The Spring Cellar

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

We have a root cellar in front of our farmhouse. It has stone and plaster walls and an arched ceiling. We would like to use it, but it is always flooded. It has a partial stone floor (the water is quite clear) and water seams to flow out a hole in the corner, but it is still always at least a few inches deep. Any ideas on how to keep the water out?

I suspect whoever built that cellar wasn't intending it for storing roots. I'm also pretty sure they actually wanted water in it. What you have described is most likely a spring cellar. Not as widely known as the more elaborate model, the spring house, but it served the same basic function.

Spring water would flow through a trench usually created around the perimeter of a stone or brick floor. This water, at about 55 degrees, would keep anything in the trough cold. The most common food product would be raw milk, stored in pottery crocks, set in the cold water. There are often stones protruding from the walls to support shelves. The flowing cold water would also chill the air that would extend the useful life of the most perishable food items kept dry but cool on these shelves.

The basic model is the simple subterranean cellar that you describe. It is mostly, if not entirely underground with a mound of soil over the vault ceiling. The upgraded model is in the form of a small house, providing additional room for processing the milk into other dairy products.

The deluxe models have another floor above the "damp" level. When I'm inspecting an old farm on a steaming August afternoon, I spend an inordinate amount of time in this upper room. I can imagine that this was an ideal location for performing some of the required summer tasks when these farms were solely powered by manual labor.

Like other outbuildings on old farms, the spring house is often abandoned and neglected. There is little use in the 21st (or even during the 20th century) for a cold, damp little building half in the ground. The moisture on the interior typically leads to rot of the wood floor or roof structure above, although the ones with vents seem to last longer. The exterior stone or brick walls seem indestructible. That observation is based on the amount of "shells" that I find that used to be spring houses. I don't know if any were ever constructed with wood exterior walls. If there were, they didn't survive into my world.

I've always encouraged folks to adapt old, obsolete buildings to a new use. This seems to be the best method of keeping repair and maintenance needs in the first ten pages of an old farms "to do" list. Unfortunately, I haven't come up with any good suggestions for the use of the tiny chilly, wet space except as a wine cellar. I'll admit that I don't even know the ideal temperature and humidity for wine. I've never possessed good wine long enough to consider storage.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.

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