Of Ice Houses and Igloos

Sometimes research topics intersect in really strange ways. There I was, knee-deep in ice house research, when I got a message from a journalist friend asking, “Jen, do you know anything about the Falls Church ‘igloo houses’?” Beyond the apparent sub-zero nomenclature, unfortunately, there is no connection whatsoever between the two types of structures. The first was usually an underground pit (at least in the early 19th century) built to store ice through the summer. The second was an igloo-shaped dome made of concrete sprayed over a giant balloon, a late 1930s invention of a California architect named Wallace Neff. At the time the igloo houses were constructed in 1941, ice houses were well on their way to obsolescence thanks to the Rural Electrification Project and the advent of electric refrigerators. But the “igloo houses” and ice houses did have one thing in common–both served as a cool retreat in the summertime. Neff’s concrete dwellings apparently stayed comfortable, albeit damply so, in the heat of our northern Virginia summers, prior to the advent of air conditioning. Alas, they were razed and replaced by an apartment complex in the early 1960s. Read more about the igloo houses, officially named  Airform homes, courtesy of talented writer and historic preservation advocate Kim A. O’Connell, in the March-April 2016 issue of Arlington Magazine.

Considering Risk Tolerance when Evaluating Historic Agricultural Structures

In my ongoing research on ice houses, the apparent lack of clear building trends within time periods and geographic regions continues to frustrate me. I originally conceived of my research project with the goal of developing a typology of Potomac Valley ice houses and delineating general construction periods to assist architectural historians and archaeologists. With supporting field work data, perhaps ice house or ice well remnants could be identified and dated via the shape or dimensions of the pit, construction materials, or other factors.

As far as outbuildings go, it’s a simple structure with one purpose: to preserve a huge pile of ice as long as possible, ideally until the following Winter. How much variation could there really be? British ice houses almost always took the form of a large conical brick-lined pit, covered with an earthen mound (which could also serve as a garden mount), revetted into a hillside, or covered with a conical thatched roof. One would expect to find these traditional forms prevalent among the early ice houses in America. Indeed, earthen mound or hillside ice wells can be found at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg (early 1700s), possibly the Oxon Hill Manor archeological site (18th c.), Hampton in Towson, Maryland (1790s), Lexington Manor archeological site in Lorton, Virginia (1790s), and Huntley in Alexandria, Virginia (1820s). However, my preliminary research and field work is turning up examples of subterranean conical or circular ice wells built long after the agricultural advice literature proclaimed them obsolete and unnecessarily expensive compared to square ice wells or double-walled above-ground ice houses. As early as 1806, Frederic Tudor, the first American ice merchant, proclaimed traditional subterranean ice house construction obsolete, and subsequently built the first of many above-ground commercial ice houses. American farmers, however, seem to have avoided this “new” type of ice house construction until after the Civil War. Continue reading