Making an entrance

Front doors may reveal as much as they conceal

August 20, 2010|By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Home

On a summer trip years ago that included a few days in Ireland, I noticed a poster for sale in one of the tourist shops: "The Doors of Dublin." I remember thinking, "Who cares?" Pubs of Dublin, yes; but doors? Really?

A door, though, is more than just the way into a building or an element to separate rooms. Of course, doors satisfy a need to keep out the weather and provide security and privacy. And like other functional house components, doors have been elevated to decorative status. They figure prominently in the first impression a house will make.

We've all heard of curb appeal, that nebulous amalgam of landscape, exterior architecture and general tidiness, but appealing to passers-by out at the curb is different than the allure you want to create at the front step.

While most of the parts of a home's exterior are taken in stride, the door compels us to stop. We pass through a landscape. We admire the exterior of a house as a whole. At the door, we stop, fumble for the keys or knock. And because doors necessarily force us to pause, they demand our attention.

It's been said that a person's car says a lot about them. What about a person's front door? Is there a security system sticker on it? Is the door metal or wood? Is there a dingy half-halo around the lockset? Does the door need to be painted? What color is it? Does it have a window?

Certain cars say, "I'm practical." Others, "I'm serious." Still others, "Look at me." Doors aren't much different. And while we don't emblazon our doors with such witticisms as "My other door is a plank-and-batten Tudor Revival," they still have a story to tell. In historic communities, we can estimate when a house might have been built. In newer neighborhoods, doors offer clues about a home's personality or stylistic influence.

It's not often, though, that a door stands on its own. To make a visual statement, the entryway is more than just a door. The door itself is often embellished with a "surround" that includes glass above the door, called transoms or fanlights, and glass panels on either side of the door, called sidelights. Columns, pilasters, pediments and scrollwork also combine to complete an entry.

These architectural features, along with the door, set the tone for the rest of the house, communicating a home's personality — the tone, style, formality or energy the person hopes to convey.

With a long, rich architectural history, residences and public buildings in Baltimore feature beautiful doors and entryways from every stylistic era. I recently spent some time touring some of my favorite neighborhoods, looking at doors. The earliest houses in neighborhoods like Fells Point feature mostly simple, narrow, six-panel front doors, largely unembellished by decorative surrounds — common characteristics of the Colonial era.

In Mount Vernon, common door styles reflect the tastes of wealthy 19th-century industrialists and run the gamut from Colonial, Greek and Gothic Revival to those with Italianate and Renaissance influences. Doors are often grand and embellished with ornate carved-stone surrounds and columns. Some of the mansions feature double entry doors that open to a small vestibule from which the actual front door is accessed, while other residences feature large, ornate single front doors.

Colonial Revival doors feature prominently — Georgians are often embellished with surrounds that include elaborate moldings, columns, pilasters and classically inspired pediments, while Federal-style doors add classical Greek, Roman and Renaissance influences as well as delicately ornamented surrounds with arching fanlights and sidelights.

Also commonplace in the city's midtown neighborhoods are Greek Revival entries emphasizing porches with columns and temple fronts as well as rectangular transoms with flanking sidelights.

Gothic Revival and Italianate entries are often quite decorative. Inspired by European rural architecture, Gothic Revival favored gables and wide porches and elaborately ornamental pointed arch door surrounds. Italianate entryways stressed verticality through tall entrance towers and round-topped, divided doors.

While Gothic and Italianate doors certainly exist downtown, they are more commonplace in neighborhoods like Guilford, Homeland, Roland Park and Ten Hills. Housing styles in these communities also feature "revival" architecture such as Colonial and Tudor Revival — with doors to match.

The Tudor Revival style nods to a more rustic tradition and features rounded or arch-topped board-and batten doors with prominent wrought-iron hardware and little or no glass.

If you're up for a new front door and want to complement the architectural style of your home, try taking a drive around some of your favorite neighborhoods with a camera like I did. Or consult a pro — an architect who specializes in historical preservation, for example.

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