Read CHAPTER XVI of The House that Jill Built after Jack's had proved a failure, free online book, by E. C. Gardner, on


“The question of getting up stairs,” said Jack, as they continued the study of the one-story plan, “is at least an interesting one. It seems to be accepted as a foregone conclusion that modern dwelling houses, even in the country, where the cost of the land actually covered by the house is of no consequence, must be two stories at least above the basement; but I doubt whether this principle in the evolution of domestic habitations is well established. Between the aboriginal wigwam, whose first and only floor is the bare earth itself, and the ‘high-basement-four-story-and-French-roof’ style, there is somewhere the happy medium which our blessed posterity blessed in having had such wise ancestors will universally adopt as the fittest survivor of our uncounted fashions. I fancy it will be much nearer to this one-story house, with the high basement and big attic, than to the seven-story mansard with sub-cellar for fuel and furnace. Still the tendency during the last fifty years has been upward. Our grandfathers preferred to sleep on the ground floor; we should expect to be carried off by burglars or malaria if we ventured to close our eyes within ten feet of the ground. Our city cousins like to be two or three times as high. Under these circumstances building a one-story house would be likely to prove a flying-not in the face of Providence, but, what is reckoned more dangerous and discreditable flying in the face of custom. Humility isn’t popular in the matter of house-building.”

“I am not afraid of custom, and have no objection to a reasonable humility,” said Jill, “but I never once thought of burglars. If a house has but one floor I think it should be so for from the ground as to be practically a ‘second’ floor. The main point is to have all the family rooms on one level.”

“That is, a ‘flat.’”

“Yes, one flat; not a pile of flats one above another, as they are built in cities, but one large flat raised high enough to be entirely removed from the moisture of the ground, to give a pleasant sense of security from outside intrusion and to afford convenient outlooks from the windows. One or two guest rooms, that are not often used, might be on a second floor, under the roof, if there was space enough.”

“But this plan has the servants’ chambers, the kitchen and the store closets all in the roof. Isn’t that rather overdoing the matter?”

“Better in the attic than in the basement. It is light, dry and ‘airy.’ There is no danger that the odors of cooking will come down, and as for the extra trouble, a well-arranged elevator will take supplies from the basement up twenty feet to the level of the kitchen, store-rooms and pantries as easily as they could be taken the usual distances horizontally. In brief, a kitchen above the dining-room is at worst no more ‘inconvenient’ than below it. Of course, there must be stairs even in a one-story house, but they would not be in constant use. Instead of living edgewise, so to speak, we should be spread out flatwise. We could climb when we chose, but should not of necessity be forever climbing. Yes, I like this plan exceedingly, not alone for its one principal floor, but I have always had a fancy for the ‘rotunda’ arrangement one large central apartment for any and all purposes, out of which the rooms for more special and private uses should open. Indeed, I don’t see how a very large house can be built in any other way without leaving a considerable part of the interior as useless for domestic as Central Africa is for political purposes. With this arrangement the central keeping-room, lighted from above, may be as large as a circus tent, and all the surrounding cells will be amply supplied with light and air from the outside walls.

“According to Aunt Melville’s enthusiastic account, the construction of the house is but little less than marvelous. ’The high walls of the basement are built of those native, weather-stained and lichen-covered boulders, the walls above being of a material hitherto unknown to builders. You will scarcely believe it when I tell you they are nothing else than the waste rubbish from brickyards, the rejected accumulations of years not by any means the unburned, but the overburned, the hard, flinty, molten, misshapen and highly-colored masses of burned clay which indeed refused to be consumed, but have been twisted into shapeless blocks by the fervent heat. Of course, with such unconventional materials for the main walls it would be a silly affectation to embellish the exterior of the house with elaborate mouldings or ornamental wood-work, and the visible details are therefore plain to the verge of poverty. But as men of great genius can disregard the trifling formalities of society, so there are no architectural rules which this house is obliged to respect.’”

“That suits me perfectly,” said Jack; “but I am amazed at Aunt Melville. Never before did she make such a concession even to great genius. Never before have I felt inclined to agree with her; but the conviction has grown upon me of late that the new house is in danger of being too much like other houses. If a fellow is really going in for reform, I like to have him go the whole figure. What do you say to beginning anew and building such a house as no mortal ever built before something to make everybody wonder what manner of people they are who live in such a habitation something to convince our neighbors that we are no weak-minded time-servers, but are able to be an architectural as well as domestic law unto ourselves something to make them stop and stare a sort of local Greenwich from which the community will reckon their longitude ’so many miles from the house that Jill built’?”

“My dear, did it ever occur to you that you cannot be too thankful for a wife who is not blown about by every wind of new doctrine? I do like the plan of ‘The Oaks’ exceedingly, not only for itself, but for the spirit of it, for its breadth and freedom. It seems to me a charming illustration of the true gospel of home architecture. There is no thoughtless imitation of something else that suits another place and another family. Neither does it appear that the owner tried to make a vain display for the sake of ‘astonishing the natives.’ He knew what he wanted, and built the house to suit his wants, using the simplest, the cheapest and the most durable materials at hand in the most direct and unaffected manner. Did you notice in the sketch of the keeping-room fireplace the little gallery passing across the end of the room above the entrance to the sitting-room? Probably you thought that was built for purely ornamental purposes, but it isn’t. It is simply the walk from the kitchen to another part of the attic, which can be most conveniently reached by this interior bridge. Of course it adds to the interest and beauty of the room, but it was not made for that purpose, and, as I understand the matter, it is all the more beautiful because it was first made to be useful. There is another thing in this house the elevator which, queerly enough, we do not often find in houses of more aspiring habit, where it would he of even greater value. It is amazing to me that housekeepers will go on tugging trunks, coal-hods and heavy merchandise of all kinds up stairways, day after day and year after year, when a simple mechanical contrivance, moved by water, or weights and pulleys, would save us from all these heavy burdens. Think of the bruised knuckles, the trembling limbs that stagger along with the upper end of a Saratoga ‘cottage,’ the broken plastering at the sides, the paper patched with bright new pieces that look ‘almost worse’ than the uncovered rents, and the ugly marks of perspiring fingers.”

