The Language of Home

The Front Door

Connecting the divide between the worlds outside and within

By Noah Salt

The main entrance to a dwelling or apartment having more than one entrance: a doorway fronting on or giving direct access to a street or road. — Merriam-Webster

As anyone who owns one knows, a front door is so much more than a way to enter or exit a dwelling. It’s a statement on hinges, a portal to the life within, keeper of the doorbell and the mail slot, the face of a home. 

The front door is the primary way many of us enter home sweet home and exit each day to fight the good fight in a wild and wooly world. It can be both metaphorical and metaphysical, a barrier against the cold wind or an entry through which one passes to find deeper meaning and perhaps salvation or sanctuary.

In simplest terms, a functional front door appeals to our innate sense of arrival or speaks of inevitable departure. In ancient Egypt, where the first doors are believed to have developed and first appeared on the exterior of buildings, the front door of a tomb was believed to be nothing short of an entry to eternity. During Europe’s Middle Ages, conversely, front doors of churches, public halls and taverns became the backdrops and gathering spots for village news, public declarations, even weddings, auctions and commerce.

Building upon this idea, the soaring cathedrals and churches of the early Renaissance in particular turned ornate front doors into an art form, fashioning living canvases for craftsmen while creating working symbols of external power and interior faith. The arched doorway pointed the way to heaven, or so the theory went, while heavy front doors studded with heavy pig-iron hinges and protective hardware were meant to offer comfort to those in search of sanctuary.

Notable among such spiritual front doors is Rome’s Holy Door or “Porta Sancta,” that opens only during a Holy Year Jubilee, which occurs every 25 years (the last one was in 2000). Also known as the Door of Pardon, Catholicism’s most mythic front door is animated with detailed scenes of man’s sin and redemption, and bricked up on the inside of the church — opened when the Pope, on the first day of a designated holy year, strikes the wall with a hammer to allow pilgrims to enter the church and receive a special indulgence.

For the rest of us, front doors serve the useful purpose of identifying our place of habitation and maybe something about the personality of the home.

During the 18th century, for example, the townhouses of Dublin, Ireland’s famous Georgian squares, became known for colorful symbols of Ireland’s emergence from restrictive religious practices and a sign of the country’s growing merchant class, social independence and cultural awareness.  As one architectural historian notes, “In order to set themselves apart, the former residents of Georgian Dublin painted their front doors whatever color they fancied, added ornate knockers, elegant fanlights above the door, and wrought-iron boot scrapers, near the entrance.”

Variations of this tradition show up all over the world. Blue front doors are commonplace across Greece and rural Scandinavia, regarded as a symbol of the dweller’s hospitality, whereas certain small towns in Spain and Portugal prefer bright yellow front doors to convey a sense of welcome. Of more recent vintage, a study by Zillow concluded that modern American houses with front doors painted black fetch — if one can believe it — on average $6,000 more than comparable houses with conventionally painted or natural wood doors.

The 70-year-old front door on our house, as it happens, is painted a deep earthen brown, probably to cover up the nicks and scars of its relatively long use in a busy family that included the comings and goings of four lively children. Over the past couple of years we’ve discussed the possibility of painting it a deep sage green that reflects our own passion for the Earth and a sense of nature’s renewal. Whatever else may be true, in the meantime while our conversation goes on, it’s a dandy door for displaying a wreath in any season. Over the years, we’ve had everything from traditional fir wreaths with simple red bows to lavish wreaths with magnolia leaves and sprigs of holly. The custom of hanging evergreen wreaths on front doors dates from the early Middle Ages and bears all sorts of highly personal significance — viewed by pagans as a symbol of nature’s seasonal circularity and by Christians as a symbol of eternal life and the suffering of Christ on the cross. In ancient Rome, wreaths were considered symbols of victory and celebration, exchanged as gifts during the winter Saturnalia, hung on front doors to announce the wealth and happiness of the home.

The front door traditions we practice today pretty much hail directly from the homemakers of Colonial America, where rustic front doors were decorated with dried fruit, vegetables, wildflowers, evergreen swags or wreaths ornamented with the likes of pomegranates, pine cones and seashells, a tradition that carries over to this day, and just as in generations past, conveys a natural sign of warmth . . . and welcome.

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