November 7, 2002, Thursday
House & Home/Style Desk House Proud;
The Vikings Retreat In the Face of a Classic
By BRADFORD McKEE (NYT) 1261 words
THE backlash against extreme appliances started with me — or so I believe. In the past year or so, several friends have renovated their kitchens with sport-utility ranges, those slick, stainless, six-burner models made by Viking, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air and formerly found only in finer restaurants. I’ve looked at them, even admired them, but wondered if all that cooking capacity, all those B.T.U.’s, were really necessary.
My friends had the industrial flash with their $3,500-plus ranges and institutional ventilators. But all that kept me from taking charge of a vintage 1940 Chambers Model B cookstove was an otherwise lovely couple, tenants, who didn’t move out of the first floor of my house in Washington until July.
The house had been carved up into four apartments by previous owners. I bought it in 1999 with the intention of turning it back into a single dwelling. Now that renovation is under way, my kitchen plans center on that stove. Let my friends strive to live up to their Vikings and turn another leisure-time activity into a profession; I was taking a different route, pure Granny, although my granny probably would have loved a Viking. I was not trying to be a chef with my Chambers stove, just a really good cook.
Then, just when I thought I was breaking away from the pack, I discovered there was another pack, a freemasonry of antique-stove nuts, connoisseurs of cast iron. And far from being underground, it was a full-fledged craze. And so, on my way to figuring out how to work my Chambers, and maintain it, I became a bona fide old-stove geek.
On the Internet, people who own, collect or covet the muscular, enameled World War II appliances can find dealers, clubs and at least one magazine to feed their obsession. These outfits deal in Chamberses, like mine, but also in the nail-polish-red O’Keefe & Merritts, the six-burner Tappan Deluxes and the Western Hollies with the jadeite tops. They offer parts, service, sales, appraisals, manuals and advice — advice I needed, because my childhood was spent with the sort of electric kitchen equipment awarded on ”Let’s Make a Deal.” Since then I have suffered through a series of successively smaller kitchens that all had 24-inch-wide cooktops, on which I was constantly shuffling pans. It was like going for a pleasure drive in a Mini Cooper.
By comparison, my white-paneled Chambers, with its scuffed chrome stovetop and glass shelves built onto its deluxe high back, is like cooking on an old Packard. It has seven main features. There is the pop-up In-a-Top broiler (”eliminates ‘broiler crouch,’ ” claims the old Chambers ad copy), the upper surface doubling as the In-a-Top griddle. The stovetop has a set of three slightly degraded cast-iron burners and something called a thermowell, a 13-inch-deep covered hold that acts as a second oven for ”waist-high baking” in the original Wearever pots. (Alas, they are gone.) And there is a thermobaker, a warming cabinet, next to the oven down below.
A full-fledged Chambers convert, I began to pant over Internet sites that said things like ”Order the Old Road Home fall 1997 issue featuring the fascinating history of the Chambers range plus don’t miss the new upcoming Chambers feature in the Old Road Home winter 2001 edition.” I became dangerous to sit next to at a dinner party.
The oven, it must be admitted, is rather small — just 12 inches high by 18 inches wide by 17 inches deep. Didn’t housewives in the 40’s ever cook a goose or have to prepare a standing rib roast? I was showing my neighbors the stove, and they were impressed by the look, the gravity of it, but just stared at the oven door. We decided it would be too small for today’s enormous Thanksgiving turkeys. They offered to let me cook my turkey at their house.
The Chambers is a gas-burning range, of course, and requires a match to light. And because it came with the house, I don’t have to bring it up to code with electronic ignition and other retrofits — as long as I don’t move it. I approach my Chambers with humility, stick match in hand, fearing I will blow up the house if I don’t get the hang of those shiny, heavy knobs and safety switches.
Luckily, my neighbor Steve had rented the first floor of this house before I bought it. He has already given me one stove tutorial, and I’ll probably need another before I try to bake a soufflé. ”I absolutely love that stove,” Steve says whenever I get him going on the subject.
