The Cadillac of Water-Closets: Sanitation at Salisbury House

“If Salisbury House does not feel one hundred years old on the day that we finish,” Carl Weeks once intoned, “then we have failed.”   Happily, Weeks’ goal  was beautifully realized upon the completion of his new home in the 1920s.  Certain portions of the house, however, were decidedly modern.  The bathrooms of Salisbury House – all sixteen of them – reflected the detailed attention to high-end furnishings that made the Weekses’ home, in Carl’s words, “a harmonious association of the centuries.”

The Weeks family were among the “one-percenters” of the 1920s.  Indoor toilets remained limited for most folks until after World War II.  The outhouse, not a flush toilet, represented the most common form of sanitation for much of the population, particularly in rural areas.

2000.40.575Rural Iowa outhouse, c. 1930s. Special Collections,
State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines
 

Indeed, sanitation for most people in the early twentieth century did not look dissimilar to the situation as it stood for much of recorded history.  A hole in the ground sufficed for centuries. Public latrines, for example, were not uncommon in classical Rome.

RomanLatrines at Dougga  (http://www.flickr.com/photos/prof_richard/7759983358/)

Despite the occasional existence of surprisingly complex sewer systems in the classical and premodern eras, the preferred method of excrement disposal for the masses remained al fresco.  Most people unceremoniously dumped waste out windows or doors into the open sewers of city streets.  Passers-by were well-advised to remain alert.

The late sixteenth century saw a significant advancement in the field.  Sir John Harrington, plumber to the stars, created a water closet prototype for the benefit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1596.   Nearly two hundred years later, Scotsman Alexander Cummings secured the first patent for a flush toilet.

toilet

Rendering of Cummings’ design http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/technology/engineering/biography/graphics/bramah4.gif

By the nineteenth century, various historical processes spurred the development of the modern waste disposal system.  Industrialization, urbanization, advancements in the fields of medicine and epidemiology, and the rise of social movements aimed at urban reform, among others, laid the groundwork for contemporary sanitation methods.

A new industry sprang up to meet the public’s needs.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, a variety of companies vied to become the public’s preferred purveyor of all things plumbing.  Here in the United States, the Meyer-Sniffen Company of New York emerged as a rising star. Their 1884 Catalog “D” contained a dazzling array of faucets, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and other accouterments.

Cover and title
 
 

Tubs.Shower

What set Meyer-Sniffen’s wares apart from the average products installed by Joe the Plummer c. 1920?  John Christou of George Taylor Specialties, a vintage faucet and valves company in New York, explained the appeal of Meyer-Sniffen in a 2002 interview for Old House Journal.

“Without regard to cost or consumer, Meyer-Sniffen equipment appears to be purposely heavy—not so much as to be better mechanically than their competitors,” he remarked, “but to be different.”  According to Old House, the company’s plumbing products were “unmistakable: massive but rich with voluptuous curves and thickness.”   Further, Christou continued, “parts that other manufacturers would nickel plate, Meyer-Sniffen would make out of pure nickel.”  Much of Meyer-Sniffen’s product line centered on providing high-end clients with high-end finishes.  “No matter how many years a mansion, club, or hotel staffer polished this faucet,” concluded Christou, “they could never wear off the shine.”

The company’s products appealed to Carl Weeks.  Leaving aside his affection for “voluptuous curves” in a context entirely apart from plumbing, Weeks likely responded to the quality and durability of Meyer-Sniffen.  Although many of the original fixtures of Salisbury House have been removed during the years since the Weeks family lived here, the remaining pieces are fine examples of the company’s workmanship.

On the second floor of Salisbury House, each of the seven bedrooms bedroom includes an en-suite bathroom.  We first noticed the Meyer-Sniffen trademark on the toilet in the porch room bath, just off the balcony in the Great Hall:

MS Toilet

An earlier version of this “Vortex Special” toilet was, in fact, pictured in their 1884 catalog.  Among several options pictured, the offerings shown here include both a standard and ornate finish.

Toilet MS

The tanks were not wall-mounted as shown at Salisbury House in the 1920s, but otherwise the style remained similar.

The Weekses also employed a bit of classy camouflage for the bare toilets.  It’s possible that all the bathrooms in the house originally contained the wicker and wood toilet covers pictured below.  The remaining examples now appear in the baths in the Queen Anne guest bedroom (left) and Edith’s suite (right).

SH toilets

The bath fixtures that have survived the years also attest to the durability of Meyer-Sniffen. The sink ensemble in Edith’s suite (top) and the fixtures in the Queen Anne bath (bottom) are still in remarkably good shape.

