Living With a Vintage Chambers Stove

Our client Morgan is a certified e-n-t-h-u-s-i-a-s-t.  We loved her energy so much that we asked her to sign on as our web designer.  When she and her husband Phil remodeled their kitchen, their purchase of a Chambers was just one element of their desire to use as many reclaimed products as possible, both for the aesthetics and for the environmental benefits. Morgan never imagined that an old appliance would become the star of their kitchen. After just a couple of years with their white 90C Chambers stove, Morgan knew that she would never go back to a modern range.  Here's her tale of falling in love with "Babs": 

First, just look at her.

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Babs is beautiful in a way that few modern stoves are. Just like the stunning cars from her heyday, she’s all rounded edges, curved handles, and lots of chrome. That authentic vintage style is a truly gorgeous alternative to the ho-hum stainless steel, white, or black boxes that can be found in appliance stores today. And in my 1915 bungalow kitchen, Babs looks right at home.

Beauty is important, but functionality is paramount. And Babs can do things that no other stove can. The In-A-Top broiler and griddle has been a game-changer for meals at my house. The griddle surface is ideal for anything that you flip to cook – fried eggs, pancakes, pork chops, grilled cheese – or huge amounts of food, like a double batch of Julia Child’s ratatouille recipe, which I make and freeze every summer. The griddle’s generous size is much larger than even my biggest pan, making quick work of any large recipe.

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Underneath the griddle is a broiler and sizzle platter, which has completely replaced my toaster oven for toast, bagels, leftover pizza, and anything else that benefits from a broiling flame. I once broiled a Christmas Eve leg of lamb on the sizzle platter; it’s also great for burgers and steaks, especially when it’s too cold to grill. If you cook bacon under the broiler, you’ll be rewarded with a delicious little pool of grease in the sizzle platter’s gravy well. That grease is absolutely perfect for slowly cooking a couple of eggs.

I’ve also found Babs’ top pilot light to be surprisingly useful.

It’s ideal for melting butter, keeping hollandaise sauce or gravy warm, or softening cream cheese for a baking recipe. I have a set of 3.5” stoneware ramekins that happen to fit perfectly over the pilot, and they retain heat quite well. Between the In-A-Top and the pilot light, I haven’t had any need for a microwave since I got this stove.

Of course, Babs also has three regular burners, all of which are more powerful than those of any gas stove I’ve used before. The burners are perfectly sized for my most prized vintage kitchen tools, such as my 1910 cast iron Wagner waffle iron.

My vintage Wagner waffle iron looks like it was made for this burner. In the center of the range is the pilot light. The Thermowell is directly behind the waffle iron.

My vintage Wagner waffle iron looks like it was made for this burner. In the center of the range is the pilot light. The Thermowell is directly behind the waffle iron.

Before Babs came into my life, my biggest concern about living with a vintage stove was the size of the oven. It just looked so much smaller than a modern stove’s. But I’ve never once wished the oven was bigger. My years-old cookie sheets fit perfectly. Last year’s 12-pound Thanksgiving turkey had plenty of space (and tasted incredible). And since the oven is heavily insulated, you can actually cook with the gas turned off. I haven’t converted my recipes to cook this way yet, but it’s very handy for keeping a meal warm when dinner guests are running late.

If I ever do need more oven space, there is a solution already built in: the Thermowell. Often called “the original slow cooker,” the Thermowell is a small, heavily insulated well at the back of the stove that can serve as a fast-heating oven or warming closet. Chambers used to manufacture sets of kettles that fit perfectly in the Thermowell. With a triple kettle set, you could cook three different dishes at the same time! I own a Thermobaker, which is a device that holds a casserole dish, pie pan, cake tin, or a couple of foil-wrapped baked potatoes. The Thermowell truly becomes a second small oven when combined with a vintage Thermobaker.

The Thermobaker.

The Thermobaker.

I recently stayed at an Airbnb with a slick, modern, and likely expensive electric stove. It was the first time in a long time that I had tried cooking a meal on any stove other than Babs. The pans slid all over the surface. I had to press a button to get the burner started. I couldn’t tell when the surface had escalated from barely warm to screaming hot – or when it was cool enough to touch. The oven was comically large for the dishes I cooked inside – a total waste of energy. During that stay, I realized just how much I missed my Chambers’ gorgeous chrome handles and the satisfying sensation of turning them to light a burner. I missed the sound of the burner coming to life. And I really missed how consistent and visible the heat was, and how quickly it would be ready to use.

