Thursday, March 18, 2010

Doorways and Entryways


Doorways, gates and entryways have come to symbolize many things to many people throughout history:  The colossal Arc de Triomphe in Paris was conceived by Napoleon I in 1806 as a tribute to his armies and still serves as an enduring symbol of French patriotism.  The Brandenburg Gate of Berlin contains details representing the virtues of statesmanship and friendship, along with symbols of warfare and reconstruction in German history.  The so-called “Traitors Gate” served as a foreboding “welcome” to those doomed to enter the Tower of London for ultimate execution.

Indeed, the symbolic importance of the doorway dates back to ancient times, and was significant enough that the Romans even identified the pagan god “Janus” as being a protector of entrances, doors and gateways.  As such, he is typically depicted as having two faces:  One face looks backward (as in from where he has been) and one face looks forward (as in where he is going, or into which he is entering).  One of the most famous gateways featuring Janus's likeness is the Ianus Geminus in Rome, found on the Forum Romanum.  The meaning of this gateway could not have been more important, literally symbolizing war (when the gates were open) and peace (when the gates were closed). 

Such entrances were designed to “make a statement” about the place in which they were located or the people whom they represented.  In the above examples, they succeeded admirably.  Certainly, the symbolism of such entryways was not lost on people.  The Arc de Triomphe, for example, saw victory marches pass beneath its massive confines by the Germans in 1940 signaling their occupation of Paris, and by the triumphant French and her Allies in 1944 and 1945 following France's liberation.

While various elements go into defining a building's or a home's particular architectural style (such as house shape, roof style and window configurations), no element is more significant than the front entrance or doorway.  With the possible exception of the more elaborate Victorian styles, doorways are the focal point of the home, the place where much of the home's (and the homeowner's) character, personality and aspirations are concentrated.


Just as such doors and gateways were never “just doors” in the ancient world or in European history, so too did significant architectural movements within the United States often have symbolic overtones.

Early architectural styles in America predictably mimicked what colonists had seen in their native Europe.  This is especially evident in the housing found on the northeast coast (which was settled by the British); in Mississippi and Louisiana (settled by the French); and in Florida and California (settled by the Spanish).   Later styles would continue to be inspired by European design.  However, as we shall see, they also began to reflect a more uniquely American perspective that was based on the new republic's self-image and growing prosperity, with one such example being the Georgian Colonial.

Georgian Colonial:  Rise of the Middle Class
The “Georgian Colonial” of the 17th and early 18th centuries showed greater detail and intricacy than earlier colonial architecture.  Reflecting the new-found wealth of colonial life and the rise of a middle class seeking
to display its new-found status, such houses “borrowed” from the classicism of England.  The doorways of the Georgian Colonial, as represented in photo 1 to the left and photo 2 to the right, typically displayed more detailed and elaborate pediments above the door itself, as well as flattened columns (or pilasters) flanking the sides of the door.    Both of the photos shown here show a minimal amount of glass, although the door to the right, in particular, has an intricately carved and curved pediment that is crowned with a gilded pineapple ornament.  In the meantime, also worth noting in the photo to the left is the striking contrast of the bright coral color of the six-paneled door against the cream color of the rest of the home's exterior.  Against the home's otherwise staid and classical exterior, this shot of color provides a real pop of personality that makes this beautiful home guaranteed to get noticed.

