Monday, March 23, 2015

The Domus Alumina ?

In conversation the other day it came up that a neighbor's house was in the "Queen Anne" style of construction.  The opinion was offered that like as not Queen Anne would turn over in her grave knowing that the place had been covered in aluminum siding.  "Not so", I insisted.  "Aluminum was once a substance so rare and valuable that an abode covered in it would be an extremely impressive place.

In fact it would go beyond Regal and out into the rarefied category of an over the top, ridiculous and ostentatious display of wealth.

I would put such an edifice almost up there with the Domus Aurea, the Golden House built by the mad Emperor Nero as an expression of his megalomania.  Nobody is even sure how big the damned thing was, it is now largely buried under later buildings.  Some say 100 acres, others say 300.  The private lake for the estate was so big that it was later drained as the site for the Colosseum, which actually got its name when a colossal statue of Nero was moved there from the Domus Aurea, being towed by a team of 24 elephants.

But I digress.  The Domus Aurea was so named because it was covered with gold leaf.  Pricey stuff to use as as a large scale decorative accent but no doubt very impressive in the sun light.  Without knowing how thick the leaf was or how big the Domus was, or how much other stuff (ivory, mosaics, semi-precious stones) was used you can't put a price on it.  But as to a house covered in aluminum....

First off, Queen Anne could not even imagine such a thing.  She died about a century before aluminum was purified into a usable form.*  Of course it was known as a salt, alum, still handy for making pickles and such.

So lets pretend that my neighbor instead had a Victorian style home and figure out the worth of a "Domus Alumina" in the late 19th century.

There is a story that claims Napolean III of France gave a dinner party in the 1860s.  The most important guests got aluminium cutlery.  The B-Listers had to get along with gold.

The most precise measure of aluminum's worth in the Victorian era comes from a lofty, if less aristocratic source.  When the Washington Monument was completed in Washington DC in 1884 they made a special capstone for the great obelisk.  It weighed 100 ounces (2.8 kg) and was the largest piece of cast aluminium then in existence.  At the time one ounce of aluminium cost the equivalent of one day's wages for a worker on the project.  If one extrapolates the cost of the same worker's salary today it means that aluminium was then worth, in current value, about $300 an ounce.

Pigeon spikes?
My neighbor's house is a good sized place.  Using some quick math from home building sites I would say it would require 3,000 square feet of siding.  It takes about 1/3 pound of siding per square foot and at 16 ounces per pound and at our 1884 price.....

It worked out to $5,280,000 worth of aluminum!

Of course in the early 1900's newer refining processes made the price plummet, but still a time traveler would be impressed by the Domus Alumia.  Why, they even have a container out on the curb filled with empty aluminum cans.  And they are throwing them away!

Behold the Neronean Splendor of the Domus Alumina !
* To be fair there are some fascinating tales of Roman or even Chinese discovery of aluminum.  Per Dr Beachcoming these can end badly for the far sighted inventor!

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