March 29, 1982 12:00 PM

Now that spring is officially here, a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love, but a housewife’s inevitably goes to grimy windows, soiled curtains and the woes of waxy winter buildup. Yet spring cleaning does not have to be dirty work, insists Frances Gabe, a bespectacled grandmother in Newberg, Oreg. who is determined to liberate homemakers from domestic drudgery. “We should be better mothers, wives, neighbors,” argues Gabe, “and spend time improving ourselves instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry, I have to clean the kitchen.’ ”

To that end, Gabe, 67, has devoted the last eight years to building a 30-by-45-foot house that, in effect, will clean itself. “I want to eliminate all unnecessary motion so that handicapped and elderly people can care for their homes themselves,” she explains. “My system will allow people to do so by pushing a few buttons.”

Gabe’s self-cleaning house works like an oversize washing machine—without the agitation. One button activates a four-nozzle swiveling sprinkler in the ceiling of each room. It releases a pressurized soap-and-water mist that dissolves dust and grime on walls, windows and floors. Rinse and blow-dry cycles follow. The floor of each room is sloped, so the runoff empties into a concealed corner drain. “The process will take less than an hour per room,” says Gabe. Everything must, of course, be waterproof. “Water has been my biggest bugaboo,” she admits. As a solution, Gabe has created plastic upholstery to cover her furniture and clear plastic sleeves to protect books, art objects, bedding and other furnishings during the wash-and-dry process. For safety, all of Gabe’s electrical outlets are covered.

Gabe has patents pending on 68 labor-saving devices, including a fireplace with a back door through which ashes are flushed away, a whirlpool-like bathtub that squirts a degreaser and then cleans itself, a cupboard that doubles as a dishwasher (“Why waste time loading and unloading?”) and a “clothes freshener” closet that launders garments and leaves them to drip-dry on the hanger. “Curtains, drapes and wall-to-wall carpeting are nothing but dirt collectors,” says Frances—and she has eliminated them. Double rows of small, amber-tinted windows insure privacy, and her maple floors are protected by 10 coats of marine varnish.

The Idaho-born daughter of a building contractor, Frances usually rises before dawn and busies herself in a workshop that is cluttered with blueprints, prototypes and tools. In addition to donations and fees from occasional lectures, she has put her life savings into the house. Gabe consults engineers when she hits a snag and says she personally tests each invention until it works. She expects to have her house in perfect self-cleaning order by December.

Gabe and husband Bert have been amicably divorced since 1978, and while he lives in a mobile home nearby, he refuses to talk about the self-cleaning house with her. An unsympathetic neighbor has called Frances a “dumb bat,” and a chauvinistic city engineer once suggested she would be better off inventing a new mayonnaise. Gabe remains unperturbed. “Some people have no vision or imagination,” she observes. “My dream is to have self-cleaning houses the world over. Ten years ago they told me I was 20 years ahead of my time, but I think people are ready for what I’ve got right now.”

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