Years ago on a trip to Newfoundland, retired traveler Jackie Jansen began documenting a strangely persistent phenomenon: front doors raised high above the ground. Odder still: these elevated entries had no stairs to speak of, leaving her to wonder why. It turns out there are competing theories about these unusual portals. Locals told Jansen and her husband (presumably tongue in cheek) that such “mother-in-law doors” were for ushering out unwanted in-laws, but that’s not the only tall tale going around about these quirky designs.
Some have speculated that these seemingly useless secondary doors are a product of building regulations — when Newfoundland joined Canada in the late 1940s, they suddenly had to match new fire regulations that required two modes of egress for houses. Following the letter of the law, the theory goes, a door was added, but no stairs, since technically that was not included in the legal requirement.
A similarly legalistic theory posits that leaving off the staircase allows a building to remain technically “unfinished,” yielding some sort of tax break. Or perhaps these higher doors deter would-be thieves. Clearly, the uncanny positioning of these features invites much speculation, particularly since such raised doors are often found on front facades.
The consensus opinion in comments on Jensen’s article, however, suggest a more simple, climate-driven answer: snowfall. In a place where snow can pile up many feet high and completely obscure ground-level doors, having a higher point for ingress and egress makes sense. Why stairs aren’t added, though, still seems like a bit of a mystery — an elevated door without steps is an all-or-nothing proposition, as snow levels will rarely match a threshold precisely. Then again, one can always wade through snow at the normal-height door.
They make sence if you have an outer door that swings out. The wet heavy snow we tend to get along the coast is quite heavy. You can wade through it but pushing a door open that has more than a few inches becomes a problem. If that snow has been compacted by more snow coming off the roof, it is a serious problem. A design flaw i discovered with some of my chicken coops.
I once had a conversation with a retired building inspector about this phenomenon of “floating doorways”. He swore they could not happen because we had a home inspection system. I answered that such unfinished doors were everywhere in the Province, which they still are. He was adamant they were not! But Jansen’s photos show exactly what any drive through small communities will confirm. They are the rule not the exception. I think the simple answer is that we prefer to enter at ground level from the rear of the house in the traditional Newfoundland way. So why complete a front entrance?
A Newfie friend of mine would say they would leave the front stairs unfinished when building to keep the building permit open. This would keep taxes down due to the building being ‘unfinished’
I lived in Newfoundland for a year and this is the same explanation I heard over and over. I’ve never heard any of the other possible reasons suggested here. I also saw many houses that were unfinished in other ways – floor trusses with plywood tacked down on top, framed walls with no drywall, etc. I even saw one dirt floor with plywood and sheets put down over most of it. Definitely some interesting stuff.
I’m from Newfoundland. These doors are certainly not because of snow. That’s a new theory to me and considering many regions of the island with such doors would go years between getting snowfall amounts that would make them useful (I think it happened once in my entire childhood in my hometown, for example), it seems deeply implausible to me.
The following is the reply I received after sending this article to a real Newfoundlander. You can verify the authenticity of the author by the use of the term “annexation” as the way NL became a province of Canada, rather than more mainland terms that paint rosier pictures of cooperation or destiny.
Ah -there are all kinds of Mainland theories about this (mostly based on local malarkey espoused by bay-men by way of explanation to gullible Upper Canadians. These include the nonsense about the snow-pack and the mother-in-law).
The tax reduction theory is also rubbish. This practice began in the 1950s and continues to this day. There has never been provincial land tax in Newfoundland. Most small communities in Newfoundland were without any form of local government until the 1970s and many are still without it. In the majority of the communities where some form of administration exists, residents usually pay fixed fees for services such as garbage pick-up, building permits or water provision. In the larger, incorporated towns and cities, where property tax is levied, you will not find ‘doors to nowhere’.
The reason is very simple – lack of money.
Some older, simpler, out-port Newfoundland homes often had but one door that provided egress to the porch and then to the kitchen. This was almost exclusively a side entry door or a back entry door.
The majority of homes, however, had two doors, one of which was the front door. This door was the formal entryway. The custom in Newfoundland was to only use that door on very special occasions. Just as the parlour was seldom used except for wakes and weddings – the front door was not the usual entrance. Everyone in the out-ports and most in town followed the old custom of entering the house by the ‘back’ door.
After annexation, people began to build in the new, North American suburban, bungalow styles. To achieve this they were guided by housing diagrams (not plans). Those diagrams always called for at least two doors (usually one front – one back). In the out-ports, people almost always built their own homes and practically every one of those home owners used such diagrams, found in the Star Weekly or some such periodical, as a loose guide.
They usually incorporated the front door – all the while knowing that the back door would be the one singularly used.
Many of these homes were being built on basements for the first time and being practical people the basement walls were extended much higher above ground level than would be the case elsewhere. In addition, the peculiarities of the terrain, including steeply slopped lots, rocks and boulders and bog holes could dictate that the front of the house, which invariably faced the harbour, would be higher off the ground than the back. Consequently the construction of steps/stairs required to reach the front door would involve using considerable material and effort to reach a door seldom used. Because people built their own homes and often, due to foreign and Canadian exploitation, had very limited financial means, they first only did the work that would provide their families with a safe, warm and dry home. Finishing the interior might take a number of years.
Once the pattern of leaving the front entryway unfinished was established, it, like social distancing and religion, became acceptable, or even the thing to do.
You will never see, in town, houses without an accessible front door. Nor will you find a great number of them elsewhere although you may find communities where the practice is more prevalent than in others.
That was my first thought, too. We’ll add a porch later!
Your source is definitely a Newfoundlander (like me), and some of the terms he uses tells me he’s probably from St. John’s, or at least the Avalon Peninsula. He’s spot on about the formal front door, but I had never thought of it that way. In many of these houses, there could even be furniture stacked against the door to nowhere! (couches, bookshelves, etc.) They’re just never used.
Some expressions explained:
“bay-men” – anyone from NL that does not live on the Avalon Peninsula. Used to be derogatory, but now is just good fun. The man you spoke to was from St. John’s, what a bay-man would call a “townie”
“out-port” – a description of any small town in NL, especially off the AP. My guess is the name derived from the only access to these communities: boat. There were no roads.
“from in town” – from St. John’s. The entire province knows that “town” means St. John’s. You could live hundreds of kms away, and if someone says “I’m headed to town for the weekend” you know they’re going to St. John’s
“annexation” – like you said, confederacy, joining Canada. This also indicates he is from St. John’s. 2/3 of “townies” voted against confederacy, but 2/3 of “bay-men” voted to join Canada. Their needs were different, living in isolated small towns.
My uncle had a “mother in law door” and he always said he’d like to build a deck and stairs up to it, but never had the cash to spare.
I have seen these doors in other places as well, for example old churches from the late 1800’s early 1900’s. They have “carriage” doors, elevated from the road at the correct height to step out of carriage into the building. The lack of stairs made it possible for the carriage driver to pull up close to the building.
They’re common in Nova Scotia as well. When I was young, my parents told me they were like that because of a tax loophole. I never experienced enough snow there where a door that high would be necessary. Would not surprise me if it were just for a laugh.