As It Happens

Frances Gabe, who invented the self-cleaning home to ease 'the plight of the woman,' dies at 101

Frances Gabe invented the self-cleaning house, which has been described as a giant dishwasher.
Frances Gabe was 'always concerned about the plight of the woman' having to clean, says long-time friend Allyn Brown. (Lily Benson )

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Frances Gabe always hated housework. So much so, that she made it her life's work to figure out how to avoid it.

The inventor patented the self-cleaning house, and although the idea didn't exactly take off, she was happy to show it off. 

Gabe died Dec. 26, 2016, at the age of 101. News of her death was slow to circulate. 

Allyn Brown, Gabe's former lawyer and close friend, spoke with As It Happens guest host about the inventor.  

Helen Mann: Was [the self-cleaning house] as wild as it sounds?

Allyn Brown: Yes, yes it was.

I should say though that I never actually did see it operation. It was always in some sort of need of repair.

Understanding she did all this by herself — all the plumbing, building all the walls, developing materials. She did everything by herself, on a shoestring. I mean, she didn't have much money. So it was a marvel to see.

The self-cleaning home 'was a marvel to see,' says Frances Gabe's lawyer. (Greg Benson )

HM: You knew her for years. Did she ever tell you how she came up with this idea?

AB: I asked her, once we got pretty well acquainted, where the idea came from.

First I had to swear I would never tell because she said, "If people knew where this idea came from, then they'd really think I'm crazy."

So anyway, she told me and I'm going to keep her promise.

HM: Do you know whether part of it was because she hated housework?

AB: Oh, absolutely. She was always concerned about the plight of the woman always having to do the drudgery and the work and the house cleaning. She thought males got all the fun to go out and build things and be outside. And she thought housework was a ball and chain for women in the world.

HM: It sounds like she was kind of ahead of her time?

AB: Oh, most definitely. Most definitely.

HM: So you were her lawyer for many years. How did you actually first meet her?

AB: I opened a law practice in Newberg, [Ore.,] in 1970. I just literally hung up my shingle, I was full of ambition and had a lot of time on my hands and she was one of the first clients that ever walked in my door.  And she had a problem with a neighbour, which turned out would be a lifelong situation. She had issues with all her neighbours.

And to understand the facts surrounding the complaint that was addressed to her I went out to her place, and was just dumbfounded by what I saw out there.  

HM: Were you honest with her about any concerns you might have?

AB: Oh yes, yes. I had a lot of time on my hands and so I would spend time with her. We actually had a number of things in common. She had a lapidary studio where she was polishing agates and semi-precious stones. Made her own jewelry. And as a kid, I was a rock hound. She also was a ceramist. She had sculptures of reclining nudes around her yard, half grown over with ivy.

Blueprints for Frances Gabe's self-cleaning house. (United States Patent and Trademark Office)

HM: Is that true that the art pieces weren't the only things that were sometimes nude in the garden?

AB: Well, I never saw her like that but one of the complaints of her neighbour was she would do work in the garden stark naked. 

HM: You said she didn't have a lot of money. Was she able to foot her legal bills?  

AB: Not really no, I mean, I got the impression that she did not have a lot of funds. When we were out there, it was a hot summer day, she gave me a Pepsi. She said, "Do you like Pepsi?" and I said, "Well yeah, sure."

Then she said, "Now what's this going to cost me?" and I said, "Well, this cold Pepsi on this hot day, that's good enough for me. That's payment for me."   

I kind of got myself into a bit of a bind on ever going beyond Pepsi for charging her for legal service.  

Ceiling water sprinkler in interior of home of Frances Gabe's home. (Lily Benson )

HM: So what's happened to the house now?

AB: I actually don't know personally what's happened to the house. I read in the New York Times that somebody's living in it.

It's not surprising that it's still in existence because this thing was made out of cement and concrete block and rock. You know it could withstand a bombing, I'm sure.

HM: How are you remembering Frances Gabe? How do you choose to think of her?

AB: She was a delightful person.

You know, she was prickly, and demanding of people. She never quite realized that you get more with sugar than you do with vinegar, o as a result she put a lot of people off in her sort of arrogant, demanding ways.  But to me, she knew that she was that way, and she kind of got a kick out of it.

So I never quite grasped whether she was true genius and I didn't recognize it, or she led a life of delusion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Allyn Brown, listen to our broadcast interview.  

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