Why Does My Old House Have Two Front Doors?

Photo credit Scott Sidler

Photo credit Scott Sidler

Lots of old homes have the mysterious second front door. Some were added in renovations over the years, but others are original.

The explanations for these original double doors are all over the map. Many folks finally give up hope of finding an answer to this architectural mystery, but I have some ideas for you.

If your old house has two front doors there are a number of reasons. Depending on your home’s style, age, location and size the answer might be different.

Some of the explanations can range a bit on the mythology side whereas others seem more logical. I’ve included the most likely theories here. Let’s see if we can’t unravel this quirky architectural anomaly once and for all.

Theory #1 Symmetry

Old homes in the Georgian, Adams or Federal styles are built on rigid rules of symmetry. The front facade, especially, must be perfectly symmetrical and sometimes rather than have a single door in the center of the house, two mirror image front doors gave not only a more pleasing design, but added utility. If your house is built in these formal styles from the 1700s to the early 1800s this might be a likely explanation.

Theory #2 Ventilation

Old houses didn’t have air conditioning and therefore have vastly more windows to help keep the structure cool on muggy summer nights. Many second front doors on homes, particularly Bungalows, lead from the front porch to the master bedroom. This way couples could open the windows and doors, turn on a couple fans and enjoy a cooling breeze. This design was kind of a poor mans sleeping porch.

Theory #3 Formal vs Everyday

I have the good fortune of having a neighbor who has lived in his house since he was born 90 years ago. And his house has two front doors. So, while researching for this article I stopped by to ask what his family had used them for. His response was interesting. “Other than Sundays and when my parents had visitors we weren’t allowed to use the [formal] door. We never asked why. That was just the way Mom and Dad wanted it.”

So, apparently some houses reserved the formal entry for special events and visitors. This makes sense in the homes where the second front door leads to a bedroom.

Theory #4 Rooms to Let

Another theory that makes sense to me was that often these double front doors were to allow the owners to rent out a room if needed. Whether it was for a stranger to help cover household costs or a young couple just getting started the two front doors allowed for a bit more separation and privacy. The second front door allowed easy access to a bedroom without disturbing the home’s owners.

 

What do you think?

I know there are plenty of other theories about why an old home might have two front doors. Maybe you know one that I haven’t heard. It may be that you have access to someone who knows the truth, definitively. I’d love I hear any other ideas in the comments below. Let’s hear your thoughts and try to crowdsource an answer to this architectural mystery.

 

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by Scott Sidler

Scott is the owner of Austin Home Restorations, a company that specializes in renovating and restoring historic homes in Orlando, FL and the creator of The Craftsman Blog. When not working on, teaching about or writing about old houses he spends time fixing up his own old bungalow with his wife Delores and their son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

33 comments

  1. Liana on said:

    The post-WWII housing shortage is a very common reason for this — which you touched on a bit, when you spoke of renting out rooms. Many homes were subdivided to accommodate the growing demand for housing, which sometimes meant that additional doors were needed. I’ve seen houses of various styles that have multiple entrances — even the 2nd story entrance with the outdoor stairway leading up to it.

  2. Karri on said:

    I think it probably had to do with style, but style that arose out of function. In houses that have two front doors, there is never a center hallway that a centered front door would have opened into. This would have meant a single front door would have been placed off-center – something that very much went against the grain of the symmetrical style of the times.

    The roots of the two front doors are probably a direct result of changing floor plans.

  3. Interesting post! Around here, historic houses with two doors were usually either duplexes or, doctor’s offices where one half was the office/practice and the other side was the doctor’s personal residence.

    • Karri on said:

      I think regional probably did have a lot to do with the origins of the two front doors. So I should mention we are in Lancaster County, PA and my comment about the changing floors plans that eliminated central hallways in referring to Mid-Atlantic historic architecture.

      • Lots of good ideas here. I think you’re on to something about the different reasons having a lot to do with regional architecture too.