Neoclassical and Federal Styles:  Embracing Democratic Philosophies of Ancient Civilization
After the Revolutionary War, the so-called “Federal” and “Greek Revival” styles of architecture reflected a new and independent republic that was forging its own identity.   The prevalence of neoclassicism in the public structures of Washington, D.C. attests to this fact.  America's founding fathers, in embracing the architecture of ancient Rome and Athens, conveyed their vision of America as a symbol of the democratic philosophies and sensibilities of these ancient seats of knowledge and wisdom.  But such a vision was not limited to public structures.
On the domestic side, federal style homes were characterized by more elaborate designs and with more extensive use of glass than was found in earlier house styles.  In addition to decorative crowns or roofs above the door, doorways often had fanlights and sidelights, allowing more natural light to reach the home's interior entryway.  In the example in photo 3 to the right, the entryway possesses the rectangular transom often associated with the Georgian Colonial style.  However, the sidelights are characteristic of the Federal period, as is the portico that displays the doric and ionic columns and laurel wreath detailing of neoclassical design.  Much like the homeowner of the Georgian Colonial above, this homeowner has likewise used color to great effect.  The bright white of the entryway stands in sharp relief against the vibrant blue of this house's clapboard siding, with the resulting effect being that the entrance to this stately home stands front and center, immediately drawing the eye's attention.

The Romantic Movement and Victoriana:  Displays of Social Status
In sharp contrast to the classical lines of the Georgian and Federal styles that had gone before, by the mid-19th century the “Romantic Movement” was in full swing.  Comprising, in part, the Gothic and Italianate housing styles, this movement symbolized for American society both social status and triumph of the intellect.  While Gothic style homes were characterized in part by the decorative spires and elongated windows often seen in cathedrals, Italianate styles were modeled from the Italian Renaissance and often sported double doors and roman (or rounded) arches above windows and doors.  The home in photo 4 to the left is a lovely (and comparatively simple) example of the Italianate style, with its entry sporting double paneled doors, arched windows, and etched glass.  In addition, its portico of Corinthian columns and dentil molding gives this home an impressive entrance that never forgets its Greco-Roman roots as it evokes the temples of ancient civilization.  Italianate was probably the most sought-after house style in the United States in the 1860s, but would shortly give way to the popularity of the more whimsical Victorian style.

The Victorian era in America was one of rapid westward expansion and industrialism, rampant consumerism and new-found wealth.  Not surprisingly, the Victorian style homes that were built during this time, especially the type known as the “Queen Anne” style, were a testament to such new-found wealth and the desire of the homeowners  to “show it off”.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the late (or “high”) Victorian architectural style is the Hale
House in Los Angeles, California (see photo 5 to the right).  Built in the 1880s, Hale House exhibits just about every element of the Victorian housing style:  Vivid contrasting color, rounded turret, “fish-scale” shingles, stained glass and single-paned windows, highly intricate chimneys, and wood carvings and brackets too numerous to count.  Interestingly, unlike the other less “busy” architectural styles described above, the entry of Hale House is not the focal point of the home and is in fact almost an afterthought.  Indeed, the entry's peaked gable above the front veranda is dwarfed by the much larger peaked gable at the top of the house.  The double doors, meanwhile, are recessed, taking a back seat to the intricate carvings of the veranda's balusters.

As exemplified by the stunning Hale House, Victorian houses had become progressively more detailed and ornate as the 19th century drew to a close.  It was therefore not surprising that the perceived excesses of the era would eventually give way to simpler and "cleaner" designs, as was the case with the Colonial Revival.

Colonial Revival:  A Return to Classical Roots
Based loosely on Georgian and Federal styles, the so-called “Colonial Revival” that first appeared to the end
of the 19th century signaled not only a return to the classical style that characterized America's early architecture, but also an architectural backlash against Victorian sensibilities.  As exemplified by the home in photo 6 to the left, Colonial Revival doorways often had porticos with pediments, paneled doors with sidelights, and rectangular transoms or fanlights.  This home's sidelights also sport an intricate “tracery” that complements the spiderweb design of the fanlight above the door.

The Colonial Revival is actually a somewhat eclectic home style, combining features from past architectural eras with more recent ones.   While the Colonial Revival's heyday came to an end in the 1950s, elements of the style are still popular in today's more traditional homes.  In fact, many newly constructed homes have doorways (with or without porticos) that look like a simpler version of the Colonial Revival door pictured above.

With a little attention to detail, however, such newer doors could look a lot more historically authentic and more closely replicate many of the architectural styles discussed here.