But on my own, I have struggled to understand my stove. It has no manufacturer’s logo, unless it’s in the back. I know it is a Chambers only by looking at identical models on the Web site of Antique Stoves in Tekonsha, Mich., where unrestored models are selling for $1,000 to $1,500. Macy’s Classic Stove Works in Houston has a stove identical to mine for $1,750.
It’s hard to make comparisons, though, because there may be six variations on the Chambers Model B. Chambers stoves were made in Shelbyville, Ind., from the early part of the century through the 1950’s. The company’s slogan was ”Cooks with gas turned off”; turn it off and the stove’s insulation would maintain a temperature for at least half an hour.
If I ever master my Chambers I can move on to vintage refrigerators, because when you have something like the Chambers, you’ve got to design your whole kitchen around it. So forget frost-free and ice dispensers (if they ever worked), and put aside talk of subzero freezing and moisture-controlled crisping. The next big thing looks definitely to be the old-style refrigerator, the Philco, Kelvinator, Coldspot or Frigidaire, or the Westinghouse hulk that opened with a slot-machine handle and closed with a thunk. (And often leaked freon at the smallest provocation.)
Elmira Stove Works, in Elmira, Ontario, sells brand-new vintage-looking refrigerators for $2,700 and a matching reproduction stove will be available next year for $2,995. But you can also buy the real thing through the Old Appliance Club. A 1951 Admiral in good shape was selling recently for $500, and you could get a 1930’s GE Monitor Top covered in rust for $110. Restoring them to working order would cost $1,500 and $2,200, but it might be worth it to get one in mint green with a lot of Raymond Loewy chrome.
As for what my Chambers is worth, I completed the questionnaire furnished by Antique Stoves in Michigan: Does my stove have any chips in the porcelain? (Yes, several.) Have the valves been taken apart and checked for leaks by a professional? (No, probably not in 40 years.) Does the chrome have rust? (A little.)
Ok, so maybe it’s not worth $1,500 like that one in Michigan. In fact, being dispassionate about it, I’d have to say my unrestored, old-fashioned Chambers granny stove is worth about $400. Not that it’s for sale.
If you want to kick some tires, so to speak, on antique stoves, a few will be on display this weekend and next at the Triple Pier Antiques Show (Piers 88, 90 and 92, between West 48th and West 55th Streets; $12; 212-255-0020). While you’re there, you may want to pick up some antique teakettles. Anyone can stop by Mazer Store Equipment (207 Bowery, near Delancey, 212-674-3450) during business hours Monday through Friday and see their collection, which includes a wood-burning stove, a couple of Magic Chefs, an old commercial Garland with a salamander and, yes, an old Chambers. None are for sale, however, and Mazer doesn’t do restorations. ”They are charming,” said Bonnie Mazer, who works in the family business. ”But if you have one, make a planter out of it. They have small burners, they’re not that hot. If they have legs, forget it.”
The Old Appliance Club, in Ventura, Calif. (805-643-3532; www.theoldapplianceclub.com), offers free consultations; publishes a magazine, The Old Road Home; and sells door handles, griddle tops, timer replacements and operating manuals. If you prefer new appliances that look old, the Elmira Stove Works, in Elmira, Ontario, sells vintage-looking refrigerators and will introduce a range next year (800-295-8498; www.elmirastoveworks.com).
If you have a stove that needs repair, you should remember how hard stoves are to ship and be aware that most dealers and restorers discourage appraisals by phone. Waiting lists are long, though the actual restoration, which may cost $2,500 to $4,000, takes only a few weeks. Here are some some better-known dealers and restorers.
* Antique Appliances, Clayton, Ga.; (706) 782-3132; www.antiqueappliances.com.
* Antique Stove Heaven, Los Angeles; (323) 298-5581; www.antiquestoveheaven.com.
* Antique Stoves, Tekonsha, Mich.; (517) 278-2214; www.antiquestoves.com.
* Erickson’s Antique Stoves, Littleton, Mass.; (978) 486-3589 or via e-mail to email@example.com.
* Macy’s Classic Stove Works, Houston; www.macysclassicstoveworks.com or (713) 521-0934.
* Tim & Avi’s Salvage Store, Indianapolis; www.architecturalantiques.net or (317) 925-6071.