From the moment you open the front door to your house or apartment, you instinctively feel the emotional rush of being home. The entrance hall is the face and character of the house. Just as a writer must find his or her voice, your place of entry—like the first paragraph of a book—conveys the whole feel of the house, its atmosphere and integrity, the voice that hints of home.
Immediately, you reveal your story. So begin by asking, What are your major messages? What do you want to express to yourself, your family, and friends when walking through the door?
Most of us have given little thought to these questions because we use our front door so rarely. Certainly, you want the front hall to invite people inside. You want your guests to know you expect them and that you care. You want them to know they are welcome.
In terms of everyday living, however, we have tended to make our front entrances obsolete. My mother once pointed out to me that people enter houses through the front door only at funeral receptions and weddings. Today, it’s customary to enter our houses through the back door, the cellar door, whichever is nearest the garage—convenient, yes but not exactly a gracious way to refreshen our spirits after long hours away from home.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve gotten away from putting our front entrances to daily use that so many of them feel stiff and awkward. If nothing else, I think it’s time to rethink the daily pattern of entering our real lives through the back door. We should begin to enjoy the full bounty of our houses every day.
As you begin to consider ways of preparing and energizing this space, start at the front door itself. Experience it from the outside in, the way your friends do. Feast your eye on your staircase. Look around you. Keep the front door open and let the light flood into the hall. Is your hall more formal than the rest of the house? Is the hall uplifting to you when you enter and walk through to adjoining rooms? If the floor gets filthy with normal use, then possibly it can be made more practical. How does your doormat look? Is it worn out? If it is sisal, it will wear out every year or so.
Your front entrance hall floor should actually be the most dramatic one in your house because it’s the first thing people see. If the floor is hardwood, you might think about bleaching and staining it to create interest. It’s also a good idea to coordinate the floors of the adjacent rooms with your front entrance hall floor. The last thing you want is your off-white carpet to become tracked with grass and mud stains from the outdoors. Consider your entrances fully before you invest in rugs that can’t tolerate foot traffic.
As you analyze your hall take stock of its shape and size: Most entrance halls tend to be quite narrow. Consider its light sources, the color of the woodwork and ceiling, its furniture and architectural detail. Is the staircase visible from the front door? Do you put your mail and keys on the front hall table? Does the table hold a plant or have a place for flowers?
Quite possibly, your front hall already has architectural features that give it personality; but if it lacks character, consider installing a thick cornice molding where the wall touches the ceiling. Perhaps add a more interesting baseboard. If the existing trim around the door is too narrow, it can be replaced by a thick molding.
City living, in fact, presents tricky decorating problems for entrances. Because they are often long and narrow, installing a mirror on a narrow wall often creates a sense of expanded space and brings in light. I encourage my city clients always to have fresh flowers on the front hall table, or a bowl of colorful apples, lemons, oranges, or limes. Because most entrance halls do not get enough natural light, plants and flowers will require rotation to and from a sunny window. Having something colorful from nature livens up a hall.
Of course, many entrances feel dark—city and country alike. After being outside in the light, we don’t want to come home only to immediately feel caged in. When you come home at night, you want to feel comforted by a light, cheerful atmosphere. I recommend airy, bright entrances. Dark woodwork or paneling absorbs light. Unless these walls are truly handsome, consider painting them. When I worked on an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Rhode Island, I suggested that my clients bleach the beams, which had darkened over the centuries.
Once you’ve examined your entrances from the point of view of light, size, and proportion, you will be ready to dress them. An entrance hall—just like any other space in your home—need not be a static stage set, indifferently decorated or unlived in and unused. I’m increasingly disenchanted with the rigid formality I see all too often in this room. If a hall doesn’t have some whimsy and individuality, it feels inflexible and cold.