Friday, March 22, 2013

Utah's 'Angel Doors'

        No "Angel Doors" are found here, but this University of Utah housing is still historic.

By Lynn Arave

EVER hear of “Angel doors” “polygamy pits” or “double cells”? Are they truly unique Utah, or Mormon-based architectural features?
“Next time you take a walk through an older neighborhood or drive through one of Utah’s smaller towns take a close look at the houses,” J. Cory Jensen, architectural historian for the Utah Division of State History, said in a lecture at the Sweet Branch Library in Salt Lake City a few years ago.
“You might see some details you never noticed or maybe just never thought about before. Why does a certain house have two front doors?  Why does another house have a door on the second story that has no landing?” he said.
While settlement of the surrounding states was based on expediency and the industries of mining and stock-raising, the Mormon settlers had a different purpose — they were trying to build “Zion” — and the permanency of that plan was reflected in the buildings they constructed, many of which are still standing, Jensen stated.
“Over time these various (architectural) features have gained attention for what they represent, or what others think they represent,” he said. “Folklore and myth have been created over generations regarding the purpose and intent of these architectural quirks.”
•“Angel doors?”
Jensen said this involves two front doors on a house. However, the upper door leads to nothing but thin air and is usually located where a window ought to be.
“These so-called ‘Angel Doors’ or ‘Angel Landings’ … can still be found on historic homes in most areas of the state; again, particularly in rural towns that have not seen as much recent building development,” he said.
“The odd thing about these upper-story doors is that once a person exits there is nothing on which to stand and that first step is a doozy! He noted.
So, why would a builder go to the trouble of putting in a doorway where it serves no apparent purpose?
“The folklore and implied idea from the term ‘Angel Door’ is that these doorways were a portal through which heavenly messengers could enter a house to visit the occupants,” Jensen said. “We don’t know of any actual recorded accounts of these visitations happening, so this story would go down as myth.”
He explained there is another use for these doors that has been mentioned in folklore — and again this has a tie to polygamy — and that is as an escape hatch for multi-wived husbands evading federal marshals during the polygamy raids of the 1880s.”
“Because of the practicality of this theory it is quite possible that the doors were used on occasion as an escape route, although there were probably broken ankles or legs involved), but the doors were most likely not constructed specifically for this purpose.
Jensen said there are two concrete reasons for construction of these doors, and they are both rather “utilitarian compared to the folklore surrounding them.”
The first, and most obvious, is that they were a means of accessing a porch roof terrace. “But on some houses the porch became deteriorated, was removed and never replaced On other houses the porch was never built, usually because of lack of money or time,” he said.
However, he said where there is a brick or stone house, with a second story door to nowhere, the explanation becomes simply mysterious. In that case, if a house had narrow stairs or hallways leading to the upstairs, only the idea of hoisting up furniture and using that angel door to access the second floor makes any sense.
“So the Angel Door is another myth partially debunked,” Jensen said. “But who knows, maybe there were other intended uses for these doors of which we do not yet know, either practical or mystical!”
•“Polygamy pits”:
“Besides houses with double doors, the practice of polygamy has inspired other myths and folklore dealing with architecture, one being “polygamy pits.”
He said a polygamy pit was supposedly a pit dug in a basement, cellar, or under floor boards in which a polygamous husband would hide from the law.
“The polygamy pit has been an interesting subject of folklore in the state and region, but one of which there is not much official documentation at all,” He noted. “The idea was that if federal marshals came searching for the polygamous husband, he could be concealed in the pit until the searchers left.”
Jensen said the idea seems logical enough.
“However, determining the validity of the feature has been difficult, as holes were sometimes dug as cellars for cold storage and they typically had a wooden door as a covering,” he said. “There have been a few purported polygamy pits that have been examined by historians with inconclusive determinations regarding their authenticity.”
Jensen said although it is possible the pits were excavated in order to conceal a wanted polygamist, it is more likely they were dug to preserve perishable food items.
“I don’t doubt that they existed, and I’m pretty certain there are stories of them in early journals or letters from that era.”
He then cited two cases where polygamy pits did really seem to exist:
1. The Canute Peterson House in Ephraim had two polygamy pits in the house:  one to hide Canute, the other to serve as a more conspicuous diversion.
2. The David E. Davis House in Rush Valley had a large finished room with wood-lined walls, located in the floor of the rear wing of the house. There seems to be some good evidence that this was used as a place of concealment for Davis, as he had several wives living in this house.
“Apparently the jury is still out on this one, but I think it is safe to say they existed, though were probably not as prevalent as some think,” Jensen said.
He  also said some secret closets were used as hiding places too.
“I think the more common practice for hiding was for the husband to move around to various areas, whether that be other wives’ houses, or relatives, or other communities, countries, and so forth.”
•Two front doors?
One of the most identifiable design traits of Utah’s early residential architecture is the house with two front doors (“double cell” or “double pen”) on the ground floor.
Each room has an exterior front entryway and typically has a doorway connecting the two rooms inside, which allows for separation or inclusion of both rooms.
“Because of the apparent convenience of having two front doors for two separate families — and of course because of local folklore — many assume that the double-cell house type was developed by early Mormon practitioners of polygamy as a way to house multiple families,” Jensen said.
He said his concept seems to make sense when considered in the context of multiple families living together in a single house, which is basically arranged like a duplex: a separate half for each family, with an interior door by which occupants can circulate between households.
However he stressed this house type was established long before Joseph Smith and Brigham Young implemented polygamy.
“The double cell was actually fairly common in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States,” he said. “In fact, I have seen double cell houses in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, and these had been built in the late 1700s and early 1800s.”
So, he said when the early Mormons moved to Utah they simply continued the tradition of building the double-cell house.
“They liked it because it was a type with which they were familiar and it was fairly easy to design, because it was basically two square rooms) uncomplicated to build and convenient to use,” Jensen said.
Still, he pondered, “Why would someone want to have two front doors in the first place if they didn’t have two separate families?”
Besides convenience, he said two front doors provided a symmetrical appearance to the primary façade.
“The houses that the early settlers built in Utah were based on these ideas that had been passed down for decades, and the idea of symmetry seemed to coincide with the strict and orderly beliefs of the Mormon faith,” Jensen noted.
He said there are some variations on the façade of a double cell,  but they are all symmetrical.
“We know that this type did not evolve here in Utah as a means of housing multiple families in a polygamous household,” Jensen said. “In fact in checking title abstracts or census records one will find that many of the original owners of double-cell houses were not polygamists.”
However, he stressed that does not mean that polygamists did not ever use this house type either.
“Not all polygamous families used double-cell houses, but many did,” Jensen concluded. “Polygamists found the type handy and adapted it to their own needs.”
Concealed objects are still another mystery in some old homes.

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  


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  2. The double door houses were also for an entry for guests (probably the living room) and the family had another entry that most likely went into the kitchen. Kind of like we do now. We typically don’t use our front door. We go in through the garage. Our guests come in through the front door.