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Colonial Doorways

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



No type of architecture today holds such a distinctive place in the minds of architects and home builders as does that of the colonial period. This is especially true concerning the porch or doorway, for this feature, affording as it does entrance to the home, called for most careful thought, that it might be made harmonious and artistic, and expressive of the sentiment which it embodies. The straight lines and ample dimensions which characterized it required skill to arrange properly, and, considering the limitations of the period in which it was constructed, the results obtained were remarkable.

These porches and doorways were designed at a time when our country was young, and the builders were not finished architects like the designers of to-day ; but they were planned and built by men who were masters in their line, and who taxed their skill to the utmost that results might be artistic and varied, individualizing each home so that the entrance porch should express both hospitality and refinement.

In the holds of the cumbersome ships that plied between the new country and the motherland were placed as cargoes, pillars, columns, and bits of shaped wood, all to be used in the construction of the new home, and incidentally in the porch. It was no easy task to devise from these fragments a complete and artistic whole, and to the ingenuity of the builders great credit is due.

In contour and construction, these porches differ greatly. Those found in New England depict a stateliness that savors of Puritanical influence, while those in the South convey, through their breadth, an impression of the cordiality which is characteristic of that section. Some are semi-circular, others square; a few are oblong, and some are three-cornered, fitting into two sides of the entrance, and in each case giving to the dwelling a congruous appearance that is refreshing to contemplate in an age like ours, when so many different periods are combined in a finished whole.

All these porches show a harmony of form and proportion that gives just the right effect, and many are embellished by wonderful wood carving. The Grecian column, in its many forms, lends itself in a great degree to artistic effects, often bestowing an originality of finish that is most pleasing, and one that differs in every respect from the modern broad veranda, and the stately porte-cochere.

The art of hand carving reached its highest state of perfection about the year 1811, during which period the best types of porches were erected. The results are shown not only in the capitals of the columns and on the architrave, but on the pediments and over the entrance door as well. A good example of the decoration of the architrave is seen on the old Assembly House on Federal Street, in Salem, Massachusetts, where the carving takes the form of a grapevine, with bunches of the hanging fruit, and also over the door of the Kimball house, in the same city, where Samuel McIntyre, one of the most noted wood carvers, lived.

It can be well and correctly said that the colonial porch embodied not only the characteristics of the period in which it was built, but the personality of the owner as well. Should the unobservant person feel that this statement is far-fetched, let him take a stroll through some tree-shaded street of an old New England village, and the truth of the assertion is readily revealed. Though the house itself may be old and battered, and fast falling into decay, yet the porch greets one with a simple welcome that breathes of former hospitality, and, in admiration of this feature, the shabbiness of the rest of the exterior sinks into oblivion.

Broadly speaking, porches are divided into three types or classes. The first belong to the period beginning with the year 1745 and continuing until the year 1785, a space of time marked by stirring events, culminating in the Revolutionary War, and the birth of the new republic. Houses of this period are of the gambrel-roofed type. The second class adorn the succeeding type of dwelling, the large, square, colonial house, built by the merchant prince, whose ships circumnavigated the globe, and who filled his home with foreign treasures ; while the third type is that which ornamented the brick mansion which came into vogue about 1818. As many of these were erected during the commercial period, they cannot, strictly speaking, be called colonial ; they belong rather to the Washingtonian time, and reflect in their construction the gracious hospitality of that day.

Porches of varied colonial types are found in most of the New England cities and towns, in the Middle States, and in the South, and particularly fine examples can be seen in Salem, Massachusetts. There is about all of these a dignity and refinement that is unmistakable, bespeaking a culture that is felt at once, and a stranger wandering through Salem's streets cannot help but be impressed with the fact.

Adorning the three-storied houses with their flat roofs, they give an artistic touch to what would otherwise be plain exteriors. From step to knocker, from leaded glass to the arched or square roof of the doorway, there is a plainness and simplicity which betokens art, but of such a quiet, unpretentious type that by the untrained eye it is hardly appreciated, though to the architect it brings inspiration and affords study for classic detail, the result of which is shown in the modified colonial homes of to-day.

