Frances Gabe gained international notoriety in the 1980s for the self-cleaning house she designed and built in Newberg, Oregon. But Gabe died at the age of 101 late last year in relative obscurity. Her death was marked only by a short death notice in the local newspaper. This week, a New York Times obituary brought Gabe back into the public consciousness.
“She was basically a genius autodidact — never went to college, never had much money. The patent for the house, which she was awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the 1980s, comprised nearly 70 discrete inventions,” Margalit Fox, senior writer in the Times obituary news department, told OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”
Fox explained that the house worked very much like an oversized dishwasher with sprinklers in the ceiling of each room.
“Obviously drapery, upholstery, wood floors, wood furniture, books, papers, none of the normal stuff that you and I have can withstand water coming out of the ceiling,” said Fox. “She had a plan for all that.”
The plan included many layers of floor varnish (the same kind used on boats), plastic coatings for pictures hanging on the wall and a kind of waterproof upholstery that Gabe invented herself.
A 2002 New York Times article included Gabe’s own recollection of the inspiration for the self-cleaning house. It came from an incident in her experience as a young mother when in a moment of frustration, she dragged the garden hose inside to wash fig jam off the wall.
“That got her very brilliant mind and very vivid imagination going and she thought, what if I could make a house that would do this kind of self-washing all by itself?” Fox said.
Listener Patrick Roden wrote in to “Think Out Loud” to remember Gabe, who he described as a close friend.
“She was one of the most extraordinary human beings I’d ever met,” he said. “She had an uncommon imagination, and she could be cantankerous. She had little patience for small talk and enjoyed swimming in the deep end of ideas.”
Gabe’s house is still standing in Newberg, though Fox says the current owner is no longer able to use the self-cleaning mechanisms and has to keep it tidy the old-fashioned way.