Doorways say something about the style of a house, its history, and the personality of the homeowner. For instance, the doorway in photo 7 to the below right is so covered with ivy that it brings to mind the gate from the children's classic The Secret Garden.  It's easy to imagine fairy tale characters living within the confines of this particular home.

Doorways are an opportunity for people to “spread their wings” and tell us something about themselves, based on the degree of whimsy, ornateness and/or bold color choices.  Especially with today's prevalence of new homes built to specification, the doorway is a place where the homeowner can still customize relatively easily (even post-construction).

While you probably wouldn't want to deviate too drastically from your home's primary architectural style (by putting a Victorian style door on a Cape Cod or ranch style home, for instance), it is relatively easy to give a plain cookie-cutter Colonial, for example, some more elaborate Georgian or Federal style detailing by way of the entrance. And aside from adding elegance, such details add depth and richness to your home's focal point.  How you approach it all depends on the statement you want to make.

For instance, elements like lanterns and sconces, or architectural millwork such as pilasters, pediments and even columns (if you're a bit more ambitious) can transform the look of your doorway and, thus, your whole home.  Hardware, including doorbells, doorknobs, knockers, letter slots, rim locks and number plates, is another means of making your doorway stand out.  Door knockers alone come in myriad styles such as lion's head, pineapple, seashell and the traditional "doctor's knocker".  Not only does such hardware come in all variations of styles, from traditional to whimsical; there are also numerous finishes from which to choose, each of which will itself contribute to the overall effect.   Polished or burnished brass is very elegant, while bronze or weathered copper has a more casual, rustic feel.

You can even change out the entire door itself to more suit your style without completely replacing the doorframe or, if the interior ceiling height above your doorway is sufficient, add a transom window.   If your budget is really tight, you can still make a big change in your doorway simply by updating the paint color.  If the rest of your house is muted or neutral in color, consider opting for a bold, contrasting color on the front door, as in the Georgian Colonial pictured above.

All of these elements are available at various price points, from the most custom, high-end materials to mass-produced items that can not only make a statement but look great too.   Be sure to check out the “Resource Guide” below for some great sources where you can find everything you'll need to create the doorway you want.  In addition, don't forget to check out architectural salvage yards, which can be a great place to find antique, one-of-a-kind windows and moldings for your project. 


I have not attempted to cover every style in America's rich architectural history.  Still, I hope that I have provided some interesting information and background on the historical inspirations behind some of these styles, as well as some “food for thought” about how your own entryway can be modified and accessorized to better reflect you.



Pratt and Lambert 
Farrow and Ball
Benjamin Moore
Valspar (available at Lowes)


Expensive custom doors:  Amherst Woodworking
Less expensive:  Select Door 
Mass manufactured:  Simpson Door Company 
Transoms, hardware and doors:  Cambridge Doors & Windows


Worthington Millwork
Melton Classics (List of online sources for composite architectural elements and features.)
Chadsworth Incorporated (columns, pediments, entryway systems)


House of Antique Hardware
Renovator's Supply
Signature Hardware
Lighting Universe

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:  (list of restoration suppliers and services) (links to everything from antique doors suppliers to architectural salvage, lighting and hardware)

Photo credits:
Photo 1: Georgian Colonial front door, Newport, RI. Copyright 2010 Pamela M. Yeaton. All rights reserved.
Photo 2: Georgian Colonial front door, Newport, RI. Copyright 2010 Pamela M. Yeaton. All rights reserved.
Photo 3: Federal style front door and portico, Newport, RI. Copyright 2010 Pamela M. Yeaton. All rights reserved.
Photo 4: Italianate style home, Newport, RI. Copyright 2010 Pamela M. Yeaton. All rights reserved.
Photo 5: Victorian style "Hale House", Los Angeles, CA. Photo used by permission and license of The City Project.
Photo 6: Colonial Revival style front door and portico, Newport, RI. Copyright 2010 Pamela M. Yeaton. All rights reserved.
Photo 7: Ivy-covered door in Portsmouth, NH. Photo used by permission and license of hmmlargeart
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton

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