I should start off by stating that I am at best an amateur historian, and know next to nothing about architecture. But maybe that’s to my advantage as my observations are seen through the lens of a layman rather than someone who has systematically studied this subject. I feel that the changing structure of homes over the past century or so shows a shift in lifestyle and accompanying values.
First there’s the mystery of why old houses had two front doors. One was the real front door, leading into the family living space, and the other brought you into the parlor. This was a more formal space for visitors who might not be intimate friends of the household. In this way people could be entertained without traipsing through the home. In the days before commercial funeral homes, this is where the viewing would take place and condolences given to relatives of the deceased.
There was still a vestige of this in the house I lived in growing up. It was built in the 70s and had only one front door, but we had a living room which was distinct from the family room. The family room was where we hung out, watched TV, listened to the stereo, and worked on projects (unless they were messy, at which point we were relegated to the basement).
The living room was seldom used, as it was for “company.” If relatives came over for Sunday dinner then this is where we sat afterwards. This was not a place where you played, sat on the floor, or ran around barefoot. Basically, it was kind of a drag as its use signaled a long boring afternoon listening to adults talk. It seemed to me like wasted space.
The most prominent aspect of old houses that is missing today is the front porch. Homes of the past had large porches that were used for socializing. This is where you would see your neighbors and talk to any passersby on the sidewalk. I have a friend who lives in a house from the 1920s. While parlors had disappeared by this era, it still retains the large front porch, which I’m pleased to say they use frequently. I once commented that I didn’t recognize the house without a group of people hanging out on the porch.
If people today even have porches they are often merely decorative as they are not big enough for sitting comfortably, and not wide enough to provide shelter from the rain, and certainly not built to accommodate the swing that every porch should have. It also seems that today the comfort of air conditioning often beats out the desire to connect with the neighborhood, which means there would be no one else out there to talk to anyway.
The house my dad grew up in was built in the mid-1890s, and as a kid it was always fun to visit “Nana’s house,” as it was so different from my own home. (It was from Nana that I learned about the parlor and the practical, if creepy, solution to the lack of funeral homes.) We would sit on the porch swing and play a game to try to guess the color of the next car that would drive by. She would let me pick first, and I’d choose my favorite colors—red, orange, yellow, silver. Then she would pick blue. It was amazing; she always won. One could observe that as this was the 70s, almost all cars were blue at that time. But I’m a fan of the “Nana-has-superpowers” theory.
Tying in with my lament about people not walking around anymore is my next point about garages. Garages were detached from the house, in the back, through an alley. People didn’t always use their cars everyday—if they even had one. Nowadays people drive long commutes to work and come home, put their car in the garage, go inside, and don’t talk to neighbors or anyone else. Modern houses look to me like three-car garages with a house attached as an afterthought. You can’t even see the front door as it’s eclipsed by the garage, but that doesn’t matter as nobody uses it anyway.
I’d encourage anyone who is considering building a house to think about these issues. For others, you may not be able to change the structure of your home but you can change how you use it. Hang out in your yard, take a walk—and talk to your neighbors.