Halls And Stairways
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE colonial hall as we have come to think of it — dignified and spacious, with characteristics of unrivaled beauty — was not the type in vogue in the first years of the country's settlement, but rather was the outgrowth of inherent tendencies, reflecting in a measure the breadth and attractiveness of the English hallway.
The earliest dwellings were built for comfort, with little regard for effect, and they showed no hallways, only a rude entrance door giving directly upon the general and often only apartment. Some-times this door was sheltered on the outside by a quaint closed porch, which afforded additional warmth and protection from the driving storms of rain or snow ; but it was never anything more than a mere comfort-seeking appendage, boasting no pretentions whatever to architectural merit. Crude, indeed, such entrances must have seemed to the stern Puritan dwellers, in comparison with those of their ancestral abodes ; and it is not to be wondered at if in secret they sometimes longed for the hallways of their boyhood, where, after the evening meal in the winter season, the family was wont to gather about the roaring fire, per-chance to listen to some tale of thrilling adventure.
The first American hall came in with the building of the frame house, erected after the early hardships were over, and the colonists could afford to abandon their rude cabin domiciles. This was really little more than an entry, rarely characterized by any unusual features, but it served as a sort of introduction to the home proper, and was dignified by the title of hallway. The hall in the old Capen house at Topsfield, Massachusetts, belongs to this type.
Later came the more pretentious hall, typical of the gambrel roof house, that enjoyed so long a period of popularity. This was generally a narrow passage, with doors opening at either side into the main front apartments, and with the staircase at the end rising in a series of turns to the rooms above. The first turn often contained in one corner a small table, which held a candlestick and candle used to light a guest to bed, or a grandfather's clock, the dark wood of its casing serving as an effective contrast to the otherwise light finish of the apartment.
Not infrequently the hall was solidly paneled, and a built-in cupboard or like device was sometimes concealed behind the paneling; or, as in a dwelling in Manchester, Massachusetts, it contained an innovation in the form of a broad space opened between two high beams, halfway up the staircase, arranged, no doubt, for the display of some choice possession, and showing beneath a motto of religious import.
In the better class of houses of this period, the hallway sometimes extended the width of the dwelling, opening at the rear on to the yard space. This type was the forerunner of the stately attractive hall that came into vogue in the last half of the eighteenth century, and continued in favor during the first years of the nineteenth century, with the advent of the wooden and brick mansion.
Belonging to the earlier class are the Warner and Stark halls in New Hampshire. The former is paneled from floor to ceiling, the white of the finish now mellowed to ivory tones, and serving to display to advantage the fine furnishings with which it is equipped. At the rear it opens upon a grassy yard space, shaded by tall trees, thought to be the site of the old slave quarters, long since demolished. The walls show several adornments, among the most interesting being the enormous antlers of an elk, which, tradition tells, were presented to the builder of the dwelling by some of the Indians with whom he traded, as an evidence of their friendship and good will. The latter hall is of similar type, entered through a narrow door space and continuing the width of the dwelling; it ends at the rear in a quaint old door that shows above its broad wooden panels a row of green bull's eyes, specimens of early American glass manufacture, still rough on the inside where detached from the molding bar. This door gives upon an old-time garden plot, fragrant with the blooms of its original planting, and preserving intact its early features. Rare bits of old furniture are used in the equipment of this hall, and the paneled walls are hung with family portraits.
When unwearied toil had made living considerably easier, and many of the merchants had amassed fortunes, there sprang up, in both the North and the South, those charming colonial mansions that were the fit abode of a brave race. They demanded hallways of spacious dimensions, and into favor then came the broad and lofty hall, embodying in its construction the highest development of the colonial type. Quite through the center of the house this hall extended, from the pillared portico and stately entrance door, with its fan lights and brazen knocker, to another door at the rear, through the glazed upper panels of which tantalizing glimpses could be obtained of tall hollyhocks and climbing roses growing in the old-fashioned garden just without.
