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Everything you need to read about Frances Gabe, self-cleaning house inventor

Captivated by her obituary? There’s so much more to know

Frances Gabe was, tragically, not a household name when she passed away in December of 2016. However, her New York Times obituary published this week quickly went viral, putting the woman who designed, patented, and built a self-cleaning house back in the zeitgeist. Gabe was the original smart home pioneer.

The story is essential reading, as is a second story just about her patent, showing her original drawings laced with spray nozzles and air jets. But if you, like me, couldn’t get enough of Gabe’s spunky real talk about our domestic future, here is a rabbit hole of reading on her triumphant invention, which, depending on the story, was spurred on by either a stubborn drip of fig jam or angels which visited her after her divorce.

This was not the first time the New York Times had published a story on Gabe—which, like so much else in this woman’s life, was not her given name, but a carefully engineered improvement. As the obituary notes, during the ‘80s and ‘90s she had a brief but legitimate brush with fame, appearing on the Phil Donahue Show, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and in Erma Bombeck’s column. A model of her invention was also placed on display at the Women's Museum in Dallas (it’s now at the Hagley Museum in Delaware).

A model of Gabe’s house, which was acquired by the Hagley Museum in Delaware.
Hagley Museum

A 1982 profile in People magazine offers Gabe’s feminist take on how her accomplishments could change gender roles by liberating homemakers. “We should be better mothers, wives, neighbors, and spend time improving ourselves instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry, I have to clean the kitchen.’”

Her best quote, however, was saved for the Ottawa Citizen in 1996: “Housework is a thankless, unending job. It’s a nerve-twangling bore. Who wants it? Nobody!”

In 2002, she was featured in the New York Times’ paper’s Home & Garden section, where she blamed dirty homes on a male-centric architecture industry. “The problem with houses is that they are designed by men,” she said. “They put in far too much space and then you have to take care of it.”

Gabe was also a highlight of Chuck Palahniuk’s 2003 book Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, where the novelist visits eccentric characters who have chosen to make the Portland region home. A visit to Gabe’s home in Palahniuk’s prose reveals small moments other profiles seem to miss: “Sealed on both sides with Plexiglass, the windows are filled with knick knacks you never need to dust.”

In fact, it was a Willamette Week story that checked in on all the folks from Palahniuk’s book 10 years later which uncovered the fact that Gabe’s home had been sold and its cleaning apparatuses removed. The new owner seems amenable to restoring Gabe’s work: “He wouldn't rule out the possibility of reinstalling it from memory if he thought there might be interest,” according to the Willamette Week (and he does plan to open the property for bike campers). Gabe herself had conversations with the local Chehalem Parks and Recreation District about landmarking the home before she moved into an assisted care facility.

Gabe’s 1000 square-foot cinderblock house, photographed in 2007.
Gulru Yildiz

But the one thing about the self-cleaning house, ambitious as it was, is that it didn’t seem to actually work—video clips of the home in action are more like blooper reels. Which is what inspired Lily Benson to create a 3D rendering version of the house that uses the detailed tech in the patents to capture the home’s intended essence. Indeed, there is so much to learn from Gabe’s life-long mission, if not her exact execution.

Perhaps in addition to preserving the home, the property could be transformed into a retreat site focusing on young women working in home tech. Visitors could stay for days or weeks at a time, soaking up the legacy of a visionary who was clearly ahead of her time while being tutored by stars of Portland’s local industrial design community, fostering the next generation of Frances Gabes.