The Mystery of the Kitchen Ceiling

Like most houses, our nearly century-old Chicago bungalow has its share of quirks: I’ve mentioned the stained glass windows that are visible from the outside but not the inside, and the old milkman’s delivery box that was turned into a pantry. (In case you missed it, check out the virtual house tour for more info on both of those things.) So, just to add to the quirks collection, today’s post features a weird little detail involving the kitchen ceiling.

It’s another one of those things that’s not super obvious, but once you notice it, you wonder how you could have overlooked it in the first place. Sort of like the fireplace was, although unlike that happy discovery, this one is just pointless and strange.

Anyway, the quirk is this: our kitchen ceiling is nearly a foot lower than the ceilings in the rest of the house. We actually got out the tape measure to check that we weren’t imagining things, and it’s true: the kitchen ceiling is exactly 8′ high, while the ceilings in every other room are 8′ 10.5″ high. Here’s a photo to try to illustrate the difference:

The doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, as seen
from the dining room side (left) and the kitchen side (right).

I’m not sure how obvious it is in the above photo, but there’s a notable difference in the amount of wall above the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, depending on which side you’re standing on. (The wood trim around the doorway is twice as wide on the dining room side, probably because of the extra space.)

It’s not a huge deal, although considering that the kitchen is on the small side to begin with, it could probably benefit from the more open, expansive atmosphere a higher ceiling might provide. And the real question is, why does the kitchen ceiling need to be this much lower in the first place? Here are a couple of explanations we’ve considered:

  • Something to do with ducts, pipes, or wiring? This seems unlikely because we have a boiler rather than forced air heating, and no central A/C system. And there’s definitely no plumbing in the attic. There’s the range hood over the stove, and the one little hanging light fixture, but neither of these seem like the kinds of things that should require a whole ceiling’s worth of hidden wires or ducts.
  • Something structural? Though we can’t say for sure, this also seems unlikely because it’s just the kitchen — the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen has ceilings the same height as the rest of the house. There’s no noticeable difference in the attic floor above, either.

A third explanation is that it could just be some kind of cosmetic thing. And not necessarily in the sense that the previous owners just woke up one day and said to themselves, “this room needs to feel smaller and more claustrophobic” — for instance, if the kitchen used to have a suspended tile ceiling back in the day (which would have hung at least 6 inches lower than a regular ceiling according to this article) maybe when it came time to replace it, they just put in the new ceiling at the same height as the old one because they were already used to it, or because the cabinets were designed to work with that height, or whatever.

Something along those lines seems more likely to me than the two structural or functional explanations given above, so that’s my main theory. Joe’s main theory is that there’s a body hidden up there.

What mysteries do you hold, kitchen ceiling?

Maybe there’s some other more plausible explanation that we’re overlooking, though. Can you think of any reason the ceiling in a kitchen might be this much lower than the ceilings in the rest of the house? For that matter, have you ever encountered any ceiling-related oddities in your home, height-related or otherwise? Feel free to share your thoughts or stories in the comments.


  1. Stephen mentioned that it might be the opposite of the reason old houses in Pensacola have high ceilings: cooking in the winter in Chicago, you don’t want all that warmth escaping through the attic, so they lowered the ceiling, and maybe even had extra insulation installed? Plus it looks as if the cabinets are hung behind a support of some sort, maybe they couldn’t hang from the original ceiling due to materials used (like plaster maybe). Or maybe Joe is right, it IS Chicago after all!

  2. I think your cosmetic answer is probably the safest bet, but I like hidden body one better. Or maybe hidden gold bars? I swear we are leading the same life though. Besides our husbands named Joe and daughters named Lillian, we also have kitchen ceiling height issues. There was a drop ceiling when we bought it. Thats gone, revealing a grand total of 4 different ceiling heights. We now have 3, nearly the same but definitely different heights separated by gross beams. Making the beams pretty is a goal for the far in the future kitchen renovation, but the different ceiling heights we are just calling “character.” :)

  3. With most of the old houses I have lived in (in Iowa) the kitchen ceiling is among the first in the house to go to pot (moisture, grease, that ind of thing) so the easiest way to fix it and still have a kitchen is to put a new one below the old, so you aren’t without kitchen facilities long.

    In my current house is decaying plaster over the original beadboard, then furring strips and cardboard tiles over the plaster, and there was a layer of tatty panelling over that that I already tore off.

  4. Back in 1956 we lived in a house supplied by the hospital where Bill worked. It was a two BR, salt-box type of house that had been remodeled. In one of the closets you could see clear up to the roof, and the house had two sets of rafters, one taller that the other. Never knew why the lower set was there! The hot water heater was set down in a hole under the house that filled up with water when it rained, but that’s another story!

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