“A very little key will open a very heavy door.”—Hunted Down by Charles Dickens
“The longer one hesitates before the door, the more estranged one becomes.”—Home-Coming by Franz Kafka
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”—The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Doors are fundamental to the ways we live and flexible to the needs we have, which might explain why so many prominent idioms hinge on them.
If I’m at your door, I’ve arrived at your home, but if you show me the door, you’d like me to leave. Beating a path to your door is hard work, but finding a back door is taking a shortcut. A closed door is a major obstacle, but a doormat is a pushover. Getting a foot in the door is progress, unless it’s a revolving door, or death’s.
The proverbial “open door,” probably the most popular door metaphor, symbolizes possibility. In New Haven, even the closed doors do that. Go to a random residential neighborhood and make note of each home’s front doorway—its material, its shape, its color, its adornments. If my own extensive door-watching experience is statistically significant, chances are good that nearly every entryway you see will be noticeably different from any other on the block.
You can’t help but come away from that realizing how many possibilities there are in the world, even for something as basic-seeming as a door. But there are some New Haven specimens that, by themselves, expand your idea of what a door can be.
A series of such portals can be found at 35 Crown Street, a former factory that’s now the home of Gray Organschi Architecture, which makes bold custom doors in the workshop right off the lobby. The firm’s front entrance is guarded by a burnished, house-made, orangey wooden slab on hinges. For a few moments late in the day, the setting sun somehow finds a clear line through the cityscape to this particular rectangle, framing its edges almost perfectly between shadow on the outside and light on the in-.
Through it and to the right is a wide rolling door with a flat bottom and low-angled top, made from wood that’s been zinc-plated, painted white, then stripped to give it a beautiful weathered patina (pictured first). The rolling system is from the original fire doors of the old factory, firm member Parker Lee says. “When a fire broke out, the doors would slide into place and seal off the other half” of the building, limiting the damage. Past that door is the workshop, and to the right again is a spectacular mechanized bi-fold door that opens onto the street for loading and unloading (pictured second), rising and lowering with the release of a mechanical lock and the flip of an electrical switch. As if all that splendor weren’t enough for a short stretch of sidewalk, Gray Organschi is also responsible for the hefty wood-planked doors outside Firehouse 12 next door (pictured third).
Sometimes a door stands out because it tells a story. The door at 688-690 Elm Street (pictured fourth) looks like it hasn’t been cared for in at least a decade. But someone once put a lot of effort into it, framing it with symmetrical molding curving elegantly over the top; setting it with three types of windowpanes; and painting it a rich royal blue with white accents. Now heavily chipped and faded all over, it’s taken on a different kind of richness, trading shiny newness for the provocative textures of decay. You can see its past in its present, and extrapolate the in-between, and it’s fun to think about where it’ll be in another decade.
Other times a standout door’s story isn’t so forthcoming, even when there’s a big clue right on top of it. At Trinity Baptist Church, an evangelical Southern Baptist church located on State Street north of Grove, the lintel over the main entrance—dark wooden double-doors with interesting carvings and slender arched windows, plus a stone gothic arch rising above (pictured fifth)—has “Saint Boniface’s Church” carved across it. Turns out that’s what the cream-bricked building had been called since it opened in 1924, housing a local Catholic parish that’d been in New Haven since 1868. But a long history wasn’t enough to keep the Archdiocese of Hartford from selling the church in 2008.
The reason? Low attendance. When people stopped coming through its doors, Saint Boniface’s—the 84-year-old church and the 140-year-old parish—ceased to exist.
Doors: they can make or break you, but they’re also what you make them.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.