On Aging: The Genius and Me

Self-cleaning House age in place

Remembering Frances Gabe, Oregon Inventor of The Self-Cleaning House ~by Julie Sabatier 


Frances Gabe gained international notoriety in the 1980s for the self-cleaning house she designed and built in Newberg, Oregon. But Gabe died at the age of 101 late last year in relative obscurity. Her death was marked only by a short death notice in the local newspaper. This week, a New York Times obituary brought Gabe back into the public consciousness. 

“She was basically a genius autodidact — never went to college, never had much money. The patent for the house, which she was awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the 1980s, comprised nearly 70 discrete inventions,” Margalit Fox, senior writer in the Times obituary news department, told OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”

Fox explained that the house worked very much like an oversized dishwasher with sprinklers in the ceiling of each room.

“Obviously drapery, upholstery, wood floors, wood furniture, books, papers, none of the normal stuff that you and I have can withstand water coming out of the ceiling,” said Fox. “She had a plan for all that.”

The plan included many layers of floor varnish (the same kind used on boats), plastic coatings for pictures hanging on the wall and a kind of waterproof upholstery that Gabe invented herself. 

A 2002 New York Times article included Gabe’s own recollection of the inspiration for the self-cleaning house. It came from an incident in her experience as a young mother when in a moment of frustration, she dragged the garden hose inside to wash fig jam off the wall.

“That got her very brilliant mind and very vivid imagination going and she thought, what if I could make a house that would do this kind of self-washing all by itself?” Fox said.

Listener Patrick Roden wrote in to “Think Out Loud” to remember Gabe, who he described as a close friend. 

“She was one of the most extraordinary human beings I’d ever met,” he said. “She had an uncommon imagination, and she could be cantankerous. She had little patience for small talk and enjoyed swimming in the deep end of ideas.”

Gabe’s house is still standing in Newberg, though Fox says the current owner is no longer able to use the self-cleaning mechanisms and must keep it tidy the old-fashioned way. 


My Email to Dave Miller

Hi Dave, I just happened to hear that your show tomorrow is going to be about Frances Gabe. Frances was a close friend of mine–I learned of her passing only today on your show. I’m deeply saddened by her passing, she was one of the most extraordinary human beings I’d ever met.

Frances was a respondent in my dissertation study on aging and creativity. We became fast friends over the years I interviewed her (she even attended our wedding). She had an uncommon imagination, and she could be cantankerous–boarding on misanthropic at times. She had little patience for small talk and enjoyed swimming in the deep end of ideas–this made getting along with others a challenge at times. One of the highest compliments I ever received from her was that: “I made her feel like she wasn’t alone.”

I have many fond memories of conversations we shared–I always left her home (SCH) with my head spinning! For example, one gray-winter afternoon after a snack of Cheetos– she loved Cheetos, she confided in me that she had two “assistants” who came to her when she sat at her drafting table. These two entities appeared to her in the forms of “Charlie a businessman in a three piece suit and “Joe,”a monk wearing robes the color of the sunrise. I was confused by this confession at first, then on later reflection, I realized what she was describing in metaphoric imagery was Left-brain linear thinking–Charlie in three piece suit and Right-brain creative thinking–Joe the monk.

Frances Gabe’s life goal was to free women from the drudgery of house work so they could liberate their energies to do more meaningful things in life. Now, remember, this was the 1950’s, the Self-Cleaning House was an idea ahead of its time.

Years back on the Jay Leno show, she was picked as Oregon’s most interesting person! I was willing to take her to Hollywood to tape the show, but she wasn’t interested in going. Frances was an Oregon Treasure–the Oregon Historical Society should honor her and she should have a room of her own there. I have some of her work and would like to see them get it.

I will miss her and will never forget her…She was a gift.

Best, Patrick Roden

age in place

Think Out Loud

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