I feel a bit sorry for the Airbnb hosts who purchased that brand-new, gee-whiz electric stove. I imagine that they were lured in by the range’s sleek digital presence, and by the idea that a new stove must be so much better than an old one.

Well, when I was planning my kitchen remodel, I could have gone that way. I could have spent far more on a brand-new stove. I could have prioritized shiny newness over vintage charm. And I could have made do with just four burners and a huge oven, the way most people do these days, and I likely never would have known that I was missing out on so many other cooking possibilities. But I’m so glad I didn’t. In my mind, you just can’t improve upon the infinitely repairable, simply built, versatile, and gorgeous Chambers stove.  

REGULATIONS AND THE REGULATORS THEY BEGET

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In the past five years Chicago residents have witnessed one of the largest, most widespread and often irritating infrastructure improvements in the city's recent history:  the upgrading of the natural gas distribution system by the local utility People's Gas.  Streets and parkways are torn up, parking can be disrupted and restricted for weeks, gas meters are relocated from inside to the outside of many houses, often requiring rerouting of inside gas lines.  To top it off, the different phases of the work in any block can be spread out through a year or more, with very little communication provided on what work will be done and when it will happen.

For many owners of vintage stoves, including Chambers, the change can have drastic implications.  This is due to the fact most vintage stoves built prior to the mid 1960's do not come equipped with built-in gas pressure regulators.  People's Gas employees are directed to disconnect any stove not so equipped.

Here's the back story:  All gas stoves and other gas appliances are manufactured to operate with a uniform standard pressure of gas:  If that pressure is exceeded while the stove is being used, the burner flames will be drastically higher.  If the stove is not being used, certain components of the stove, mainly the valves used to turn the gas on and off, can be overpowered and raw gas will escape past them and into your kitchen. 

Avoiding this problem was originally the sole responsibility of the gas utility, which utilized the "gas supply regulator" installed on a home or apartment building.  It's a disc-shaped device (about 10" wide) attached to the building's gas supply pipe just before it enters the building.  You can see it in the photo on the upper left.

Some old regulator installations are inside the building.  There may be a meter between the regulator and the building, or the meter may be inside. 

The purpose of the regulator is to "regulate" (decrease) the pressure of the gas from the high pressure "street" supply, to the lower standard pressure for a building's gas appliances.  It also prevents any accidental "spikes" or "surges" of "street" pressure from entering a building's gas lines and appliances.

Since the mid 60's, all gas stoves (as well as furnaces and water heaters) must by law have their own regulators built-in for safety redundancy.  The reasoning is this:  if the utility company's supply regulator fails, allowing high pressure gas into your house's gas pipes, the stove's regulator prevents the surge from entering and overwhelming the stove's components.

Many old neighborhoods in Chicago still have low pressure gas supply systems that date from the original installations of the late 1800's to early 1900's.  For various safety and efficiency reasons, those and many mid-century systems are being replaced with a new high pressure supply, and when they are being replaced, new exterior "supply" regulators and meters are being installed.  It's at this point in the process when your vintage stove will be tagged and disconnected.

When the gas company upgrades a building, they must first turn off the gas supply, attach the new equipment, then turn the gas supply back on.  Before they leave the building, the utility's personnel are required to enter each residence to relight any pilot lights on water heaters, furnaces, and stoves.  They must also check any vintage stove to check to see if it has its own built-in regulator and modern flexible connector (stainless steel or plastic coated).  If not, the stove is summarily disconnected, the supply to the stove plugged, and the owner is told that it cannot be reconnected until one or both have been installed.

Fitting a regulator to your Chambers is a fairly straightforward job that any plumber should be able to handle in an hour, two at most.  If you don't have a modern yellow plastic coated flex line and an on/off valve between your stove and the pipe coming out of the kitchen wall or floor, now would be the time to update everything.  You can buy all the parts for about $100, though regulators are not usually available at hardware stores:  check professional appliance supply stores in your area. 

Of course if you are not qualified to work on gas systems, leave this upgrade to a professional.  If you need this work done and you haven't had your Chambers looked at in a while, please give me a call.