House plans and interior designs have evolved and devovled over the years
Around The House with mop and broom
House Tour: It's a Personal Thing. Back door traffic was my family's style
When Mom and Dad retired to Ypsilanti from their retirement in Stinking Desert, Arizona, I took them on a tour of the Historical Society’s Museum in the Asa Dow house. Mom was intrigued by the former maid’s room then given over to a display of toys and doll houses. Dad hung out by the back entrance, looking uncomfortable. Mom grew up in a mining town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where her father was a not-very-successful barber/gambler. Her mother was the “wash girl” for the owners of the meat packing plant in Hancock. My Mennonite Dad grew up in Michigan’s Thumb area, working on other people’s farms. In high school, he drove Stanley Steamers for the Oscar Mueller family, owners of the Mueller Brass Company in Port Huron. Clearly, when it came to mansions, we were the help; we came in the back door.
We noticed that, when High Scope bought Ypsi’s biggest house, the Hutchinson mansion, they must have known our style and place in society; they planted grass over the front driveway and turned the original front entry into office space. Today, everybody comes in the back door. We can identify with that.
On family vacations, we toured other big houses and came back with a variety of awestruck responses:
• Rochester’s Meadow Brook Hall - still middle-class, but bigger; we could imagine Mrs. Dodge washing her face at the bathroom sink.
• Cornelius vanderbilt’s Breakers in Newport, RI – we laughed at its ostentation and knew we would never have been invited in if we had not bought a ticket.
• Vanderbilt son’s Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC - largest house in America, fun to explore; all the doors looked like front doors.
• UM football Stadium – This “Big House” was not very homey.
From cabin to castle, houses differ in how they will meet the needs (or wants) of their occupants. When Sidetrack’s John Macmillan crawled under the Freighthouse ramp to plug in last year’s community Christmas tree, he pulled a “log” out of his way and was surprised to find it was a leg with a human attached. “Hey!” said the leg’s owner. “I live here.” Point of view is everything.
Most of us need a bed, a refrigerator, and a toilet and everything else is extra. When we tour house museums, we enjoy seeing how others have chosen to live and what they have added to basic living spaces. We easily project ourselves onto their stage, whether we are touring the Palace of Versailles or a deer-hunting camp.
The Ypsilanti Historical Society’s Asa Dow house, along with many of the grand houses on North Huron Street, gives rise to our basic instinct of nest-building. These may not be the kind of houses we grew up in, but we can imagine ourselves in another time by simply moving from room to room and putting ourselves in the place as a resident.
Room uses have changed over time, but the human condition remains much the same. We eat, sit, sleep, talk, and live large or small depending on the space available. For this verbal tour, we enter a 19th century house similar to the house museum we know so well on North Huron Street.
We approach via a stone sidewalk and up real stone steps to the house:
• Front porch: When front porches devolved into backyard patios, we said goodbye to our neighbors and seldom saw them again. No porch swing, no hanging plants, no friendly waves. No more dry newspapers, either. Oh well, there aren’t any newspapers anyway.
• Front door: The first opportunity to make a good impression, the front door often shows exotic woods and elaborate carvings designed to impress.
• Vestibule: An entry or storm porch. Wet boots are deposited here. Some hosts may even ask us to leave our shoes as well, so we do not track in dirt from the street. Street dirt has changed over the years; today it’s mostly petroleum products and nobody seems to mind it any more.
• Front hall: “Hall” was once the name for a large eating place (see Harry Potter scenes from University of Oxford), now it’s a corridor connecting other rooms. Frank Lloyd Wright derided corridors for wasting space. New Orleans’ narrow “shotgun houses” eliminated halls, connecting rooms one-after-the-other in a row. Not much privacy, but no halls.
• Reception: A space for meeting and greeting - and for bidding your leave. Door-knob-hangers could stand and say “goodbye” for as long as they wished, but they couldn’t sit down. There’s just a center table with a tray where a caller could leave a calling card. This was also a good place to sort the day’s mail.
• Front room: Parlor (from the French: parler, to speak. A place to sit and talk). A good place for entertaining dignitaries and serving tea, but beer? Never!
