Home Improvement

7 Home Features We Barely Recognize Today -- and Clever Updates

  • Pablo and Beverly Solomon's root cellar turned spa.

    Pablo and Beverly Solomon's root cellar turned spa.

  • An old space for a dumbwaiter was turned into a kitchen bookcase

    An old space for a dumbwaiter was turned into a kitchen bookcase

  • Milk chute to the right of the door

    Milk chute to the right of the door

If 19th-century homeowners were zapped into a modern home, they'd probably be perplexed by the media room, kitchen island, and charging stations. But some features of the past are just as puzzling to us today -- and they can be found in homes that are available today.

Yet in their era, these architectural aspects were downright essential. Imagine a vintage listing crowing "spacious root cellar!" and you get the idea. They may not be practical for modern living, but some home features of yesterday are a charming testament to a bygone era.

Here are some clever ways these features can be updated if you should happen to have them in your (probably historic) home.


Back when posh homes had servants, a dumbwaiter -- essentially a small elevator with a manual rope-and-pulley hoist -- saved them the trouble of schlepping heavy loads (such as meals, which were often cooked in basement kitchens) up and down the stairs. Today, since most people eat in or next to their kitchens, most dumbwaiters have outlived their usefulness and fallen into disrepair.

Patricia Reynolds discovered one such feature when she bought a home in Jackson Heights in Queens, NY. "It was basically a small door that just looked down on a dusty shaftway," she says.

The modern update: "When my husband and I renovated the kitchen, we removed the dumbwaiter and turned that empty space into a bookcase," says Reynolds. The nice thing is, it's even deep enough to hold a tiny TV.

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Phone alcoves

Back when people actually sat down to have a lengthy telephone conversation rather than walking and texting, phones enjoyed an elevated status in the home, often perched on a built-in shelf. This was because there was usually only one phone per family (!!), and it needed to be in an easily reachable, central location (remember running for the phone before there was voicemail?).

A popular choice was this Sears telephone cabinet, still found in many Western homes built in the 1920s and '30s.

The modern update: Turn this shelf into a gadget charging station. Or to retain a touch of whimsy, use it to display treasured vintage finds, like an old White Pages.

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Murphy beds

Why does William Murphy have a bed named after him? The story goes something like this: In the early 1910s, Murphy had a thing for an opera singer. But the social mores of the day made it indelicate for him to entertain her in his bedroom, which was also his living room -- yep, he lived in a studio. So the lovesick Murphy invented a hinged bed. With just one hand, Murphy's eponymous bed flipped up into a niche on the wall and transformed his bedroom into a perfectly respectable parlor.

The modern update: When Murphy beds fell out of fashion, crafty homeowners transformed the alcoves into home offices and built-in bookcases. But in today's space-starved urban apartments or tiny houses, a Murphy bed can be the perfect sleeping situation.

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Milk doors

Before there was lactose-free milk and soy milk and almond milk, there was just … milk, delivered fresh to your door every morning. Technically called a milk chute, these pass-throughs had a door on the exterior wall the milkman put his wares into (eggs and bread were known to make an appearance as well). Another door inside the house allowed homeowners to grab the breakfast goods without having to venture out in their PJs.

The modern update: Clever updates to these milk doors include storage compartments, pet doors, and insanely charming mailboxes.

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Root cellars

Before refrigerators were par for the course, people had root cellars -- a dark, cool space under ground level to stash potatoes, onions, and other veggies where they wouldn't spoil.
The modern update: Now that your veggies have a happy new home in the fridge, you can use this place to store other items -- or, better yet, gauge the size and space and use your imagination.
Artist Pablo Solomon decided to turn the root cellar in his historic stone house near Austin into a "below ground spa," with a stucco finish to hold the water. And how's this for a bonus: The spa is fed by a small spring.

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Summer kitchen

Back in olden times -- before air conditioning and microwaves -- people cooked in a room off the main house during the hot months to avoid broiling their entire family. Back then, wood-fired stoves were usually going day and night in order to cook meals (there was no Seamless) or to can fresh fruit and vegetables (no Fresh Direct, either).

The modern update: Today's homeowners fire up a barbecue when the weather gets sultry and turn old summer kitchens into artist studios or a rental property.

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Laundry chute

Laundry chutes -- usually found in the hallway behind a small door in homes with two or more stories -- were pure genius (whoever invented them remains shrouded in mystery). Instead of going from room to room gathering dirty clothes in an ever-heavier basket, homeowners could immediately toss clothes straight down the chute to a basement laundry room.

The modern update: Nothing -- it's as perfect today as in the past. At most, a cute update of the chute door is all you need.

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More from realtor.com: Time-Travel Through 5 of the Nation's Oldest Homes