Between Worlds

What’s in an entry hall? See for yourself


By Cynthia Adams

Consider the entry hall. Really.

The entry hall actually is a pretty big deal. Two hundred years ago, nobody would have had an entry — nor a hall, for that matter — unless they were living in a grand residence.

Entry halls only entered into our vocabulary around the 1840s. 

According to Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, the entry hall was formerly regarded as something solely for the affluent; that added square footage required wealth. And more.

“The hallway is a filter. Meant to be a filter for your true self,” says Briggs. “So, a presentation out front. If people were admitted deeper into your soul or existence, you allow them into the formal room — that would have awed them. Levels of entry — it’s about control.”   

Those sophisticated French view the entry hall to the home as a preview of the owner’s private world — a tantalizing glimpse of what they prize most. 

(And historians say we Americans were once of the same mind.)

If that were the case in my family home, it might have misled visitors to imagine my folks were the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s of Hell’s Half-Acre.

When my parents purchased a ranchburger with a foyer, they installed their newest acquisition there: an enormous “Mediterranean style” stereo from Tucker’s furniture store. It left room for little else, including one’s feet.

It was even larger than the hulking “Early American” television in the adjacent den. (Question: Did all early Americans have a special weakness for enormous cabinetry? Or for spice cabinets, faux coffee grinders, wood salad bowls, spindles and chuck wagon lamps?)

Our stereo was so ungainly that when the house was burgled, the burglars cleaned out nearly everything but it.

Nowadays, foyers are so ubiquitous they are beneath mention in Triad real estate listings.

“If you go back to the Medieval period you would enter into a large multipurpose room . . . with cooking happening, and sewing in the corner,” says Briggs. 

Upon entry, you were inside the very life of the family.

“You’re plunging into the deep end of the swimming pool,” he says with a laugh. “No privacy. All of life is happening in this one, big, hall room.”

Nowadays, nothing much is happening in the entry hall other than arrivals and departures. Here we take off jackets, shuck off shoes, stash umbrellas, hang our hats. It scarcely gets a notice. 

Bill Bryson described the hallway as the most “demoted room in the house” in At Home, his fascinating study of domesticity.

Early Triad settlers built single-room log cabins. Sometimes with a second room or loft. The historic houses on view behind the Greensboro History Museum demonstrate how ordinary folk lived — and there was certainly no entry hall, as Briggs says.

There was the “big square room with cooking fireplace and wonderful mayhem.”

But if you were somewhat middling to wealthy, adds Briggs, you built a floor plan — the Quaker plan — which became the subject of his graduate thesis. Space evolved.

“If you catalog the floor plan,” he explains, it is thus.

“First a one-room house. Then, a parlor popped onto the side.” He says the parlor is where the owners not only slept but entertained visitors.

“The bed would have been one of the most expensive things anyone owned. When the minister made his rounds, he would be brought into the parlor and they would have tea. The consideration of privacy — that you would never bring anyone into your bedroom — would never have happened.” Briggs pauses thoughtfully. “As you can imagine, this is almost coming back (with open floor plans).”

Over time, a center hall appeared in homes. “Then, in the Victorian period, the organic plan [with rooms branching off].” He continues to discuss the Craftsman-style plan, whereas, once again, “you open into the living room.”

This no-entry hall trend continued in mid-century modern design. But in the 1800s, a Georgian-period trend toward hallways found its way here into the Triad. Notably, at Blandwood, Governor John Motley and Eliza Morehead’s mansion in downtown Greensboro.

In 1845, Morehead returned to Blandwood at the end of his term. At the time, it featured an entry hall designed five years earlier by A. J. Davis. 

The Governor and Eliza could now order visitors to wait in the hall. And housekeeping got a boon.

“You kept the mud and dung from the streets of Greensboro out and it was easier to clean,” Briggs adds.

The entry achieved something even more important: a way of presenting yourself to the wider world. A screen.

“As the French described, a controlled presentation of your life,” observes Briggs. “Maybe not allowing people to come into your life, but to make a judgement of your life based upon your ‘controlled’ goods.” 

Controlled goods, meaning, displays of wealth and status. These varied.  “Perhaps an expensive wall paint color, a carpet, a piece of furniture.”

Blandwood’s decor, including the new entry hall, grew worldlier, more classical. Those Morehead portraits bespoke social standing.

British designers still insist that one should consider the entry hall as more than a passage from one space to another. (First impressions, and all that.) British magazines and Pinterest devote much editorial to hallway inspirations.

The British entry hall has a theme, often poshly appointed with rugs, mirrors, table, bench, portraits. Even the tiniest Notting Hill entry hall.

Beloved Farrow & Ball paint (especially the vivid green color “Folly”, which evokes that playful yet classical sense of well-heeled European aristos) jollies up what could otherwise be a purely functional, even glum, place. 

Personally speaking, I’m clinging to the idea of an entry hall. It may not live up to the French or British standard, but it keeps the dogs from rushing the UPS driver. And mud and dung outside.

This year, I vow to show ours more love. OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine.

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