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Maintaining a Sense of Privacy in the Home

Sep 30, 2015 02:32PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Just a couple of centuries ago, houses in the North Hills were built by the hands of their owners. To build a home for yourself is something very different than to buy a house built by someone else. Because they were so labor intensive, many began as one-room houses. As time permitted, a second room was added to separate a private sleeping area from the original, more open gathering room.

As years passed, prosperity brought more and more rooms to a house, including a kitchen, bed chambers, and eventually an indoor bathroom. Each improvement was done with careful consideration, as any construction took great effort, and with all of these elaborations, more changed than the home’s structural use. Human nature factored into the equation, so functional measures soon gave way to social measures. It wouldn't be enough to have an honest home filled with solid materials addressing common sense needs.

Outward appearances soon became just as important, if not more so. Flowered plantings trimmed white picket fences to frame the home's face, along with gingerbread carvings lining porches and gabled eaves. In this context, a front door demanded decoration to maintain its prominence as a focal point of entry. Once through the threshold, expectations were elevated, and demanded an interior to satiate such prelude and anticipation. Hence, the origin of a central entry hall — a front room from which all other formal receiving rooms would flow.

This space has always seemed curious to me, as it is quite often anchored by a grand staircase with delicately turned spindles edging the steps in a symmetrical or circular fashion, in its most ornate configuration. What is the purpose of such a display? I can only imagine the scene from Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O'Hara descended the grand  staircase of her plantation estate on a staircase fit for the entry to an opera house, much less a residential setting. But these moments are what we think of when our daughters dress in prom gowns, where an entry staircase sets the perfect stage for presenting her to her date awaiting below.

For all the expense and effort to create these grand staircases, appreciation only comes on a handful of occasions, such as the arrival of dinner guests or maybe when one receives a client coming to a home-based business. No matter the circumstance, the formal gesture seems to be contradictory; a staircase sweeping down toward the front door as if to invite guests upstairs into the bedrooms.

I don't think homeowners see it this way when they set out to buy a home. Our perceptions are shaped by culture, and the grand staircase is a staple for the entry hall, regardless of whether it seems strange to a foreigner unfamiliar with western traditions. Yet, when designing a home, I try not to overlook such things. The placement of these elements in our homes has real consequences on our daily lives and ultimately on our memories. Our homes define us.

Maybe this is why so much importance is placed on this lavish display. We want our neighbors and colleagues to think of us in a certain way. And our house, just as the car we drive or the clothes we wear, becomes a statement to them as much as a place for us.

Is this the way it should be? Probably to some extent. There is no denying that outward appearances are important. However, I would argue that all of this attention for someone else's benefit too often takes away from our own possible enjoyment. Creating a home for those who will be living there is just as important. To do so, the arrangement of rooms and furnishings must be considered with eyes cleared of cultural lenses.

For example, another fixture in the entry hall is a decorative chandelier, sometimes centered on a large picture window over the front door. For my clients' homes, I tend to bring this down closer to the floor, asymmetrically offset from the door, to give the space a human scale and a visual counterbalance. Handled carefully, the right lighting can take center stage in a more fitting manner than strange staircase metaphors.

I also like to shift focus toward the living room, with maybe a framed window view of an ornamental tree or the garden beyond. Vistas like these offer unexpected drama, pulling attention through the house. In my own home, the front entry does this with a west-facing circular window that casts the sun’s setting light across the floor during evening dinner parties. Flanked by a fireplace and cozy chairs, guests are drawn in by a warm and comfortable space.

In the end, guests to your home will be left with lasting impressions when their experiences are felt and not imposed. And a space that feels right requires consideration of each element in the home, how it engages you, and what it implies. Differentiating the private rooms of your home from the more formal spaces, right from the start in the entry hall, will create less confusion for a guest, put them at ease and make their visit a treat.

 

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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