Double parlor: Front/back, east/west, etc. The front parlor was often open only for special occasions like weddings and funerals. Some had a special door made just for the entry and exit of a casket. Queen Ann houses grew with the advent of central heating. Pocket doors opened rooms to adjacent parlors creating a unique traffic flow. Kids and dogs could run around in great circles on rainy days. The parlor devolved into the Living Room, when it was the only sitting room in the house. Modern ranch houses put the front room in the back and changed its name to Family Room, a place where the television set ruled.
Recreation rooms had knotty pine paneling, deer heads on the walls, pictures of dogs playing poker. Rumpus Rooms were a place where family members could go to push, shove, argue, and throw things about. Library, study, den, and home office spaces often had bookshelves, smoking stands, and maybe even a telephone.
The Billiards Room, with its center table, liquor cabinet, and smoking paraphernalia, devolved into the Man Cave, now found in the basement or garage, where one retires to watch sporting events on television, pile up magazines, and leave empty containers about without the ministrations of women. *
• Dining room: A big space with a big table. A good window view was not important, since the best view was toward the food and each other. Without dining rooms, some families seem to have forgotten how to sit down and eat together. A butler’s serving pantry connects with the kitchen. When Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman showed This Old House’s Bob Villa through Averell Harriman’s linen-fold oak-paneled dining room, she gestured toward a hidden door to her butler’s pantry. “The food comes through there,” she noted, confessing that she had never seen the kitchen in her own house.
• Kitchen: Usually connected to the dining room, but sometimes a second kitchen was several feet removed from the house. Summer kitchens took the noise and odors of food preparation farther from the dining room when all the windows were open and the curtains waved. Air-conditioning changed all that. Danger from fire from the cook-stoves was also a factor. There were rooms or alcoves for food storage, preparation, cooking, and serving. Woodstove, water heater, pie safe, chopping block, baking cabinet, and other separate pieces of kitchen furniture were arranged around the perimeter of the room. Storage was provided by a dish safe, silver tableware storage, and dry pantry. Every time a member of the house staff was dismissed, someone had to count the silverware here. The scullery was a dish- and pot- washing place. Scullery maids washed, but also built the fires in the kitchen stove and in fireplaces throughout the house. In the UK, a “char woman” not only built the fires (char-coal), but did most of the cleaning. The extra cleaning duties helped get her charcoal-stained hands clean. The scullery evolved into the laundry room. In modern times, these spaces are often installed near the bedrooms, since that’s where most of the personal- and bed-clothing laundry items originate, in hopes that family members might each attend to their own char-work as needed.
• Up-stairs: Ladders to an overhead loft morphed from ships’ ladders or companionways, bringing the invention of “family” with separate places to sleep. Before birth control, there was the “family bed.” Stairs, a shortened version of “staircase” were steps fashioned by a case-goods carpenter who usually made household cabinets and coffins. Earliest stair-ways
were enclosed between walls but, as their designs became more elaborate, were eventually featured in the front hall as if to say, “Look, we have an up-stairs in our house!” The popular TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs, took full advantage of this architectural detail to artfully delineate between the owners and their staff. The staff were relegated to a back staircase.
• Bed Chambers: Before we called them bedrooms, sleeping spaces were called chambers. But they were not for napping. Lying on your bed during the day was a portent of ill health and impending death. A day bed or chaise longue was provided for day-time use. A boudoir, a sitting room, was often placed between Missus and Mister’s chambers, sometimes similar to a Morning Room where the Missus read, wrote letters, and met with her cook to plan meals and events. Dressing Rooms abounded with wardrobes, armoires, dressers, a jewelry safe, and a slipper chair where one could sit and pull on shoes without the hindrance of arms on its side. Wall hooks displayed clothing, chairs, and anything else not wanted on the floor, making dusting easier. Clothes presses were early closets that crammed clothing together, clean or not; they were not ironing boards. Closets came later as reach-in or walkin, for storing clothing out of sight. Whispering Rooms were tiny vestibules creating air-locks between the corridor and chamber. House staff could enter a whispering room to listen for when it would be appropriate to enter a chamber. They could tap lightly, but listening and waiting were preferred.