        • timothy key on said:

          I live in a old house in north Mississippi, it was originally built in 1890,has a front porch and is a Victorian style home,It has the main entry door with vent above door,but also a door entering first bedroom,its shaped like a octogen with double fire places in every room,5 bed rooms total,it was a original saw mill house,with slave quarters in back,the house next door has three doors ,one entering bed room,one in kitchen,and one in living room? Its a box style house,very basic two bed room livingroom/diner combo,2 bed room. prolley built in 1920′s I’m lost any help is good!

  4. Richard Hallberg on said:

    I have renovated a circa 1850 1.5 story Catslide(Southern Saltbox) and a 1928 single-story Vernacular Craftsman that were both built as duplexes for housing of textile mill worker families. Both were mirror-image with double-sided fireplaces centered in each living space. Also, I recently visited Andalusia Farm, author Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, GA where a circa 1805 restored accessory residence had mirror-image front doors and a single offset chimney, which lead me to surmise that it, too, was originally a duplex. The contractor and staff stated that, during restoration, there was no structural evidence that it had another paired fireplace – just saying there are no fixed rules, especially in pioneer construction.

    • “No rules” is the truth! Interesting examples. I’m surprised there wasn’t a paired chimney. Only one side needed heat?

      • Richard Hallberg on said:

        The double-sided fireplace served the two main(front) rooms mainly for cooking, although the residents probably enjoyed the heat in winter – summer, not so much. One of my fellow preservation conference attendees thought the multiple doors offered fire emergency exits and eliminated living-space waisting hallways. I believe that back when construction materials were hand-made locally, effort-effeciency was a top priority. Middle Georgia is quite hot in the summer and this early vernacular structure had higher ceilings and more windows than similar ones of the same period built in north Georgia where the mountains and foothills offer a more temperate climate.

  5. In Utah, people often claim that two front doors meant the home was a polygamist household. In rare cases, it may be true. Most often it was because of reasons previously cited or folk traditions settlers brought with them from their home country. Polygamy ended as a practice in the mainstream Mormon Church in the 1880s-90s and many later homes still have two front doors. We spend a lot of time debunking this notion at the state historic preservation office. Now I am going to point to this post and say – “See! It isn’t just a Utah thing!” So thanks for the post and the comments!

  6. I personally think that they offer good sense of security if you have elderly people in the house. If they don’t know the person at the door they can just stop them from entering the house.

  7. Robert Allen on said:

    My grandparents on both sides built craftsman-sytle houses with front doors opening onto the front porch from the front bedroom as well as from the small front parlor. Both houses were built near 1930 and always used as single-family homes. One is still in the family on a small ranch and has both doors facing front onto a full width front porch. The other, that was built in town, had a porch that extended from one side to the center, the bedroom extending out to the same frontage as the front of the porch, and the bedroom door facing toward the side rather than toward the street. In both caes the stated reasons were for air circulation in the heat of the Texas summer and circulation of people year-round. In both houses every room except the bathroom had a door in at least two sides to facilitate all this circulation.

    • Thanks for your input! Always nice to hear real life experiences.

  8. Colton on said:

    I grew up in south-central PA where two front doors are common on houses that were built during the 19th century. I was always told that the one door was for the family to use and the other door (typically the right door when facing the house) was for Jesus to use when he visited. Has anyone else heard this idea or know if it has any merit?

    • I haven’t heard that one but there are tons if different ideas as to why this was done. It wasn’t that long ago and I’m amazed that we can’t find a definitive answer to this.

  9. Suzanne Keenan on said:

    My grandmother lived with us in Detroit in the late 1940s but spent her childhood in the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York. She told us thT when family members died, their bodies (sometimes not embalmed) were laid out on the dining room table. One door was for viewers to enter by…the second was an exit for the line of visitors. It was used for traffic flow. :-!

    • HB on said:

      My father-in-law said something similar. He was raised in Victorian Tennessee and said one door was for the living and the other for the dead. Back then only wealthy people could afford funerals. The dead were “laid out in the parlour” and that was the door used for only that occasion. He said the rest of the time it was used for ventilation, but the screen door was nailed shut so as not to be used “accidentally”.

