Summer Kitchens in Fresno

Watson, Shayne. "Summer Kitchens in Fresno." Architecture, Ethnicity and Historic Landscapes of California's San Joaquin Valley, 2008.

Schmidt-Terzian Summer Kitchen, Fresno, CA, circa 1920; photograph by Karana Hattersley-Drayton

The detached summer kitchen, often referred to as Summerkuche or Backhaus, was once a common sight on Volga German homesteads across the United States. In Fresno, summer kitchens dotted the backyards of nearly every German-Russian family from the late 1890s through the mid-20th century.1  Italian immigrants living on Fresno’s west side used summer kitchens as well; the Italians called theirs shedi, or “sheds.”2

Very little literature exists on the specific derivation of the summer kitchen typology, but information about the evolution of kitchens in Germanic architecture contributes to a hypothesis. As early as the late Middle Ages, residential architecture in Germany was driven by fire-prevention measures.3 At that time, the typical dwelling was comprised of a Kuche (hearth room/kitchen) and Stube (heating-stove room/sleeping area), which were separated by a stone or brick fire wall constructed according to police regulations. When the heating stove evolved into a more efficient model that was raised off the floor, residents began to bake in the stove – a potentially hazardous practice that resulted in police regulations against baking indoors. The response to these regulations came in the form of outdoor, communal bakehouses.4 Another impetus for the construction of detached kitchens was the intense heat generated by the hearth and stove. Although welcomed in the winter, the high temperature would overheat the small dwellings in the summer.

The summer kitchen custom persisted in the German settlements on the banks of the Volga River in Russia. Fire prevention continued to be of utmost concern on the steppes, as homesteads were constructed of highly flammable materials, and timber for rebuilding was in short supply. Because a single home fire could destroy an entire village, local regulations forced the use of detached kitchens during the windiest days and hottest months of the year.5 In the United States, the Volga Germans settled in regions not unlike the steppes of Russia: the plains of Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, and California’s San Joaquin Valley. Thus, the summer kitchen custom continued to thrive in America.    

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1919; summer kitchen at 2349 F Street, Fresno, CA

Detached from the residence, summer kitchens were typically located to the rear of the house and often adjacent to additional outbuildings, such as barns and smokehouses. The kitchens generally were rectangular in plan and the size of a single-car garage. Materials varied from location to location, but kitchens were constructed of stone, masonry, mud, or wood frame. A gabled roof covering the building was punctuated by a stovepipe or chimney. Walls were ventilated by small windows. A stove located at one end of the kitchen was stoked with wood, coal, dried manure, or kerosene, depending on the era of use and geographical location. Additional items found in summer kitchens included a long table with benches, cupboards and, in later years, a refrigerator.

The summer kitchen was the hub of activity during the summer months and harvests. Its use kept the main house -- which essentially was sealed during the day -- clean and cool. In addition to providing space for cooking and baking, Volga Germans in the United States also used their detached kitchens for canning, butchering, making sausages, eating, and laundry.6  

Summer kitchens constructed in Fresno were of the same general design and served the same purpose as kitchens constructed in the Midwest during the same period. Development of the Volga German neighborhoods in Fresno can be tracked by the appearance of summer kitchens on Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps. On the 1918-1919 maps, the Sanborn Company labeled summer kitchens in the backyards of dwellings in Fresno (see figure). Comparing kitchens that appear on the 1918-1919 maps to outbuildings in the same location on earlier maps, the appearance of summer kitchens in Fresno’s Germantown can be traced back to 1898.

The summer kitchen located behind the residence at 635 N. “A” Street, constructed in 1913, is still extant and stands as one of few remaining examples of an important vernacular property type in Fresno. The summer kitchen constructed behind the Schmidt Home, originally located at 460 N. Street, is still intact and, although relocated away from its original site, is a valuable example of a smaller summer kitchen.

1. Much of the information in this essay is borrowed from Shayne Watson & Jody Stock, Germantown, Fresno: Historical Context, 4 April 2006, for the City of Fresno Planning and Development Department (San Francisco: Architectural Resources Group, 2006).

2. Information on Italian immigrants in Fresno provided by Karana Hattersley-Drayton (from oral history interviews), November 2007.

3. William Weaver, “The Pennsylvania German House: European Antecedents and New World Forms.” Winterthur Portfolio 21(1986): 243-264.

4. Weaver, 256.

5. Fred C. Koch, The Volga Germans in Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 177.

6. Members of the Germans from Russia Electronic Discussion Group, interview by author, November-December 2007.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller