area that joined indoors and outdoors through wide entryways and ample glazing. Meanwhile, the associated functionalism meant the kitchen — since made efficient by modern appliances and food-storage innovations — stayed utilitarian and needed a space all its own, away from the home’s social areas.
The only viable place to put the kitchen was up front.
"It was the inversion of a historic relationship, which was that the most important thing was the face on the street, and that was the social face," Luebke said. "It changes the focus from one of the public realm to an extended private realm."
While the trend is seen most acutely in the square-footage-strapped rowhouses, the idea of physically separating the kitchen from the home’s living and dining areas was evident throughout the period.
Since then, however, the trend has cycled and homeowners seek open plans that seamlessly connect dedicated food prep spaces at the back of the house with living and dining areas that span indoors and outdoors. Appliance and fixture makers have responded with products that balance functionality and discretion, while designers incorporate warm-toned finishes that bring the material palette of the rest of the house (and beyond) into the kitchen.
"In the late 20th century, there's this resurgence of the 'great room' idea, where there's a kitchen and a family room and it’s all one big space," Luebke said. "The front of the house starts to become a little bit of a stage set and the back of the house becomes where everything happens."
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