  10. Laura Blocker on said:

    I live in a home that was built in 1913 that has two front doors. I was told it was for ventilation purposes by the family who always owned it before we purchased. Now I am creeped out by the funeral explanation.

    • Don’t be too creeped out Laura. :) Every house seems to have had it’s own explanations for the two doors. Hopefully, yours was spared the funeral usage.

  11. Kimber on said:

    I was told that the reason there are 2 doors for old houses was for religious purposes. I knew a guy who had an old house with 2 front doors. The wearing on the walkway for one of the doors was quite different than the other. The explanation I was told was the one door with little wearing was the door the preacher would enter when he came to visit for dinner on Sundays and the other door with a lot of wearing was the common door for the household. This is the most rational explanation I’ve heard yet for old houses with 2 front doors.

    • Interesting! Yet another explanation for old houses with 2 doors. Though I would imagine the other church members would be jealous that the preacher ate dinner with that one family every Sunday night. ;)

  12. Jen on said:

    Am late to the party on this one but one big aspect hasn’t been mentioned: home offices. Professionals (lawyers, doctors) frequently worked out of their homes and sometimes had second doors cut to keep business separate from private. If it leads to a bedroom, it may have been an office.

    General Marino Vallejo’s 1850′s gothic style home had this feature. I’ve read several books where this one done, including John Adam’s home.

    • Jen, great point! It is a common use for the second door and makes a lot of sense.

  13. Leslie Mandic on said:

    I live in Ca near Gilroy. I often say I live in an atrium as all I have is windows and doors. My front porch has count ‘em three doors and it’s not just confusing for guests it’s entertaining for me as well. One leads to the breakfast nook, one to the dining room, and one to the living room. The only separation of these rooms would have been the kitchen to the dining room, of a swinging door. The living and dining room are arches. However there is an actual door from the front of the house in the dining room to the mildly and back where the bedrooms are. Although spanish revival circa 1920, the house Is Feng shui in that no door is in line with another, unlike many Victorians that you can shot an arrow through the front to the back. Bad for Asian belief, great for circulation. Lol! I’m a bit of a hoarder so no minimalist karma here!

    • That’s a lot of front doors! Sounds like an interesting home.

  14. Leslie Mandic on said:

    Should have been middle not mildly,

  15. Krout on said:

    Yes! I was also told it was for viewings of deceased relatives. Enter one door and exit the other.

  16. Karen Vohs on said:

    I live in the Mississippi Delta. My home, along with a great many others I’ve seen, have double doors at a 45 degree angle to each other–one leading to the front parlor the other to a bedroom. Some are large enough to have perhaps used the bedroom entrance as an office. The bulk are like my home….they have one or two bedrooms. My second bedroom was more of an opening off the kitchen, so, I made it a den.

    The house was built around 1880, using boxcar siding. You enter by the front door–which I painted a nice mulberry to announce it was the front door–walk through the parlor back to the kitchen left to the den (or continue straight to the back garden), left to the bathroom and straight into my bedroom. There is no way the two doors opened would provide increased ventilation and it was never set up as a duplex or room to let. I put plantation shutters over my bedroom door so it’s not really visible from outside. As I sit here, in my room, doors open, I look directly onto the front door.

    No realtor nor contractor has an explanation for this set up. It’s strange, but, true.

    • Karen, there are a million different versions and I would have to think the reasons would be as unique as the people who built the houses.

      • Karen Vohs on said:

        Agreed. My curiosity is piqued mostly due to the high percentage of homes in my tiny town that have this feature, and, all have what my. Gran called a Bible door.

  17. richard on said:

    the second door was to allow the dead to exit the house(always feet first) and had significant religious and purity of the home reasoning. As previously mentioned, many people had their funerals in the front room and were then buried on the property of the home. not unusual at all during those times.

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