Romance and history are strangely intermingled in these old-time porches and doorways. Under their stately portals has passed many a colonial lover, doffing his cocked hat to his lady fair, who, with silken gown, powdered hair and patches, sat at the window awaiting his coming. Those were Salem's halcyon days, when the tide of life ebbed and flowed in uneventful harmony, free from the disturbing elements of latter-day life.

To attempt even a brief description of each and every doorway would be a herculean task. Rather, it is better to depict the different types, studying with critical eye the various examples. One is the semicircular entrance, with its rounded front, a type shown in many a New England home. The Andrews porch, numbered among the finest in the city, belongs to this class. Under this doorway passed the late war governor, John Andrew, during visits to his uncle, John Andrew, builder of the dwelling, that he always coveted for his own.. The dwelling was one of three built in 1818 on three sides of a training field, which is now the Common. The fine elm trees that characterize the Common were planted in the same year. The other two houses were the John Forrester dwelling and the Nathaniel Silsbee house. The Andrew porch shows straight columns, and a roof topped with a balustrade ; the simplicity of outline renders it most attractive.

Another porch of the same type is that of the John Gardiner house on Essex Street, built in 1804. Here is an entrance considered by good judges of architecture to be one of the best examples of its type, characterized by perfect symmetry of outline. Numbered among its features are quaint indentations in the door head. This dwelling was formerly the home of Captain Joseph White, one of the worthy and noted Salem merchants. Other porches of similar contour, though differently ornamented, are to be found on Chestnut Street.

It is only when one carefully studies doorways such as these, contrasting them with latter-day porches, which are often little more than holes in the wall, fitted with a cheap framing and entirely out of keeping with the exterior, that their worth is viewed in the true light, and the opportunity to turn to the old-time types for inspiration is appreciated.

Perhaps the most Puritanical of all the doorways are the simple narrow ones that generally stand at one side of the house, although sometimes they are used as the main entrance. These show either fluted side pilasters, or severely plain columns, surmounted by a pediment. The door is always dark in coloring, trimmed with a polished brass knocker and often with a brass latch.

One of the most elaborate of these is that of the dwelling known as the Cabot house on Essex Street. This house was designed in 1745 by an English architect for Joseph Choate, and later came into the possession of Joseph Cabot.

Another notable entrance is that of the Lord house on Washington Square. This is a side entrance, and is said to be one of the finest of its type in Salem. This house was at one time occupied by Stephen White, a man of worth, who was falsely accused of the murder of his uncle, and who engaged as counsel Daniel Webster. While this case was in progress, Webster brought his son, Fletcher, to the White home, where he met and fell in love with the daughter of the house, later making her his bride. Thus were romance and law strangely intermingled ! The house was afterwards the home of Nathaniel Lord, one of the most brilliant jurists of his time.

The inclosed porch is another phase of old Salem doorways. There are several interesting examples of this type still to be seen here, perhaps the most noted being the one on Charter Street, on a three-story, wooden building, about a century and a half old, low of stud, with square front, standing directly on a shabby little by-street, and cornered in a graveyard. This porch, inclosing the entrance door, is lighted by small, oval windows, one on either side, affording glimpses up and down the street. It has been graphically described by a silent, dark-browed man, who, with two women, came to the dwelling in the dusk of an evening in 1838, and, lifting the old-time knocker, announced his arrival. The door was opened by Elizabeth Peabody, who graciously admitted Nathaniel Hawthorne and his sisters, showed them into the parlor, and then ran upstairs to tell her sister Sophia of the handsome young man handsomer than Lord Byron who had just arrived. As the door closed behind him that evening, Hawthorne shut out forever the dreary solitude of his life, and we read that he came again and again to the old home, where he played the principal part in one of the most idyllic of courtships, ending in his marriage two years later with the fair Sophia. This dwelling he made the scene of Dr. Grimshawe's Secret, and the old porch has taken on a dignity and historic interest that will live forever.