Fixtures

The installation of first-rate tubs, toilets, and hardware would have themselves alone assured the superiority of Salisbury House bathrooms.  However, the Weekses were not done.  Deftware, the finely-crafted tiles made in the Netherlands, were incorporated into the tile walls of several baths.  The Delft tiles embedded into the walls of the baths in William’s room (top), the Queen Anne room (middle), and Edith’s suite (bottom), are pictured here.

Delft

So much about the Weeks’ home remains extraordinary.  Its architecture, artwork, rare books, artifacts, and the plumbing – yes, the plumbing – testify to the breadth and depth of the Weekses’ vision.   On your next visit to Salisbury House, take a closer look at these Cadillacs of water-closets.  

 
 
 
 

Knocking Down History

The Salisbury House Foundation was founded in 1993 to preserve, interpret and share Salisbury House for the educational and cultural benefit of the public. Implicit in this mission is a role we have embraced since our inception as caretakers of the Weeks Family history: not just for Carl and Edith (who built the house in the 1920s), but for their forebears, their four sons and their later descendants. (Social media has proven an incredible asset in this latter regard, as we have connected with many Weeks grandchildren via our Facebook page). In 2012, we received a Historical Resource Development Grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa specifically to research and interpret Weeks family history, so we have spent much of the past year delving deep into local and remote archives to better tell the story of this remarkable family.

Of Carl and Edith’s four sons, only their third — Evert Deyet “Hud” Weeks — spent the majority of his life in Des Moines. Hud was born in 1912 and attended Hubbell Elementary and Roosevelt High School, where he was a state record breaking swimmer. He graduated from Wharton College at the University of Pennsylvania in 1934 and returned to Des Moines to help manage Carl’s business empire through the difficult days of the Depression. Hud served as a Naval Aviator in the South Pacific during World War II, then again returned to Des Moines and the family business, eventually becoming President of Weeks & Leo by 1954. Hud held this position until his retirement in 1986, at which point the business passed out the Weeks Family’s management and ownership.

nellieandhud

Nellie and Hud Weeks, 1938. (Photo courtesy Cooper Weeks).

Hud was an avid outdoorsman, pilot and speedboat racer. He married Ellen “Nellie” Cooper — the daughter of legendary speedboater Jack “Pop” Cooper and a record setting racer in her own right — in 1938, and the young couple moved into the gardener’s cottage at Salisbury House (now our Visitors Center and Gift Shop) by 1940. Around 1950, Carl and Edith Weeks subdivided their original Salisbury House property to produce a 2.5 acre lot at the western end, separated from the main house by a deep ravine, for Hud and his family (now including son Cooper and daughter Barbara) to build their own home, a task to which Hud applied his usual exuberance and creative elan.

The Hud Weeks home at 4111 Tonawanda Drive was a custom design that incorporated elements of two prefabricated Lustron Homes around a central atrium, with a large indoor swimming pool at its south end. Lustron Homes were viewed as an affordable and innovative solution to the post World War II housing crisis, and production of the distinctive porcelain enamel clad structures began in 1948 — then ended in 1950 when production problems and corruption scandals led to the dissolution of the company after about 2,700 homes had been manufactured and shipped. Only about 1,500 of them were still known to be standing by 2008.

Hud and Nellie lived in their double-wide Lustron Home on the knoll next to Salisbury House (visible from Hud’s boyhood bedroom) until 1988, when they sold 4111 Tonawanda Drive to the Muelhaupt family and retired to the Barbican Condominiums on Grand Avenue. The couple later relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, to be near their son, Cooper. Nellie passed away in 1995, and Hud followed her seven years later, the last of Carl and Edith’s surviving sons.

Fast forward to the present. Just before I became the Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation in April 2012, Chuck Muelhaupt — who had lived in Hud’s former home for 24 years at that point — passed away. Several months later, his widow put the house on the market.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

In a perfect world of unlimited resources, Salisbury House Foundation would have snapped up 4111 Tonawanda Drive right away at that point, restoring Hud’s home and the land to our holdings, thereby improving our ability to preserve and tell the Weeks Family story. Of course, the reality is that we live in an imperfect world, and our financial position was (and remains) precarious to the point where we must strive mightily just to maintain the property we already own.

Despite a sympathetic donor making a very generous and gracious offer on our behalf, we simply did not have the financial wherewithal to acquire, refurbish, maintain and operate an additional house, garage, pool and 2.5 acres of land when time the opportunity presented itself to us. As Chief Executive of our corporation, I could not in good conscience recommend to our Board that we encumber ourselves with additional debt to acquire Hud’s home, as such a path could have quickly put Salisbury House itself at grave risk.

