Monday, October 22, 2012


Every so often, there’s a brief span of years in which innovation comes thick and fast.  In the area of building technology, the Roaring Twenties was such an age.  The houses of this decade were chock full of new ideas that, quaint as they seem to us now, let Americans live more comfortably than ever before.

The homes of the 1920s were, for one, the first to truly integrate electricity.  In prior years, clumsy surface installations of switches and wiring were still common, along with lighting fixtures that often consisted of little more than a naked bulb at the end of a cord.  The Twenties brought the wide use of two-button switches flush-mounted in brass plates, with the  “on” button elegantly marked by a circle of mother-of-pearl.  Electric wall sconces became the lighting fashion of the day, while electrical outlets moved from jury-rigged affairs screwed to the wall to being inconspicuously flush-mounted in the baseboard.  Granted, few rooms had more than one or two receptacles, but then this was an era of few electrical gadgets besides floor lamps and radios.

Another high-tech feature unique to the era was a built-in aerial serving that entertainment mainstay of the day, the console radio.  Rather than mounting an ugly mast on the roof as was later done for television, builders of the Twenties cleverly looped wire through the attic to form a giant hidden antenna. 

A simpler but equally useful convenience was the pass-through mailbox, in which letters dropped through a slot beside the front door slid into a small inside compartment behind a grillework door.  Alas, this charming device could never accomodate today’s huge quantities of junk mail. 

The 1920s also brought the wide use of speaking tubes, the low-tech ancestor of those garbled intercoms we’ve all learned to hate. Used mainly in upscale apartment buildings, speaking tubes were simply a network of tin pipes leading from a central panel at the front door into each apartment. Each end of the tube had a trumpet-like opening, allowing visitor and occupant to communicate without need for electronics. 

Also found in better apartment houses was central electric refrigeration, the forerunner of today’s home refrigerators.  In this system, a compressor in the basement furnished the cooling power for a small refrigerated cabinet in the kitchen of each apartment.  Cumbersome as it sounds, this was still a big advance over the standard cooling device of the era: A block of ice.  

No doubt the most technically sophisticated building innovation to take hold during the Twenties was air conditioning, a luxury so expensive that it was initially found only in movie palaces and in the best class of public buildings.  In those days, the machinery required to air-condition a building took up roughly the space of a four-car garage, and was deemed so impressive that at least one theater installed plate glass show windows to let passersby admire their mechanical wonder from the sidewalk.  

One innovation of the Twenties that never did catch on was a patented radio speaker hidden in a chandelier--a device that probably had more than a few startled dinner guests choking on their dumplings.  Then again, even this curiosity might have succeeded if the Great Depression hadn’t stopped it cold, along with all the other hijinks of this exuberant era. Thankfully, the greatest legacy of the Roaring Twenties--some of the most charming and livable houses in America--still largely survives.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Some years back, the FBI raided San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection and arrested an official for allegedly taking bribes from a contractor.  It was yet another embarassment for an organization that, rightly or wrongly, has long suffered from a reputation for favoritism and improprieties.  At the time of the arrest, the department had been under FBI investigation for five years.  

This event got me to thinking about the nature of corruption in building and planning departments--not just in San Francisco, but across the country.  It would be easy to blame a few bad apples for this not-uncommon problem, but in fact the process may deserve as much  blame as the personnel.  

Bribery is, of course, one way of circumventing normal channels that don’t function adequately. In the days of the old U.S.S.R., for example, staple foods like chicken, beef, and pork were often very scarce. Not surprisingly, corruption flourished under these conditions. While ordinary Russians routinely stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a few scraps of meat, people with money and influence could easily obtain fine wine, caviar, chocolate, or anything else they fancied. 

Thankfully, in the United States, we don’t have to bribe the butcher to score a few pork chops--we can just pick up a package, pay for it, and leave. If only getting a building permit were so simple.  Instead, it’s become one of the most exasperating processes in all of government.  Despite the best efforts of officials in many cities, obtaining a permit often still takes more time than constructing the actual project.  

Now, generally, we Americans are a very patient people.  We don’t mind jumping through our fair share of hoops to get what we’re after.  Yet there’s a point at which a process become so onerous and complex that even reasonable people try to circumvent it--not because they have criminal minds, but because each and every one of us has a limit of tolerance for unreasonable red tape.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.  After all, the American Revolution grew out of what normally law-abiding people saw as unfair taxation by the Crown. This kind of rebellion against unfairness is, if anything, a classic American trait.

The unfairness inherent in many big-city building permit processes is this:  Thanks to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, homeowners with ordinary resources must struggle for permission to build simple and innocuous home additions, while big-league applicants who are savvy, well-connected, and able to afford elaborate lobbying measures (whether legal or otherwise) can typically prevail with projects of far greater impact on the public.

It’s evident that if the approval process weren’t so convoluted, fewer ordinary citizens would be tempted onto the dangerous path of foregoing permits altogether.  Neither would well-connected applicants look for special treatment, nor would building officials be tempted to grant such favors in return for compensation. 

If we’re still shocked--shocked!--to find bribery in some of our building departments, we shouldn’t be. When a process becomes as byzantine as this one has, attempts to circumvent it are inevitable. And as we already know, people with means can always get their caviar, while the rest of us wait in line for scraps.