Why Does My House Have 2 Front Doors?

Shotgun House in the Irish Channel of New Orleans

Kylie McLaughlin / Getty Images

Modest American homes built in the 19th and early 20th centuries have a curious design—two front doors. By "two front doors" we don't mean double doors, like double Mission doors or double Shaker style doors, side-by-side. We do not mean double doors as we see in the 19th-century Carpenter Gothic house style or other Victorian-era American homes. Plenty of structures have double doors, which may have some connection with the style discussed here—two doors, separated by windows or siding, both on the facade of one house.

Fast Facts: Dogtrot Houses

Typically Dogtrot Houses have the following characteristics:

  • Wood construction
  • Wide, central, open-air breezeway
  • One side gable roof over two enclosed spaces
  • One story high, depending on the pitch of the roof
  • Large porch or gallery
  • Symmetrical
  • Vernacular cottage or farmhouse in a rural location

Usually, these homes are very small—1300 square feet or less. Many were built in 19th-century rural America but also in early 20th-century urban areas. Many are still found in southeastern states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi—but also from Pennsylvania to Texas. Most often these front doors will open onto a front porch. If a single front porch has been removed, the doors now may be separate entrances to a two-family dwelling, each with its own porch or stairway. Look more closely, and you might see that a large window has replaced one of the doors as older dwellings are remodeled.

Many reasons have been suggested to explain why some houses are designed with two front doors, and all seem reasonable. Here are some suggestions.

No Interior Center Hallway

In colder, northern climates, the hallway was a draft-keeper and heat separator. The winter cold came in the front door to the hallway, isolating heated rooms behind the closed doors of the living spaces. In warmer climates, however, a hallway was a waste of space for less affluent settlers. The center hallway was a luxury that many could not afford. But without a hallway, where do you enter the house? Any front room with a door.

Glass Didn't Travel Well

Although the history of glass goes back thousands of years, the mass production of window panes was not available until the 20th century. Before then, the craft of making see-through glass was a specialty. Window glass at first had to be imported from Europe by American colonists. Later, railroads allowed prefabricated catalog homes to be shipped to rural areas for assembly. The glass didn't travel well when you ordered a pattern house from a pattern book. In essence, windows with glass were more expensive than doors.

Function Separator

A household consists of people, and each person may have a different household task to perform. The "Master of the House" may have wanted an entrance separate from the household, and also separate from in-laws or guests. Perhaps two front doors, each going to a separate room, was the beginning of the modern motel or the duplex apartment. Indeed, many houses with two front doors have been turned into multiple-unit dwellings.

Keeping up Appearances

Hired help of a different social class would probably use the back door or the door à gauche—the door to the left. For households without servants, one door may have been kept to enter a more formal front parlor, ready to accept guests like the local pastor coming to call. The daily comings-and-goings along with associated chores would be separate from the entrance of esteemed visitors.

The Death Door

It's long been believed that one door was reserved for the dead, lying in repose in the front parlor, with a door dedicated to that solemn function of the soul escaping the bonds of Earth—or the neighbors coming in to say their last farewells.

Early Home Offices

Sometimes two-doored homes are found in university towns. Teachers and professors may have given private tutorials or music lessons from a room separate from their living spaces. Other professionals like preachers and doctors might have a front office space for clients to come and go.

Status Symbol

If your neighbor has one door, why should you not have two? Two doors indicated that the house probably had more than one room, which was a real symbol of prosperity for the American pioneer class. This reason makes sense when you consider that many midcentury homes (and even today's houses) make a show of the number of garage doors attached to the dwelling.

Easy Exit for Doing One's Private Business

A slew of outhouse explanations always come up when explaining why a house may have two front doors, especially the "getting up in the night and not disturbing anyone" line of reasoning. But outhouses were usually not in the front yard, so why else would people exit the house? A common activity for men—especially in tobacco country—was to smoke cigars (or cigarettes later on) after a meal. Wealthier homes would have a separate "smoking room" like a smoking car on a train, specifically for the purpose of taking a smoke. Homeowners prosperous enough to have the luxury of a separate dining room may not have had the means for a separate lounge dedicated to smoking, but a door to the front porch right off the dining room would be the next best thing. The other door would be the "main" entrance that led into the front parlor—a "nonsmoking" room.

Fire Exit

As kitchens became integrated into house design, accidental destruction of a wooden structure became a real possibility. Some people think of the second door as a fire escape, which is a credible theory in light of 19th-century wood stoves that had the ability to overheat and set the whole house on fire.

Evolution of the Dog Trot House

America is a land of trees, and Americans have a long love affair with log cabins. Early prairie homes were often single-room huts of rough timber. As people prospered and children became adults, another log cabin may have been built nearby, as living space or a separate kitchen. Distancing the fires of a kitchen from living quarters made sense for people without many resources. Eventually, these homes came under one roof. The open area between the living spaces was a semi-shelter for domesticated animals, so these homes often were called "Dog Trot" houses. Other names include "Double-Pen" and "Saddle Bag," indicating the architecture's dual design. Some people think that every house with two front doors is the evolution of this type of home. Some people even think the Dog Trot house begat the house with a center hallway.

Dog Trot houses are still built, usually in the southeastern United States. The practicality has been lost, except for the cooling breezes that sweep through the open area, but the design remains for aesthetic reasons. The symmetry of two front doors is pleasing to our eyes, giving balance to the design of where we live.

A second front entrance still exists for many of today's homes—think of the door from the attached garage. Now our second front door is enclosed in a 21st-century status symbol, the multi-bay garage. One look at a 20th-century raised ranch house or a split-level ranch-style and you'll come to realize that our houses STILL have two doors in the front—and the guests still have the pleasure of entering in through the main door in the front. Often, the garage "man cave" is left for the Master of the House.