St. Louis' Gingerbread Homes - Let's Tour the Inside!

To start our tour inside, let’s begin with basic construction. First and foremost, it’s critical to understand most American homes are wood framed structures, including most post-World War II homes built in the St. Louis region. The wood frame provides the structural support to apply exterior coverings like vinyl siding or brick facades, and interior coverings like drywall.

But unlike most American homes, nearly all the homes on this website feature exterior walls constructed of solid masonry. No vinyl siding applied to wood framing here. These homes were built to last!

And while Gingerbreads’ exterior walls are solid masonry, they are composed of different materials than most of the home types featured on this website. By this I mean most of the homes on this website feature walls constructed of multiple layers of solid brick. But at the time St. Louis’ Gingerbreads were being built, primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, a different, more modern construction method was being used. Instead of brick and mortar exterior walls, a larger clay block, called clay tile or hollow tile, was being used. Here’s an ad for this product:

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As the nation’s largest brick producer, I would like to think St. Louis manufactured these as well, but have not located evidence of this.

Because of their large size, they were probably a less expensive building material than brick, and their application, requiring less mortaring, must have saved labor costs during construction. Solid and strong, they had the added benefit of superior insulation value due to the air pockets encased within them. A single layer of brick was then applied to the exterior of the structure, much like a brick facade is applied today to a modern wood-frame home.

Here’s a photo of a typical exterior wall composed of clay tile blocks, viewed from the inside, with the interior mortar and tile (this was a bathroom) removed:

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Below clay tile blocks close up.  Note contrast with standard bricks at top of photo.

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From this side view, one can see the hollow nature of the clay tile block.  The trapped air provides good insulation.

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Interior walls and ceilings, like nearly all the homes on this website, are of lath and plaster construction. Up until the 1950s, when drywall panels became popular as a quicker and cheaper option, most interior walls were lath and plaster.

 

To construct a lath and plaster wall, builders nailed thin, closely spaced strips of wood (lath) to wall studs (or non-structural spaced strips known as furring strips). The plasterer then applied a slight pressure to push wet plaster through the spaces. This plaster oozed down on the inside of the wall, forming plaster "keys." The plasterer then used the lath and these keys to apply and hold in place multiple additional coatings of plaster to create the flat interior wall and ceiling surfaces. Here’s a view of an interior wall before those additional plaster coatings have been applied:

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Source:  www.nps.gov

To their great advantage, lath and plaster walls are much more contour friendly than rigid drywall panels, and so it’s much easier to create curves and arches in walls and ceilings. As we’ll see in the photos that follow, most gingerbread homes took full advantage of this to add great beauty and character to the home’s interior, features that are rarely found in more modern drywalled homes. Of course there are negatives to lath and plaster as well. When the plaster hardens, it lacks the flexibility drywall provides, and so as an older home settles over time, cracks may appear in the plaster that require additional maintenance to fill in or paint over.

Let’s take a look at some of the arch and ceiling work typically found in a gingerbread home:

Typical archway separating rooms:

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Multiple arches dancing.  Do you see all four?

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An example of "cove" ceilings often found in plaster interior homes.  Instead of a plain right angle where the wall and ceiling meet, cove ceilings provide a more interesting and elegant look.

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A fine decorative ceiling plaster medallion.  Oftentimes ceiling fans will be placed in the center and become part of the decor.

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Now here is where interior walls get even more interesting. Unless they’ve been extensively remodeled and replaced with drywall, most gingerbreads feature tiled walls in their bathrooms and kitchens, with interior walls constructed of concrete. That’s right – concrete! I find this amazing. It’s like these walls were built to last centuries! Here’s what I mean:

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A concrete and wire mesh mix is attached to the wall studs. This supports the mortar concrete, typically about 5/8” to 3/4” thick, to which the tile is applied. The whole shebang produces an interior wall of concrete about 1 1/4” thick. Any water that may penetrate the tile grout is going nowhere. These pictures speak for themselves - walls these strong are simply not built in modern drywalled homes.

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Rear view of concrete and wire mesh.

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Front view.  Remnant of dark wall tile perpendicular to floor tile, backed by thick layer of mortar and concrete, backed by concrete wire mesh.

This superior method of construction is today reflected in tile walls that look just as clean and fresh as when they were first created over eighty years ago!

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While we continue on our theme of strength of construction, let’s take a moment to speak of ductwork. Is anyone really interested in ductwork? Well this site is. That’s because in these older homes, just like the rest of their construction, in many ways even the ductwork is superior!

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Ductwork in modern homes, with its emphasis on pre-fabrication, tends to stop and turn corners on right angles only.  Ductwork in older homes was constructed a bit more thoughtfully, with curved sections when needed.  This creates a more aerodynamic system and better air flow efficiency.

It's not visible, but the ductwork in the above picture is actually thicker than that found in modern construction. The sheet metal used is of a heavier and stronger gage thickness. It makes a difference. Most folks living in a modern home are quite familiar with hearing that sudden boom from the basement ductwork as the furnace or air conditioner starts up and the ductwork expands under the sudden pressure. Sheet metal workers call this the “oil can effect”. But in older homes, because the sheet metal is of heavier gage, that booming action doesn’t occur.

 

Now let’s get back to the beautiful detailing and features typically found inside gingerbread homes, features that once again cannot be found in newer construction.

Multiple art glass (stained glass) windows are common on gingerbreads, unless they have been replaced. Pastel colors are common, some examples:

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Many beautiful windows like these have been replaced, unfortunately, with plain, more energy efficicient windows. While this is understandable, options are available like adding outer storm windows that protect and preserve the art glass windows while providing better energy efficiency.

Many gingerbreads feature an art glass “speakeasy” on the front door. Like this one:

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Since most open and close, you can have a bit of fun with arriving guests!

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Like all the homes featured on this website, hardwood flooring will typically be found in all rooms except the bathroom (unless they’ve been replaced or carpeted over).  Because the wood flooring is solid wood, as opposed to modern floor coverings like laminates and engineered hardwood, if worn or distressed, the flooring can relatively easily be re-sanded to look like new.

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Coming soon – a wood molding and millwork special feature!

Here’s more cool features you don’t see in modern construction, common in even the smallest gingerbread homes (unless extensively remodeled):

Doorbell chimes:

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No annoying buzz here! A doorbell guaranteed to be heard throughout the home.

 

Laundry chute:

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Telephone stand:

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So this homeowner is a little behind on his telecommunications, but it’s easy to envision this space as a showplace for a treasured momento or photo.

Too cold or raining outside?  Decorative mail slots provide mail pick up without the need to step outside.

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Outside.

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Inside.

Glass and intricately detailed brass doorknobs are common on interior doors.

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And finally, the kitchen exhaust fan. Open it, it turns on. Close it, it turns off.  How cool is that?

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Still working after 80+ years!

Thank you for joining our interior tour! Despite their sometimes smaller square footage, I hope I’ve demonstrated the surprising amounts of incredible detail and character that can be found inside St. Louis’ Gingerbread homes.