First impressions
Publication Date: Friday Jul 29, 1994

First impressions

Front doors can entice buyers--or send them on their way

by Diane Sussman

When fashion turned its mercurial eye toward doors, Edith Wharton stamped her literary foot and snorted like the good thoroughbred she was. "First the door was slid into the wall, then even its concealed presence was resented," she huffed in "The Decoration of Houses." "Even the front door, which might seem to have too valid a reason for existence to be disturbed by the variations of fashion, has lately had to yield its place to a wrought-iron gateway lined with plate glass, against which, as a climax of inconsequence, a thick curtain is usually hung."

Fashion, despite Wharton's warnings, has continued to have its way with doors. In Palo Alto, that has translated to doors painted teal. "A while ago it was fuchsia, but today's color is teal," said Karleen Turnbull, who owns By Design, a Palo Alto company that helps people "stage" their homes to sell. "Blame it on the men who wore teal ties years ago."

Yet it's not the proliferation of teal that upsets Turnbull about the modern door.

It is the cobwebs, bird droppings, dirt, bug lights, shoddy screens, yellowed weatherstripping, rubber car mats and welcome mats with images of Tweety Bird that make her gnash her teeth in a Wharton-esque display of pique. "People stop noticing their front doors," she said. "They come in through the garage and they never think about it. Sometimes for years."

But the front door and entryway can repel a prospective buyer within the first few minutes. "It's the ultimate first impression," she said. "It's a sign of the creativity and taste of the people inside. Generally if you have gingerbread outside, you have gingerbread inside."

"It's like bait," said Chuck Rumwell, a local contractor who teaches a class on home maintenance at Cubberley Center in Palo Alto. "It better be good."

Paint--yes, even teal--is the quickest and least expensive way to revitalize a door. "Spending $50 or $100 to paint makes a huge difference," said Rumwell. "You take a boring, dark entryway and put a little color on it and suddenly you've got interest and light."

It's not just the form that often falls short with doors, it's the function. "I know so many people who say, 'You have to push the door' or 'You have to slam the door' or 'It's fine in the summer,'" said Rumwell.

His solution is simple: fix it. Buy new hardware. Spend some money. "The good stuff costs long dollars," he said. "That's just the way it is."

Rumwell and his wife, Donna, spent a year looking for a door that would complement but not upstage their contemporary home and Japanese-style gardens. They looked at $100 factory-made doors, $6,000 handmade doors, brass doors, oak castle doors, glass doors, stone doors and precious hardwood doors.

They decided against a factory-made door early on. "Everything is stock," said Rumwell. "A door should have heft and weight. It should be a door for a lifetime." Yet they couldn't afford a handcrafted door.

Eventually, Rumwell found the ideal door--on the Crocker Templeton Castle in Carmel. The door, made by nationally known blacksmith Samuel Yellin, was made entirely from iron. One thing was certain: the door had heft and weight aplenty. "It must have weighed 600 or 700 pounds," said Rumwell.

At this point, Rumwell decided the only way he would get the door he wanted would be to make it himself. Because he wanted something light and contemporary, he chose copper. To bring out the color variation in the copper, he "hacked and smashed" it, then treated it with a wash of antiquing solution. He laid the sheets on a solid birch door and laminated them on to the wood. He surrounded the door with glass panels etched with representations of bamboo. Now, he says, tapping the copper, "this is a strong door. It's not going to disintegrate."

One of the nicest doors Rumwell has seen began as a "hellacious accident"--a friend's botched attempt to strip away paint. The result was a softly muted wash of paint and wood that looked as if it had been deliberately sponged or ragged. "I told them to stop right there. It was beautiful," he said.

Both Turnbull and Rumwell have their own ideas about how to build a better doorway. Here is the his-and-hers list--five practical suggestions from Turnbull, three rambling ideas from Rumwell.

Both agreed on one thing: no bug lights.

First, here is Turnbull.

"Get rid of your bottle glass. That's the first thing. It's not that expensive to replace and it makes a huge difference."

"If you paint your door, do it with an eye toward quality. If you decide not to upgrade the hardware, then at least keep it clean."

"Get rid of your rubber car mats and mats that say 'welcome.' Get a nice sisal mat. Keep the area clean. Sweep the porch. Replace light fixtures that are old and dated. And no bug bulbs."

And now, Rumwell. The front entryway should be a "break in the continuity. It should pull you in as a point of interest."

"It has to work functionally. It's your first and last impression."

"Tidiness. Attention to detail. And no bug lights."

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