And, thus, the property was sold to a private developer in late 2012.

While we knew the developer planned to divide the 2.5 acre lot into two parcels, we were heartened when the plans he presented to the City’s Planning and Zoning Commission on January 3, 2013 noted that the existing single family dwelling would be retained, with only the pool house structure being demolished. The City approved the plans, and this gave us hope that we might, at some point in the future, still have the opportunity to acquire (most of) Hud’s home, and at least a part of his land.

Pool house at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks' former home.

Pool at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks’ home.

We watched over the ensuing weeks as a variety of contractors (including asbestos remediation crews) worked on Hud’s home, presumably preparing for the grading of the new lot and the demolition of the pool house. We saw nothing that caused us any alarm regarding our new neighbor and his intentions.

Yesterday morning, I had a doctor’s appointment, so I arrived at Salisbury House around 9:40, two and half hours later than my normal early bird tendencies get me here. Literally, as I opened my car door, I heard a tremendous smashing sound, and looked west . . . just in time to see a huge backhoe drive straight into Hud’s house with its arm swinging. The garage had already been knocked down at this point, and the Lustron and atrium portions of the house were flattened in less than 30 minutes, the prefabricated materials easily scattered by the power of the backhoe’s arm. Only the pool house remained.

Quick calls to the Des Moines Historical Society and to City offices revealed that the developer had filed a demolition permit that morning, and that the backhoe began its unfortunate work within minutes of the approval being received. Des Moines Historical Society volunteers arrived quickly, and were firmly asked to leave the property. We allowed them to document the demolition from our side of the ravine. At about 8:00 this morning, the backhoe went into action again, and we watched the pool house being flattened, leaving the top of the hill bare. By 8:20 AM, February 15, 2013, nothing remained standing from the home that Hud and Nellie Weeks had built next to Salisbury House.

Needless to say, we’re shocked and saddened by this turn of events. While the house had no formal standing as a historic property, and many Lustron buffs (often purists, like classic car collectors) would have dismissed it as a “modification,” rather than a true, collectible Lustron Home, it was an important part of the Salisbury House and Weeks Family stories, and it deserved a more noble end than it received. While we fully understand and accept that the developer fairly acquired an unprotected 60-year old residence on the open market after we were unable to do so, we were surprised at the rapidity with which his stated plans evolved, and the easy acquiescence he encountered from the City of Des Moines in the face of such changes.

While the end result may have been the same regardless of what Salisbury House Foundation, Des Moines Historical Society, Salisbury Oaks Neighborhood Association or any other aggrieved parties said or did — in private or in front of television cameras or reporters’ clipboards — our own historic mission would have been greatly served had we been at least given one last chance to photograph the property thoroughly before it was demolished. One hour of time, literally, would have made a difference in our ability to tell the full stories of Hud and Nellie Weeks and the Salisbury House property, and it’s tragic that we were not accorded that opportunity on behalf of our community, as an important piece of Des Moines’ history is now being hauled away in dumpsters, having not been property recorded for history’s sake.

In a nutshell, this is why historic preservation work is so important, and so deserving of your financial support. The Salisbury House Foundation was founded, explicitly, to counter present or future threats to the sanctity of the property and its collections, and to this day we work diligently to ensure that no other Weeks Family property ever leaves these grounds, or suffers from abuse, neglect, or lack of maintenance. Sadly, our mission did not include the acquisition and preservation of the land that Carl gifted to his third son, and the house that Hud built there, so when the limited time window opened for us to acquire it, we did not have the means to do so. Such are the challenges in the imperfect world of nonprofit public service.

But, still, even as we mourn the destruction of Hud and Nellie’s home, we feel that it is important to celebrate the lives that were lived there, happily, with great humor and warmth. We know from numerous sources that 4111 Tonawanda Drive was the site of many amazing parties, and many great family gatherings, and that Hud and Nellie and their children were important, beloved members of our community. And so we would love to hear from you if you have memories, photos or stories about Hud and Nellie’s time in their uniquely futurist home on the hill, so that we can record them for posterity’s sake, and share them with others who may also be mourning the destruction of this property.

You can either post your thoughts and memories in the comments below, or you can contact our Curator and Director of Education Leo Landis via e-mail here to share photos, stories, documents or anything else related to 4111 Tonawanda Drive or Salisbury House. Thank you for your ongoing support through this difficult development, and please take a look around your own neighborhood soon to assess whether there are historic preservation needs there requiring your attention and support!