A Passage Through Time And Space: The Hall in Victorian Row-house Architecture
s a gateway into the home, the front hall serves to convey an important first impression of wealth, status, and aesthetic taste. Nowhere more consciously constructed was this
impression than in typical row-house architecture of the mid-Victorian period. Also referred to as town-house, or terrace architecture, row housing was a popular solution of the time to the need for affordable and space-efficient housing in sprawling urban environments. This impetus, however, was not strictly functional; it facilitated a floor plan with distinct psycho-sociological overtones. Each room in the Victorian home served a specific purpose—be it practical or more ceremonial, it was always imbued with underlying significance. Even a space as seemingly modest and unassuming as the hall was no exception.
In more general terms, the physical configuration of the Victorian row house affected the use of the
space within. The shared lateral walls and resulting lack of side windows created a distinct divide into
openings front and back that gave the front hall entry and adjacent front parlour pre-eminence. The
architectural trend to build a series of adjoining structures meant limited variation in form and use of
space. In this respect, the layout of the typical row house was fairly similar throughout many growing and
fashionable cities, including Toronto and Montreal in Canada, as well as New York and Philadelphia in the
United States, and London, England.
The plan in elevation thus consisted of a main level entry with a front hall, or reception area, before a
staircase to the left, and front and back parlours to the right. This was echoed by the basement and second
floor, with stairs located on the left and a front and back room to the right. While the basement supplied
functional areas, such as the kitchen and the informal dining room (or family room), the main level served
as the public and social area of the home showcasing the most prestigious room in the house—the front
parlour. It was here that social status was proclaimed through the purchase and display of a multitude of
prescribed items that represented the best that the family could afford. As a public statement of status, it
was reserved for the entertainment of guests and the celebration of special occasions.
Conversely, the second floor of the home was a private space and the location of the bedrooms of the family. Here, too, there was a hierarchy of importance, with the largest or master bedroom at the front and a smaller room for younger family members at the back. Sometimes an even smaller room in an attic above was relegated for use as either additional storage space or as sleeping quarters for any live-in domestic help.
Thus, the inherent stratification of Victorian row-house architecture reflected through physical arrangement the larger social patterns of society. Where construction created the initial divide between front and back and upper and lower spaces, it was social convention that added further subdivisions between public and private realms, areas occupied by family members in contrast to those frequented by servants, such as the kitchen and laundry rooms located in the recesses of the building. Within this spatial organization, the entry hall was key, both literally and figuratively, to the larger scheme of row-house architecture.
The decoration of the front hall entry was commonly architectural in nature, utilizing plaster techniques, faux finishes, and wallpaper patterns such as the popular “ashlar” print, all of which imitated stone- and brickwork frequently found on the exterior of the house. Other oft-used wallpaper patterns depicted various types of leaves and foliage or, at the very least, were of solid earth-tone colours such as forest green. Furniture often included a hallstand, a table, and one or two chairs, all of which utilized such durable or natural materials as iron, natural wood, and marble. By bringing a little of the outside in, the hall served as a transitional space between the exterior and the interior of the house. This emphasis on architectural elements suggests both a construction of space in terms of the built room, as well as a construction of status, through the creation of an important first impression of the entire home. As such, the hall was less elaborate but as equally well curated as the parlour in terms of the acquisition and display of the appropriate standards of decor.
But just as one who arrived through the hall was free to make observations and pass judgement on the home, the hall was designed to pass judgement of its own upon visitors. For it was in the hall where one had to wait until granted further access to the interior. In its unique capacity as both gateway and guardian of the private spaces (connector and separator of rooms), the hall could either facilitate or inhibit the passage of callers into the interior precincts of the family. Social convention dictated that invited guests or social peers be immediately shown into one of the formal rooms beyond. Others such as messengers, delivery boys, or salesmen were regarded as socially inferior and detained in the hall, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, while awaiting answers or directives from within.
The presence of chairs gave visual appeal to the space and, although utilitarian in design, they were not necessarily comfortable and, in fact, not actually intended for use by family members or guests of any importance. In this way, furnishings and decor were simultaneously meant to be rustic, homey, and aesthetically comforting to a guest’s discerning eye, while discouraging prolonged lingering by those less socially desirable.
With such hidden complexities underlying the physical and symbolic use of the space, the hall takes its place in Victorian row-house architecture as a sign of social class and aspiration as well as the codes of exclusion and privilege. The location, usage, and decoration of each room spoke of careful consideration and a highly methodical approach. The conscious placement of objects and prescribed usage of space were intended to suggest all the appropriate sentiments of genteel refinement and taste. The form and function of the hall adhered to these requirements. An otherwise modest entry, even within the confines of shared walls and crowded urban streets, can reveal a great deal about those who dwell beyond. It can also propose a smooth and easy entry or a prolonged and servile delay through the unwritten signs of furniture and decor as perceived through a caller’s first impressions.
Lindsay Rose-McLean, a graduate in museum studies, is a decorative arts appraiser in Toronto.
Photograph: Lindsay Rose-McLean