But perhaps one loves to dwell longest on the doorway of the Assembly House on Federal Street, for it is full of vivid memories. It is an oddly shaped porch, beautifully carved, and under its portals the daughters of Salem's merchant princes passed, holding in their slender hands the skirts of their silken gowns, as they gayly mounted the broad stone steps. On the evening of October' 29, 1784, Lafayette was entertained in this old home, and five years later, Washington, who had just been inaugurated as the first President of the United States, came here. Concerning his visit, he wrote in his diary : "Between 7 and 8 I went to an Assembly, where there were at least a hundred handsome young ladies." With one of these, the daughter of General Abbot, Washington opened the ball, and for her later, as he did not dance, he secured as a partner General Knox.

Other types of porches still seen in Salem include the Dutch porch, quaint and comely in its construction, an excellent example of which is seen on the Whipple house on Andover Street, while surrounding the Common on Washington Square are many rare and picturesque porches of various dates of erection.

Considered by experts to excel them all is the porch that adorns the Pierce-Jahonnot house on Federal Street. This dwelling was erected by Mr. Pierce, of Pierce and Waitte, merchants, in the year 1782, and beside the main entrance it boasts a fine example of the narrow doorway at one side. In the early spring, crocuses clustering about the base of the porch add a touch that is decorative and charming, and the box-bordered garden beds, just in front, filled with masses of pure white bloom, complete a wholly delightful setting. There is about this particular doorway a touch of sentiment felt by every Salemite. It is a piece of architecture of which any one might feel proud, and in its beauty and dignity it stands distinctive in the midst of many fine bits. It is the Mecca of architects, who delight in the exquisite blending of doorway and entrance.

There is a touch of the old Witchcraft Days connected with a doorway at Number 23 Summer Street, that resembles in type the one immortalized by Hawthorne. More than two hundred years ago, this porch was the site of an event that culminated in tragedy. Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the terrible delusion of 1692, kept a tavern here, and in her gay light-heartedness, she scorned the dictates of the church and insisted upon wearing on Sabbath Day a black hat and a red paragon bodice, bordered and looped with different colors.. Her boldness in defying the rigid doctrines made the dignitaries suspicious of her, and at her trial, when one witness told of meeting her before the site of the present doorway where his horse stopped, and the buggy he was driving flew to pieces, she of course having bewitched it, was condemned to death.

Individual types found throughout the city show a variety of construction and ornamentation, and many of these are most unique, although they do not belong to any special period. Prominent among these is the Pineapple doorway on Brown Street Court, an excellently proportioned and finely adorned entrance, which, through the remoteness of its location, is rarely seen by tourists. The dwelling of which it is a part was built in 1750 by Captain Thomas Poynton, and this feature, unlike the old Benjamin Pickman porch on Essex Street, which shows a codfish, has nothing about it suggestive of New England. The pineapple, which is set in a broken pediment, was brought over from England in one of the captain's own ships, and in the days of his occupancy it was kept brightly gilded, its leaves painted green.

Many of the doorways show an innovation in the presence of the climbing vine, which winds its tendrils about the pillar supports, emphasizing their beauty. It is not definitely known whether the early owners encouraged the vine-covered porch or not, but they probably did, as they delighted in the vine-covered summer-house, which was a feature of nearly every old-time garden.

While Salem may hold a prominent rank in attractive porches, many fine examples are to be found in Philadelphia, and though these specimens differ radically in design, they are most attractive. One is to be seen on Independence Hall on Chestnut Street, while others are found on churches and houses.

These doorways illustrate a phase of architectural construction totally different from the porches of New England and those of the South, yet they combine features of the other types, while at the same time displaying a certain definite style of their own which gives to them as great distinctiveness as characterizes Salem porches.

If the twentieth-century architect desires studies of truly attractive doorways, the seaport towns of New England will afford him excellent models. There is enough variety here in porches which are still preserved to give him any number of models from which to devise an entrance that will serve its purpose in every sense of the word.

For the home builder, it will not be amiss to carefully consider the best type of porch before he goes to the architect to develop his plans ; he can be assured that study will develop ideas that will give to his home an individuality that will embody his ideas and personality.



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