“All of which I have seen and a part of which I have been,” said Jack. “I intended to have a lift in this house, but somehow it was left out.”

“Our architect.” Jill continued, “must be instructed to arrange not only an easy staircase, but there must be a paneled wainscot at the side. We will dispense with elegance in any other quarter, if need be, in order to have the stairs ample, strong and well protected. I am not over-anxious to have them ornate, although handsome stairs are very charming if well placed; like many other beautiful things, they become incurably ugly when too obtrusive. The architect has sent several designs of balustrades from which we are to choose, and gives this advice about the dimensions: ’As you have plenty of room, the staircase should be four or four and a-half feet wide, so that two people can easily walk over it abreast, I have arranged to make the steps twelve inches wide, besides the projection that forms the finish the “nosing” and six inches high; that is, six inches “rise” and twelve inches “run.” Some climbers think this too flat, and perhaps it is in certain situations; but for homes, for easy, leisurely ascent by children and old folks. I think it better than a steeper pitch. All large dwelling-houses, and some small ones, ought to be supplied with “passenger elevators,” at least from the first to the second story. Those who take the rooms still higher are usually able to make the ascent in the common way. Such an elevator can undoubtedly be made that will be safe and economical, especially where there is an ample water supply.’”

“The safety is the most troublesome part of the problem,” said Jack; “and I can think of no way to overcome the danger of walking off the precipice, when the platform happens to be at the bottom, but by having the car run up an inclined plane. There would be no more danger of falling down this than down a common stairway, and the car might be fixed so it couldn’t move up or down faster than a walk or a slow trot.”

“Would you like to experiment in the new house? You may do so at your own expense if you will promise not to spoil the plan. Among the designs for the stairs there is one that will be of no service to us the screen at the foot of the stairs; our ‘reception’ hall will be separated from the staircase hall by the chimney and the curtains at the sides.”

“I have an idea,” exclaimed Jack, “a truly philanthropic one. You know we are accumulating a large stock of plans, to say nothing of general information on architectural subjects, which we cannot possibly use ourselves, but which ought not to be wasted. Now you know Bessie is pining for a mission.”.

“Bessie has gone home.”

“I know, but she will come back if we send for her and tell her that she and Jim are to be sent out in the express wagon on a benevolent expedition to the heathens the uncultured domestic heathens. We can have some of the architect’s letters printed in tract form for them to distribute, and they can take along these superfluous plans to be applied where they will be most effective. Take, for instance, this hall screen, or whatever it may be, with the square staircase behind it. This would be just the thing for one of those old-fashioned square houses with the hall running through the middle and the long staircase splitting the hall in two lengthwise. If Bessie could persuade the owner of a single one of these old houses to take out the straight and narrow stairs, move them back, and, by introducing this semblance of a separation, make a reception hall of the front part, she would feel that she had not lived in vain. If she could at the same time cause cashmere shawls and rag carpets to be hung as portieres in place of doors to the front rooms she would be ready for translation.”

Jill laughed. “I’m not sure,” said she, “but this is a good field for people of missionary proclivities. Some of these old-fashioned houses have far more real, artistic excellence than those of the later, transition periods, and need but slight alterations to be most satisfactory types of architectural beauty as well as models of comfort and convenience. Broad, easy stairs, wide doorways and generous windows, with ample porches and piazzas outside, would transform them and make them not merely as good as new, but vastly better. Reopening fireplaces that have been ignominiously bricked up would be another promising field.”

“Oh! I tell you my idea is a capital one. I’ll send for Bess this very day. They shall have Bob and the express wagon a week if they want it. They shall dispense an esthetic gospel and accumulate ancient bric-a-brac to their hearts’ content. Bessie will be in ecstacies, and Jim will be in a helpless state of amazement and admiration.”

“How perfectly absurd, Jack! I wouldn’t allow those children to go off on such an excursion for all the old houses in America. One would think you were determined to have an esthetic sister-in-law at all hazards.”

“Never thought of such a thing! But now that you suggest it

“I haven’t suggested it,” said Jill indignantly.

“Well, you put it into my head at all events, and really now it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Jim is behind the times, artistically speaking, and needs to be waked up; and as for Bess, she would very soon learn to be careful how she expressed a longing for the unattainable, for Jim is a practical fellow, and whatever she wanted he would go for in a twinkling. Honestly, Jill, it strikes me as a first-class notion, and I’m glad you suggested it.”

“I didn’t suggest it, and I think it would be a dreadful thing I mean to send them off on another excursion. I am not sure, however, but we might found an A.B.C.A.M. with the materials and implements in our possession.”