Frances Gabe, Inventor of the Self-Cleaning House, Dies at 101
For decades, Frances Gabe did not clean her house, nor did anyone clean it for her. Yet for all that time, it was spotless.
Ms. 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 Ms. 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 than her death date — Dec. 26, 2016 — and her age, 101.
But between Ms. Gabe’s birth, on June 23, 1915, and her death lay, unheralded, the life of a true American original, equal parts quixotic dreamer and accomplished visionary.
“Locally, she was just the kind of unique person that you often see in these small towns,” Allyn Brown, Ms. Gabe’s former lawyer and a longtime friend, said in a telephone interview last week. “I don’t think anybody really knew her name.”
There was a time, however, when Ms. 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, among them Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fugitives & Refugees” (2003), about the curious characters around Portland, Ore.
“When I’d come out and see her,” Mr. Brown recalled, “I would be conflicted on whether she was delusional or whether she was so much smarter than I that I just didn’t have the ability to recognize her genius.”
More than half a century ago, incensed by the housecleaning that was a woman’s chronic lot, Ms. 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 just such a house, receiving United States patent 4,428,085 in 1984.
In a 1982 column about Ms. Gabe’s work, the 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. The reasons, recent interviews with her associates suggest, include the difficulties of maintaining the patent, the compromises required of the homeowner and, just possibly, Ms. Gabe’s contrary, proudly iconoclastic temperament.
“She was very difficult to get along with,” Mr. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. Gabe was happiest when left to her own devices on her seven overgrown acres at the end of a dirt road in the woods near Newberg, 25 miles southwest of Portland.
It was a setting of which Henry David Thoreau would have approved. The house, on the other hand, would have given him a full-on apoplectic fit.
A cinder-block bungalow of about a thousand square feet, Ms. Gabe’s house was completed in the 1980s, at a cost of $15,000, after more than 10 years of work and decades of planning.
The result, the newspaper The Weekend Australian wrote in 2004, was “basically a gigantic dishwasher.”
In each room, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 — Ms. 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 Ms. Gabe’s restorative 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 Ms. Gabe’s invention, which looked, The Boston Globe said in 1985, “like heavily textured Naugahyde.”
Pictures were coated in plastic and knickknacks displayed behind glass. Papers could be sealed in watertight plastic boxes; books wore waterproof jackets invented by Ms. 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,” Ms. Gabe told The Baltimore Sun in 1981. “Housework stuck in my craw even when I was a kid.”
Fortunately, however, building was in her blood.
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: Frances wound up attending 18 elementary schools.
“I was born a most unusual person, so I had a heck of a time in school,” Ms. Gabe was quoted as saying in Mr. Palahniuk’s book. “Everything moved much too slowly. My last day, I stood up in class and screamed at my teacher, ‘You told us that last week!’ ”
She found a sense of continuity among the builders she met when she accompanied her father on jobs. Watching, she learned much of their 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, a boyhood home of President Herbert Hoover.
Ms. Gabe divorced Mr. 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 Ms. Gabe’s having told her.)
After her marriage ended, Ms. Gabe coined a new surname by combining the initials of her middle, maiden and married names, plus a final “e” to avoid the onus of “Gab.”
Her self-cleaning house was born of fig jam. It was the kind of jam that, if one has young children, as Ms. 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, Ms. 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. In 2002 and 2003, the model was exhibited at the Women’s Museum in Dallas.
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 Ms. Gabe had none.
“For the most part, she paid me in Pepsi-Cola,” Mr. Brown, her former lawyer, recalled.
By 2002, The Times reported, her patent had lapsed. It was never renewed.
Her efforts also received little support from her community.
“One time I had a group of furious housewives on my doorstep, telling me I was doing them out of a job and that if they didn’t have to clean their houses, their husbands wouldn’t need them anymore,” Ms. Gabe told The Guardian in 2006. “And I said, ‘Well, if you had more time to spend with your husbands, don’t you think they would like that better?’ ”
As Ms. 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.
Bit by bit, the house began to outlive its usefulness. In an interview last week, Ms. Benson, the artist, recalled her surprise on seeing it a decade ago.
“It was really cluttered: newspapers, books, clothes — just general household clutter,” she said. “It was kind of shocking, because I expected to be in the cleanest house of my life.”
(Inspired by her visit, Ms. Benson made a short animated video portraying the house as it would ideally run.)
Ms. 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.
Ms. Gabe’s children, Grant Bateson and Lourene Bateson Selander, died before her. Besides Mr. 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,” Mr. Selander said.
He will be obliged, though, to clean it himself. Today, no suds descend, no cleansing showers come, no dog enjoys collateral washing.
Born of figs and fury, the self-cleaning house now exists in public memory only in dreams — much as it did for so long in Ms. Gabe’s mind: dewy with mist, quixotically clean.