What is this storage space built into my foundation and what is it for?
October 24, 2014 5:25 PM   Subscribe

The concrete foundation in our 1909 bungalow-ish house has some kind of a storage container built into it. What could this have been used for?

It has a wooden door with a rubber gasket, a hole where a pipe (?) could go in, and a smaller hole in the floor that looks like it could have been a tiny drain. As best I can figure it was some kind of icebox or cold storage, but it seems kind of inconvenient. Also there was mid-20s oak icebox up in the kitchen, so this smaller cold storage area would seem to be a little redundant. Why built into the foundation? And what's with the pipe? It seems like it was built for a special purpose, I just can't imagine what that purpose might be.

Possibly relevant things:
  • House was built in 1909 by a speculator who intended to sell it at a profit rather than live there.
  • The first owner/occupant was a Norwegian family who lived there from 1920 until 1986.
  • Had a septic tank originally, but in 1920 the first owner connected it (himself, he was a steamfitter/plumber) to the city sewer. (Since the sewer pipe goes through/under the foundation, this seemed relevant.)
  • We know from the first owner's second wife that there was an alcohol distilling operation in the basement at some point.
  • This is Portland, Oregon, in case that makes a difference.
posted by sportbucket to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like a root cellar to me, holes for airflow.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:27 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's too small for coal so I'm going with summer ice store.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:28 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Probably access to mechanicals for the well.
posted by littlewater at 5:38 PM on October 24, 2014

The ground is cooler (it takes more energy to heat up like lakes) which is why ice storage and wine cellars are generally underground.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:44 PM on October 24, 2014

posted by trip and a half at 5:54 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding icebox. It looks very similar to a brick-lined one that we have in our c. 1910 kitchen that was likely originally lined with a second layer of tin or zinc (the mounts are still present).
posted by ryanshepard at 6:02 PM on October 24, 2014

An icebox would have been off the back porch/kitchen for easy delivery. Hauling ice down to the basement is very impractical as well. You may still have an icebox access panel on the side/rear of the house with kitchen access.
The two pipes you have in the floor are well related. You might want to check with the regulating body to find out if the well is capped and if it is required to be capped. You may be required to do so to protect groundwater. It appears the mechanicals/pump were just cut away many years ago.
I will admit this is a much smaller space than I have seen in the past for a well but everything else about it (pipes in the floor, location in basement) suggest well.
posted by littlewater at 6:04 PM on October 24, 2014

littlewater does have a point, but on the other hand, the icebox at my grandmother's house was an entirely separate structure from the main house itself -- also underground. Is or was there a tradesman's entrance to the basement? If so, what you're asking about was almost certainly an icebox.
posted by trip and a half at 6:32 PM on October 24, 2014

Yes, ice storage.
posted by killdevil at 6:43 PM on October 24, 2014

Have you plugged your address in to portlandmaps.com and looked at historical permits? Might be a clue there.
posted by amanda at 8:28 PM on October 24, 2014

what room is this in and what is the structure right next to it?
is it any where near a fireplace?
posted by calgirl at 9:42 PM on October 24, 2014

It's in the NE corner of the basement, directly under a small side room attached to what was once the master bedroom. The fireplace is on the south side of the house, and the boiler is under the kitchen, on the SW end, which is also where the laundry/utility sink is.

There's a root cellar in the NW corner of the basement, under the back porch.

Though there's a basement door on the middle of the north side, the service entrance to the house would have been through the back porch, on the NW corner.

As far as I know the house has never had a well. The original inspection reports and permits I dug up online and in the city archives mention the cesspool and the switch to the city sewer, but no well. The water line to the street shows up in a drawing on the back of a permit around 1910, so I'm pretty confident there was no well.

Icebox seems the most likely explanation, but that doesn't explain the large hole in the top and the smaller hole in the bottom (or does it?).

Thanks for your answers!
posted by sportbucket at 10:39 AM on October 25, 2014

The bottom hole would be for drainage (ice melts) and the top hole could be a peep hole to check the ice level without opening the door (efficiency). If that was the purpose, the top hole would have originally had a wooden stopper.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2014

My first impression was "kegorator". Hole on top for the tap. Hole on bottom for drainage. But... not sure if the door is big enough. Maybe kegs had different sizes back then?

If he was a distiller, maybe something related to distilling - a cool area for condensing?
posted by sarah_pdx at 5:26 PM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have been in a few Portland basements and I feel like I've seen this as well but I can't remember where. In this random article I found the author refers to an icebox which sat near the kitchen and next to an access door. This isn't like what you have. And the picture in the article appears to be not the icebox but the stand for the icebox. Most notably, there was a hole there where a pipe fed down into the basement to drain. So, I'm picturing an insulated box with a door, a pipe that just gravity feeds down to the basement and either goes to a drain or just on the floor. So, what's above this box? Is there a (patched) hole in the ceiling?

I can't really figure why you'd want to drain from above into another box below. I'm picturing some weird gravity fed cooling system for something, but what?
posted by amanda at 7:42 PM on October 25, 2014

Actually, looking at your pictures again, I'm kind of liking this theory. Maybe inside this box was a metal box. Cold water drains from an icebox above and could easily cool another box in a colder area of the basement. Any signs of shelving on the interior of your concrete box? Or something that would have been held off the floor? What's on the interior ceiling of the box? All smooth concrete?
posted by amanda at 7:58 PM on October 25, 2014

It's under the master bedroom, in the NE corner of the house, about as far away from any kitchen/food/utility area as you can get.

No signs of shelving inside the box. At some point in the past it was painted off, but being

We found an old oak cash drawer (minus the register) built into some shelving in a closet directly behind this concrete box. That, plus the Prohibition-era bootlegging story from the old lady who lived here before, leads me to conclude that at one time our basement was a speakeasy, and this concrete box must have been an icebox or kegerator or something along those lines. Or at least that's the story I'm going with.

Thanks everyone! If there are other ideas I'd love to hear them, but I think this might be as close as we're going to get.
posted by sportbucket at 10:35 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

At the north end of the house (coolest), it's definitely a cooling area of some sort. I've seen an early, gas-powered refrigerator that occupied a small wall (8x8'), and the center square of a 3x3 grid of walls was the mechanicals area. This seems too small for that, so prob just an ice box, in the ideal location.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:12 PM on October 27, 2014

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