What It Means If Your Old Home Has A Slim Pantry With Vents To Let In Outdoor Air

Do you live in a turn-of-the-20th-century house in a historic district of, say, San Francisco? If your kitchen pantry has slated wooden shelves, and you can see spots of daylight through the walls, it probably means you're one of the few lucky homeowners to have a California cooler, which was also known as a pie safe. Far from an outdated kitchen cabinet renovation, this slender food cupboard was designed to preserve dried goods, baked items, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

They can be found in West Coast bungalows and Arts and Crafts homes, which fits with the ethos of these building movements. Architects of the time emphasized natural materials and a simple, economical lifestyle. Spotting a California cooler in an old home is pretty straightforward, as they're quite distinctive. In most houses, they look like an odd, narrow, always-vertical cupboard slotted into any spare space between the kitchen cabinets, always on the exterior wall of a home. They usually have a lock or latch on the outside rather than a knob. Pull open the door, and you'll see a series of wire racks or wooden shelves perforated with holes. Look for signs of a mesh-covered vent toward the back of the cupboard. If the ducts are still open, the air in the cabinet should feel cool on your skin.

Demystifying the science behind the California cooler

Even California coolers that have been ripped out (an action some would argue is a crucial renovation mistake) leave behind telling evidence. Vents are often boarded up indoors, but their telltale frames can be left behind on the exterior walls of a home. There might also be a vent from the kitchen into the basement of single-story homes, even if there's no longer a cupboard above it. These vents and their position within the cooler are crucial to how this kitchen innovation once functioned. Each California cooler has two vents at the top and bottom. Cool air enters the pantry from the lower vent, typically outside the home, though sometimes from a basement or crawlspace. As the air warms, it rises through the slatted or perforated shelving and exits the pantry through the top vent. This allows more fresh, cool air to enter at the bottom. Architects and building designers know this as the "stack effect."

The vents were covered in mesh for practicality — keeping pests like mice and cockroaches out of your food was a common concern. Ventilation also helped prevent mold and mildew buildup and purportedly kept shelf-stable foodstuffs 20 degrees cooler than the temperature inside the home, reducing the chance of spoilage. While most Californian coolers were cabinet-sized, upper-class homes often had walk-in versions that worked on the same principles.

Remove, repurpose, or restore?

According to the September 1924 issue of Popular Science, homemakers once kept their milk in their Californian coolers. Some cabinets even had a small door to the outside, used by the milkman to deliver the day's dairy. Others kept root and green vegetables, fruit, cheeses, leftovers, and baked goods there. Today, people could use them for onions, garlic bulbs, potatoes, vinegar, oils, spreads, cakes, and even cured meats. Not wanting to devote what is often a lot of precious space in a bungalow to food, others who encounter a Californian cooler in their newly bought home transform it into other features — a bar, wine storage, shower, or cat door. Some homeowners remove them altogether.

Let's say, however, you want to keep or create one. To restore a faded cooler to its former functionality, uncover the vents and patch up the mesh to get that air flowing. Paint the pantry and clean, repair, or get new slated shelves custom-made. Install insulation and add louvered vents and a wall thermometer to make your pantry look more expensive. If you want to build one from scratch, why not learn from those who probably used one? The September 1923 issue of Popular Mechanics has detailed written plans with materials and exact measurements. Whichever way you go, remember to weatherize your Californian cooler — by that, we mean seal the door so it doesn't affect the temperature in the kitchen or the rest of the house.