Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When the mudroom isn't just a place to put your boots, and oxblood isn't just a color:

I think Hansel and Gretel's house may have had one of them, along with a thatched roof and a cozy hearth. In my student days, I lived in a rented house that had one in the basement.

But these dirt floors are different; these dirt floors are chic and upscale.

Or perhaps I should use their more refined name: earthenware floors. According to that linked New York Times article, they are more popular in California and the Southwest than in the east--well, who woulda thunk it?--although not exactly mainstream yet.

But don't imagine that these are your father's--or your grandfather's, or your great-grandfather's--dirt floors. These are installed by homeowners and/or "natural builders," the greenest of green architects, who specialize in using materials closest to their natural state.

Modern dirt floors are sealed with linseed oil and beeswax to become "theoretically" (the Times's word, not mine) water-repellent. The floors are reputed to reduce heating costs, have an environmentally lighter footprint, and look attractive as well.

The latter quality is where that oxblood comes in--literally, in this case:

Aesthetically, earthen floors are “really special,” said Frank Meyer, a natural builder who has installed 15 in Austin, Tex. “After a while they look like an old cracked leather couch,” he said. “When people walk in, they don’t say, ‘Oh, nice floor.’ Everyone gets down on their hands and knees to admire it.” Mr. Meyer has used natural pigment to create designs in some floors, and he said some builders add the blood of oxen for maroon coloration.

There are a few problems, of course. High heels leave their mark, even though the floors are finished within an inch of their lives. Dirt floors are not recommended for kitchens or bathrooms, for rather obvious reasons. And a certain Ms. Altenbach, enthusiastic owner of an earthern floor who also owns some matching dogs that aren't house trained, indicates that the combination can get a bit rustic; she admits that stains are occasionally left on the floor. But she says the:

...imperfections just add to the character of the floors...Some of the stains show, but it only makes these floors more beautiful, like an aging leather jacket.

Yes, I've often noticed how dog pee adds a wonderful patina to an old leather jacket, haven't you?

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