In a measure this hall was a reproduction of the English type, particularly in its spaciousness of dimension. Unlike this type, however, it lacked the dominant influence of the fireplace, and in its construction it showed several independent features, all tending to emphasize the attractive dignity suggested in the broadness of outline. Often an elliptical arch spanned the width at about one third the length, generally serving to frame the staircase, and tending to make dominant the attractiveness of this feature. This was usually little more than a skeleton arch, being a suggestion, rather than a reality, sometimes plain, and sometimes slightly ornamental. This feature is shown in the Lee hall at Salem, and in the main hall of the old Governor Wentworth house at Little Harbor, New Hampshire. This latter hall is particularly interesting, not only for its beauty of construction, but also for its historic associations. Under its arch, framing the fine old stair-case, men prominent in the history of the State and country have passed, and on the walls and over the door are still seen stacks of arms, thirteen in number, the muskets of the governor's guard, so long dismissed.
The most important feature of all these halls was the staircase, and in its construction the greatest interest was centered. Generally it ascended by broad, low treads to a landing lighted by a window of artistic design, and continued in a shorter flight to the second floor apartments. It was always located at one side, and generally near the rear, to allow the placing of furniture without crowding. The balusters were usually beautifully carved and hand turned, with newel posts of graceful design ; and sometimes even the risers showed carved effects. The cap rail was usually of mahogany. Hard wood was sometimes used in the construction of the staircase, the treads in this event being dark and polished, while soft wood painted white was also much used..
The finish of the walls in this type of hall varied. Some were entirely paneled, others showed a quaint landscape paper above a low white wainscot, and still others showed hangings of pictorial import, framed like great pictures.. To the last-named class belongs the Lee hall at Marblehead, considered to be one of the finest examples of its type extant. Black walnut is the wood finish here, and the hangings, designed by a London artist, are in soft tones of gray, beautifully blended, and represent scenes of ruined Greece, each set in a separate panel, handsomely carved.
Occasionally, to-day, a staircase of the spiral type is found, — a type that possesses certain satisfying characteristics, but which never enjoyed the popularity of the straight staircase. Some few of the staircases in the old Derby Street mansions at Salem are of this type, as is the staircase at Oak Knoll, in Danvers, the poet Whittier's last residence. The common name for this type of staircase was winder.
A large number of representatives of the finest type of the colonial hall are scattered throughout the North and South, and their sturdiness of construction bids fair to make them valued examples indefinitely. One particularly good example is shown at Hey Bonnie Hall, in Bristol, Rhode Island, a mansion built on Southern lines, and suggesting in its construction the hospitality of that section. Here the hall is twenty feet wide ; the walls are tinted their original coloring, a soft rich green, that harmonizes perfectly with the white woodwork and the deep, mellow tones of the priceless old mahogany of the furnishings. A well-designed, groined arch forming a portion of the ceiling, and supported at the corners by four slender white pillars, is one of the apartment's attractive adjuncts, while the dominant feature is the staircase that rises at the farther end, five feet in width, with treads of solid mahogany and simple but substantial balusters of the same wood on either side. The upper hall is as distinctive as the lower one, and exactly corresponds in length and width. Wonderful old furnishings are placed here, and at one end is displayed a fine bit of architectural work in a fanlight window, over-looking the garden.
One wonders, when viewing such a hall as this, how this type could ever have been superseded in house construction, but with the gradual decline in favor of the colonial type of dwelling, it was abolished, and in place of its lofty build and attractive spaciousness, halls of cramped dimensions came into vogue, culminating in the entry passage typical of houses built toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Happily, present-day house builders are coming to a realizing sense of the importance of the hallway, and are beginning to appreciate the fact that, to be attractive, the hall must be ample, well lighted, and of pleasing character. With this realization the beauty of the colonial hall has again demanded attention, and in a large number of modern homes it has been copied in a modified degree.