Frances Gabe, a once-celebrated inventor who died in obscurity late last year, was the creator, and longtime sole inhabitant, of the world’s only self-cleaning house.
For decades, Frances Gabe did not clean her house, nor did anyone clean it for her. Yet for all that time, it was spotless.
Gabe, a once-celebrated inventor who died in obscurity late last year, was the creator, and long the sole inhabitant, of the world’s only self-cleaning house.
In January, the only public announcement of Gabe’s death appeared on the website of The Newberg Graphic, covering the Oregon community where she had long made her home. Spanning barely two dozen words, it gave little more than her death date — Dec. 26, 2016 — and her age, 101.
“Locally, she was just the kind of unique person that you often see in these small towns,” Allyn Brown, Gabe’s former lawyer and a longtime friend, said in an interview last week. “I don’t think anybody really knew her name.”
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There was a time, however, when Gabe’s name was known round the world. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, her house was featured in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Guardian and People; on Phil Donahue’s talk show; and in several books.
More than half a century ago, incensed by the housecleaning that was a woman’s chronic lot, Gabe began to dream of a house that would see to its own hygiene: tenderly washing, rinsing and drying itself at the touch of a button.
“Housework is a thankless, unending job,” she told The Ottawa Citizen in 1996. “It’s a nerve-twangling bore. Who wants it? Nobody!”
And so, with her own money and her own hands, she built such a house, receiving U.S. patent 4,428,085 in 1984.
In a 1982 column about Gabe’s work, humorist Erma Bombeck proposed her as “a new face for Mount Rushmore.”
Yet her remarkable abode — a singular amalgam of “Walden,” Rube Goldberg and “The Jetsons” — remained the only one of its kind ever built.
“She was very difficult to get along with,” Brown said, warmly. “She had an adversarial relationship with all her neighbors, and she didn’t do anything to discourage it.”
Perhaps it was the cement mixer residing permanently in Gabe’s yard that inflamed the neighbors so. (It was essential to her house-building enterprise.) Perhaps it was the series of snarling Great Danes she kept. Perhaps it was her penchant, at least in her younger days, for doing her yard work in the nude.
An accomplished jeweler and ceramist, Gabe was happiest when left to her own devices on her 7 overgrown acres at the end of a dirt road in the woods near Newberg, some 25 miles southwest of Portland.
A cinder-block bungalow of about a thousand square feet, Gabe’s house was completed in the 1980s, at a cost of some $15,000, after more than 10 years of work and decades of planning.
Umbrella up — push to sprinkle
The result, the newspaper The Weekend Australian wrote in 2004, was “basically a gigantic dishwasher.”
In each room, Gabe, tucked safely under an umbrella, could press a button that activated a sprinkler in the ceiling. The first spray sent a mist of sudsy water over walls and floor. A second spray rinsed everything. Jets of warm air blew it all dry. The full cycle took less than an hour.
Runoff escaped through drains in Gabe’s almost imperceptibly sloping floors. It was channeled outside and straight through her doghouse, where the dog was washed in the bargain.
The house, whose patent consisted of 68 individual inventions, also included a cupboard in which dirty dishes, set on mesh shelves, were washed and dried in situ.
To deal with laundry — in many ways her masterstroke — Gabe designed a tightly sealed cabinet. Soiled clothing was placed inside on hangers, washed and dried there with jets of water and air, and then, still on hangers, pulled neatly by a chain into the clothes closet.
Her sink, toilet and bathtub were also self-cleaning.
Naturally, no conventional home, with its drapes, upholstery and wood furniture, could withstand Gabe’s deluge. But she had anticipated that.
Her floors were coated with multiple layers of marine varnish. Furniture was encased in clear acrylic resin. Bedclothes were kept dry by means of an awning pulled over the bed before the cascade began.
Upholstery was made from a waterproof fabric of Gabe’s invention.
Pictures were coated in plastic and knickknacks displayed behind glass. Papers could be sealed in watertight plastic boxes; books wore waterproof jackets invented by Gabe.
Electrical outlets were, mercifully, covered.
“You can talk all you like about women’s liberation, but houses are still designed so women have to spend half their time on their knees or hanging their head in a hole,” Gabe told The Baltimore Sun in 1981. “Housework stuck in my craw even when I was a kid.”
It all started with fig jam
The daughter of Frederick Arnholz and the former Ernestine Ganske, Frances Grace Arnholz was born on a ranch near Boise, Idaho. Her father was an architect and builder, and the family moved wherever his job took him. Watching, she learned much of the craft.
She graduated from Girls Polytechnic High School in Portland at 16 and at 17 married Herbert Grant Bateson. The couple ran a repair business in Portland for years (“I was his boss,” she liked to say) before moving to Newberg.
Gabe divorced Bateson in the 1970s, though he continued to live in a trailer on the property. (“I didn’t like my husband anymore, so I kicked him out to the backyard,” Lily Benson, a New York artist who visited the self-cleaning house in 2007, recalled Gabe’s having told her.)
Her self-cleaning house was born of fig jam. It was the kind of jam that, if one has young children, as Gabe did then, is often encountered slithering down a wall.
“I thought, darn it, this is more than I can handle,” she told The Times in a 2002 article.
In exasperated enterprise, she grabbed the garden hose and sluiced the jam from the wall. The idea for a self-sluicing house began to percolate.
For years, Gabe toured the country with a working scale model of her house — the model alone took her a year to build — lecturing at museums, universities and women’s clubs.
Though she dreamed of entire villages awash in self-cleaning houses, along with self-cleaning office buildings and hospitals, her vision was not to be. Maintaining a patent takes money, and Gabe had none.
By 2002, The Times reported, her patent had lapsed. It was never renewed.
As Gabe aged, and as natural shocks like floods and earthquakes took their toll on her home, the self-cleaning house became prohibitive to maintain. She earned a modest living charging visitors for tours, but that could not cover the cost of keeping it running.
Gabe held fast to her house for as long as she could. About eight years ago, her family arranged for her to move — kicking and screaming, a grandson, Kevin Selander, said last week — to a nursing home.
Besides Selander, who confirmed her death, in a hospice in Newberg, her survivors include 10 other grandchildren and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Her property was sold some years ago, though the house still stands. “There’s kind of a hippie guy living there and he likes the place,” Selander said.