Slamming the Door On Open Plan Living

Escape from Football, and Sesame Street Too

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My foyer has walls, which is a nice thing. It also has doors, which I’m also quite fond of. French doors, these are, of chestnut with many panes of glass and brass knobs. These frame the living room, creating a little air of mystery: Open them and something will happen.

Sometimes I imagine I’m in a Sherlock Holmes novel: Come to my rooms for tea and watercress sandwiches at 4, or a brandy in front of the fireplace at 9. I’ll open the doors and you can have that wing chair and I’ll take this one. You simply cannot do that in a living room without walls; there might be drama in a wide open space—but no mystery. Life is totally exposed.

And doors? Without them there’s nothing to slam when in a fit of pique. I suppose you could bang shut your kitchen cabinets (unless you have those hushed pneumatic things). You could also slam a closet door, but that would look silly — unless you’re extracting a coat and leaving. No, there’s nothing more satisfying when you’re really pissed off than marching through the house slamming doors as you go.

If you’re now telecommuting and perhaps home-schooling too, the living is already tight in such homes as ours. Even if you’re out during the day, how do you get away from the roar of football games, or Sesame Street. No matter how small the room, it can be private space.

Capitol Hill houses were built with thick plaster walls that insulated against cold and heat and sound. The doors had transoms, those rectangular windows above that could be opened or angled to move breezes through on stuffy days. Open spaces and wallboard – or exposed brick, as charming as it might appear – do neither.

We live on the back porch when the weather permits, surrounded by newspapers and brunch. Walls at either end (and a jungle’s worth of plants) keeps it private.

How I envy you that have pocket doors, often between living room and dining room. Doors that glide into the walls and keep you cozy. Close them for cocktails and open them with a flourish when it’s time to dine. Now that’s drama.

At least we still have the original rooms and doors. These present pleasant surprises, and hide what needs to be hidden, both inside and out. Open-plan living, the very idea of what you see is what you get, is, to my mind, a bit depressing.

My goodness, you have to be neat.

There are walls around our dining room, separating it firmly from the kitchen, sparing the eye from the inevitable disarray caused by my enthusiastic and frequently complicated cooking. When the kitchen door is shut, the thought of cleaning up is suspended until the candles are gutted. Though washing up is always my husband’s job, I still don’t want to think about it.

The kitchen is very small and – since we are blessed with so many great markets — there’s deliberately little storage but a fine expanse of wall. There are no cabinets above the stove, nor a microwave, an appliance I do not understand. Instead, there’s a large and rather ornate mirror behind the range that reflects the cabinets on the opposite wall. These have glass doors to expose china and glassware and a growing assortment of pills. It has, I think, the air of a butler’s pantry.

If you wander about, you might notice that most rooms have at least one, heavily framed, mirror. They play so delightfully with the light, which dances about, and expand what are in truth minuscule spaces. Then, mirrors create more rooms, a looking-glass world to step into. A gift to the imagination.

I imagine a lot, often about creating more rooms. Like turning the little basement room under the front porch into an office. Originally used for coal storage to heat the house, the chute still exists in the alley. There’s a row of windows that peek out at the front sidewalk in winter and are muffled by forsythia spring through fall. A wood stove would be a pleasure when the air turns crisp, as the space lacks heat. I see myself sitting bundled in sweaters and fingerless gloves typing my memoirs.

The area under the back porch, where double doors lead to a guest suite, has always been wasted as another storage area. Here I imagine a grotto, with a bistro table and chairs and a fountain on the wall. A much nicer view than the jumble of I-know-not-what that’s now there.

French doors with many panes open from the dining room to the back porch. There are walls here too, at either end, making it as cozy and as private as can be in the midst of this tightly packed neighborhood. We live outside when the weather permits, surrounded by newspapers and brunch. This is reflected in a vaguely Moorish four-paneled mirrored screen that sits at one end. I do not look into it much as it is distorted in a particularly fat way.

Fences surround our 15-by-25-foot garden; these are vine-topped and too high to see over. A far too big kwanzan cherry tree provides a roof.

Within the garden a gently curving river rock path passes flower beds and a fishpond on the way to the garage, which looks quite like an inviting little brick cottage, with windows flanking an antique door my husband rescued from a dumpster on Massachusetts Avenue and painted aqua.

In another fantasy, the garage is called a carriage house and is not filled with husbandly rubbish. It is a studio, where I can do Jules Pfeifferesque dances, all (imaginary) attenuated limbs and thoughtfully dramatic poses. Or maybe I’d paint. Some years ago, I bought a voluminous white linen shirt with this very idea in mind—an idea that also involved many heavy rings, bangle bracelets and bushy eyebrows. Artistic talent, I felt, would surely follow. A parking pad and a rumbling garage door would never do. That this will probably never happen is neither here nor there.

You need walls for such imagining, shadow boxes to put your dreams in.

Stephanie Cavanaugh writes a weekly gardening column, of sorts, for the web magazine MYLITTLEBIRD.COM