• Bathing facilities: A toilet-set, made up of pitchers and bowls, a soap dish, a shaving dish, a toothbrush holder, mug and chamber pot, was arranged on a washstand in the
bed-chamber. Today’s antique dealers thrill at finding a still-complete set. Even with the advent of running water in the house, the lavatory/wash stand/sink stayed in the bed-chamber awaiting a change in attitudes about moving the toilet into the house. A water closet was an enclosed space off the main hallway for a modern indoor toilet. It’s still called “la W.C.” in France.
• Bath room: A tub and/or shower for washing the entire body, sometimes compartmented with the toilet. For at least one hundred years, builders have been putting all these appliances together in one room, but many 1980s designs went back to similar compartmentalization. More elaborate toilet facilities followed: Powder rooms, guest baths, Jack-andJills, master bathrooms, mud rooms, and other plumbing spin-offs were adapted
from early mansions for installation in the most humble subdivision abode.
• Sewing rooms: Rooms where ladies or their maids repaired to darn socks, knit scarves, and maybe even iron. Sociological note: The “lady” lived in this house; the “woman”
• Boxing rooms: Rooms for storage of luggage, shipping trunks, and broken furniture awaiting repair. Badly behaved children were often assigned to this space where they could begin snooping for hidden surprise gift items.
• Attic access: Watch for one door that doesn’t go into a room at all; it’s the door to the attic stairway, a mysterious and wonderful place to be explored for spooky stories and even more fun than horror movies. (See James Thurber’s short story, The Night the Bed Fell.) Every town had at least one house with a top-floor ballroom where important family events took place. Without a useable attic, one wonders where they put all their junk.
• Back rooms: A back stairway, back bedrooms for “the help”, and a whole room to expand the kitchen junk drawers found in smaller houses. Some grand mansions and New York apartments of the early 19th century had narrow hallways connecting back rooms to the front door so the help would not be seen until they showed guests into the reception rooms.
• Conservatory: A sun room or greenhouse was a sweet-smelling room on the south side of the house with direct run-off drains to the raw ground below the basement. There was also a roof hatch to let in more sunlight and rain. The closest many of us came to this room was while playing “Clue” when we accused Miss Scarlet of murdering Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the conservatory.
• Home again: When we return to the Asa Dow house, we marvel at the good
taste of the Great American Middle Class. Upper and lower classes too often are characterized by undisciplined excess, whether it be window displays of colored water in empty whiskey bottles or
mutated espaliered trees in not-too-secret gardens.
(Tom Dodd is a retired teacher, editor and author, a regular contributor to the GLEANINGS, and does the design and layout for this publication. He has moved from living in the former Masonic Temple ballroom to a tiny condominium.)
A house is not necessarily a home
A dwelling that serves as living quarters (He had to get out of the house)
Members of a business organization (She worked for the house of Dior)
The audience gathered together in a theatre (The house applauded)
An official assembly w/ legislative powers (A bicameral legislature has two houses)
Play in which children take roles of parents (The kids were playing house)
Management of a casino (The house gets a percentage of every bet)
Where you live at a particular time (Deliver this to my home)
Housing that someone is living in (Collecting food for the homeless)
The country, state or city where you live (Ypsilanti is my home)
A rubber slab where the batter stands (The runner failed to touch home)
The place where you are stationed (Home base)
An environment offering affection and security (… where the heart is, there’s no place like it)
[Photo caption from original print edition]: A Scratch ‘n’ Sniff smoking jacket
[Photo caption from original print edition]: A fully-engaged cook stove could heat most of the house
* Smoking paraphernalia? In earlier times, some family members made it a practice to spend much of the day setting fire to tightly-wrapped leaves and papers hanging from their lips. This resulted in many of their houses being burned to the ground and not included in today’s tour.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The “good china” was used only for very special occasions and was put on display in a big glass case between events.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Chaise Longue: French for “long chair” but most
Americans spell it “l-o-u-n-g-e”
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Raised on a cast-iron frame, fewer critters entered the bed
[Photo caption from original print edition]: An incomplete set
[Photo caption from original print edition]: A treadle-style sewing machine was a prized possession
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Wireless & completely self-contained