York Town Square

Part of the USAToday Network

Facts don’t support notion of wide Pennsylvania Dutch house doors to admit coffins

Historic York’s Barb Raid has put forth some more details in response to a reader’s question about why some old Pennsylvania German houses have two doors.
She pointed to her agency’s National Register of Historic Places nomination of McCalls Ferry Farm in Lower Chanceford Township.
“The c. 1799 farmhouse on this property is one of the very earliest in York County to reflect this design,” she wrote.
Her explanation follows:

The Pennsylvania German vernacular farmhouse design is the most common vernacular design in York County. It represents a blend of English Georgian and traditional Germanic styles that together became Pennsylvanian.
The formal Georgian style was imported in the mid-18th century from England where it had been in use for at least a hundred years. Georgian houses had symmetrical fenestration and most were five bays wide (bays = window & door openings) with a central front door leading into a hallway that bisected the house into equal parts. Two rooms opened off each side of the hall which contained a staircase to the second floor where the layout was identical.
In Pennsylvania the style was often altered to suit Scot-Irish and German tastes, particularly the latter in York County. Where the English Georgian style was rigidly symmetrical, the traditional house designs brought to the area by German emigrants from the Rhine Valley were far less formal. The practical Pennsylvania Germans had a tendency to place doors and windows wherever they were most needed rather than in a uniform pattern.
One of the earliest German dwelling forms in the county was a three-bay house containing three differently sized rooms on the ground floor. One room was long and narrow, stretching from the front of the house to the back. The off-center front door opened into this room. Beside it were two other rooms, one in the front of the house and one in the rear. The fireplace and chimney were centrally located.
While admiring the exterior elegance of the Georgian style, the Pennsylvania German farmers still wanted to keep their traditional interior design, which was familiar and comfortable and had worked well for many years. Disdaining the central hallway as a waste of space, the Pennsylvania Germans eliminated it. At the same time they expanded their traditional three-room plan into a slightly more uniform four rooms. A small “fake” hall or open space was located at the hub of the four rooms so that the occupants did not have to pass through each room to reach another. The staircase to the second floor was located in the rear or between the front and back rooms, and the fireplaces and chimneys were moved to the gable ends.
The elimination of the central hall created a problem since it meant that the front door would lead directly into one of the two front rooms, either the “for company” parlor or the family sitting room. If the door opened into the parlor, every person entering the front door would have to go through it to reach any of the other rooms. But if the door opened into the sitting room, visitors would have to go through the casual family room to enter the formal parlor. The solution was to have two doors, one opening into the parlor and one into the sitting room.
It is often said that the parlor door is slightly wider than the other in order to allow the passage of coffins in the days when the deceased was laid out at home. This observation is not borne out by the facts, however. An inventory of all buildings 50 years or older in the county indicates that nearly all houses of this type have doors of equal width (York County Historic Sites Survey 1978-2000).