Expert Advice: Vestibules

Clues on the history and appearance of vestibules.

While 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?

James 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.

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Tags: Ask OHJ Expert Advice James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell OHJ January/February 2010 Old-House Journal

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