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Expert Advice: Vestibules

Clues on the history and appearance of vestibules. By James C. Massey

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    QWhile removing the old wallcovering and carpeting in my 1925 Foursquare, I discovered the ghost of an inner vestibule off the front porch. I can’t find any photographs of my house with the vestibule in it, and no other house in my neighborhood has one. Can you tell me what it might have looked like?

    AJames C. Massey: This presents a series of questions. First, what is a vestibule, and what was its purpose? Architectural dictionary compiler Cyril Harris defines it as “an anteroom or small foyer leading into a larger space.” In residential buildings, it is specifically a space between the entrance and the main portion of a house, a place of shelter while waiting for entry into the home. It may open onto a stair hall or directly into the living room.

    Vestibules were in common use from the 1880s Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival era until about 1930, in Colonial Revival and Old English houses. They were occasionally found as far back as the 18th century and as recently as the post-World War II era. They are still a valuable feature in any house fortunate enough to have one, providing shelter from wind and rain, controlling heat gain and loss, and giving the homeowner a good view of who’s at the door.

    There are a number of vestibule variations. You may have encountered one that was actually installed after your house was constructed, given its small size and the fact that no similar ones exist in nearby homes. Most commonly a vestibule will have a glazed exterior door that’s welcoming yet allows you to see outside, plus a more solid inner door to the house for security and privacy. Although some exterior doors were kept locked, especially at night, most were unlocked to permit limited entrance. Sometimes, in the Victorian era, both doors might be glazed, or the inner one half-glazed. Generally the sidewalls would be solid.

    There are several other approaches to vestibules, including small, solidly built projections of the house itself, perhaps even with small side windows. Rarely used were “knock-down” sectional vestibules erected for winter use in cold climes—an enhancement of the traditional storm door.

    Today’s owners of historic houses with deep halls will sometimes carve out an open inner vestibule from part of the front hall, perhaps removing the original outside door and moving it inward to become the inner door of the new vestibule. The original opening might remain doorless or be given a full sash door.

    Of whatever type or period, the vestibule’s basic function is to moderate between exterior and interior. A front porch, even a covered stoop, may provide shelter, but both fall short of full protection and privacy. With today’s awareness of energy conservation and cost, the “green” concept embodied in a vestibule makes renewed practical sense.

    James C. Massey, contributing editor and preservation consultant, has led HABS and the National Trust’s Historic Properties.

    Read more Expert Advice

    Published in: Old-House Journal January/February 2010

    { 2 comments }

    Leslie Reed October 6, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Ms Poore,

    Fabulious magazine that is as inspiring as it is eye candy, I was wondering if there is a website on the same order as craigslist for those of us old house rehabbers.
    Here in the Detroit area there are so many old homes that have renovators just tossing to the curb, pearls upon pearls of you name it that my garage is begining to look like a mini whearhouse.
    Maybe you could ask your subsribers for thier best curbside finds and run with that. It might be fun.

    Patricia Poore October 11, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Dear Leslie,
    I don’t know of a “craigs-list” site dedicated to old-house swaps and sales, although we do have a Swaps & Sales forum on MyOldHouseOnline. Many cities (and regions) have a great architectural salvage yard, and some are even non-profits run by an agency or cooperative. For a comprehensive list, see Where to Shop for Architectural Salvage.
    “CURBSIDE FINDS” might make an inspiring page in the magazine! I’ll noodle that one. Thanks for your compliments.

    Patricia Poore, Editor



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