Farther Down the Front Door Rabbit Hole

I really should have been starting the kitchen, but that got held up this weekend so instead I decided to go to Philadelphia Salvage. Just to look for a skeleton key for the vestibule door and set screws for some old porcelain door knobs. Really, that’s all I was looking for.

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But, no luck. The few keys they had didn’t fit my lock and I couldn’t find set screws in the right size. My dad has a tap and die set though so I’ll get set screws and make them fit. Oh, did I mention I browsed the door aisle? But there were no exterior doors narrower than 30 inches. The guy there said that the kinda Art Deco doors seen on narrow houses in South Philly are called Hollywood doors and that they get them occasionally.

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“What does occasionally mean?” I asked. “Because I’m trying to decide if I want to spruce up a door I don’t like that much.”

He said it’s a craps shoot. Anyways, back home I went. But after 4 years abstaining from the door aisle… I needed more. And, there’s… another salvage yard. Better yet, this one has more exterior doors! This blue door was just about the right size. I was ready to jump on it, until I noticed that it’s half rotten, that the fancy ledge below the glass is just a piece of contemporary chair rail, and that most of the panel sticking is missing with caulk in its place. I may as well just buy a new door at that point. Neeeext.

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Then this one. It’s 28 1/4″ wide. I was hyperventilating now. All I’d have to do is make it a quarter inch wider and it would fit in the jamb I already have!

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Then I saw the next one, which is identical. And it’s tagged “$800/pair.” My heart sank. I had already planned out spending the rest of my life with this door. So I asked, “Don’t guess you’d let me have just the one for $400?”

No dice. But really, I shouldn’t be spending $400 on a door, so all the better. This set would never, ever work, but I want it anyway.

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Then I saw this one. It’s fitted with a mirror but it looks way to thick to be a closet door. And on the back side, the mirror is held in with nice glass bead. I said, “This looks like a front door! And it’s only 30 inches wide!”

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Alas, 30″ is still not 28 1/2″ and the stiles aren’t nearly wide enough to cut that much off. And home I went, thinking about that plan to spruce up the front door that is all of a sudden way less exciting than it used to be. I meant to take a nap, but instead I spent an hour on my phone looking at photos from streets department work on PhillyHistory.org, a mapping website that allows users to search for, view by location, and purchase thousands of historic photographs dating back to the late nineteenth century.

I’m sorry for destroying your productivity for the day. (philageohistory.org does the same thing with maps. Sorry again and/or you’re welcome.)

I said before that truly original doors are extinct in South Philly. I wouldn’t even know what they look like. The “Hollywood doors” are the oldest I’ve ever seen there. But in among photos of curbs, sewers, and excavation for the Broad Street Subway…

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Colorado Street, above, is very much like mine. And that house with the picture window appears to have… an original door! But now look below, in the 800 Block of Moore Street. This is a slightly fancier house type than mine but I guess not that far off. Note that the oldest doors all seem to have more glass than pretty much anything today.

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The 2300 Block of Federal Street, farther west, still retained 4 original doors in a row in 1956!

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And all I could think about was a door that I had passed over. It was old, but with 2 panels at the bottom and 2 panes of glass at the top, it was looking less like a back door and more like something precious and rare. It was all I could think about. And the next day I was back at Provenance again.

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But what’s this to the right of the door I was talking about? A basically identical door, in slightly better shape,  without the horizontal muntin that I don’t like. At 29 3/4″ wide and 83″ tall, this door needs to be cut about an inch narrower and 3 inches shorter. That has me a little skittish. But the guy liked me. He told me he could let me have it for $80 because it’s missing its glass, and so my new car lost its door-ginity.

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So, I hope this door works out. It would mean that my monomania got us somewhere yesterday.

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17 thoughts on “Farther Down the Front Door Rabbit Hole

  1. francetaste

    I would go gaga with a Web site of old photos like that. I’ve been to our local archives, which is a very cool place, but the research is slow.
    Congrats on your door. No concerns about broken windows? Obviously a big window will let in lots of light, but what about burglars?

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  2. Architectural Observer

    The new door will be SO much better for your house… you won’t regret your choice one bit.
    It is infinitely more timeless than the very dated mahogany door, and your house will love you back for making the switch. I can’t wait to see the finished installation!

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  3. Nora

    I just found this blog as I was looking for references for exposing beams in my own crooked South Philly Row. If you still want a Hollywood Door, I have one in perfect condition under 30″ W. It has the curved window with three panels. I got it at Philly Salvage about a year ago.

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    1. Chad's Crooked House Post author

      Hi Nora! Now I feel a little conflicted. It sounds like your door could be ready to hang with a lot less fussing than mine will, and there’s still a chance I’ll need to cut too much off of the door I got to make it 28 1/2 inches wide. But on the other hand, I feel like I need to commit to one door sooner or later and now that I’ve seen photos of half glass Victorian front doors in the neighborhood that are completely extinct (except on houses with double doors), I kind of want to revive one. How come it did’t work out for you? And… maybe I could use it as a backup option, depending on how quickly you’re looking to get rid of it.

      Also, let me know if you have any more questions about the exposed beams. I’m happy to talk about it more.

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      1. norasalzman

        Hey Chad, I was actually speaking on behalf of my close pal who I forced to buy the door when I saw it (but didn’t need it myself). What happened is that she got very pregnant and was never project focused like I am, so it has sat sadly in her basement ever since. I can get the exact dims from her and a picture to email you. It even came with the lock and an adorable keychain with a mini-tupperware! I am going to assume she’d want to be paid for it, but she got it for a shockingly low sum.

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      2. Chad's Crooked House Post author

        Thanks, I’d be happy to see it, but like I said, I’ll stick with the door I just bought unless I can’t cut it down enough to make it fit in my opening. Plus, your friend might be able to install it when the baby gets to a lower-maintenance age.

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      3. Chad's Crooked House Post author

        Well if you saw what I wrote a post or 2 back, I have a personal interest in re-homing old doors, so if she wants help with that (once I’ve confirmed that the door I have will work and I don’t need another one) I can help her list it on Craigslist.

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