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HVVA Newsletters

From the Editor...HVVA has been a member of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) for several years. This is a large national and primarily academic organization that publishes a quarterly journal and runs an internet chat line. Their geography and definition of "vernacular" are quite broad and seldom pertinent to us here in The Valley but the other day messages came through that were hard to delete and I will share some of them with you. I had never heard of a coffin door in The Hudson Valley and associated it with New England center chimney houses where the tight entrance hall made them put another door into the parlor through which large tables and coffins could pass.

It began with an inquiry from Will Garrison, an historic resource manager in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who is often asked about coffin doors in their 18th century historic homes. Will, like his New World colleagues, is a skeptic about all the stories, but his question brought in a flurry of mail. "Coffin niches" on tight staircase landings in Kingston, NY and Nantucket Island and "coffin doors" from Utah, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Then Jeroen van den Hurk, a PhD Candidate and member of HVVA from the University of Delaware wrote the following:

I'm sure that at some point in time these two traditions were related. In rural areas in the provinces of North Holland, in the Netherlands, they have what is referred to as a "death door" (doodeur or dooddeur) with surviving examples dating back to the 17th century. The facade has a single door, with a transom light, giving access into the best room of the house. You only entered through this door on your wedding day and spent your wedding night in the room. The room usually held the family's most prized possessions, but was afterwards only used for the funeral wake. The funeral bier was then carried oui through this door, which would only be the second time it was opened. The room was usually several feet above grade and so was the death door. It would not have a permanent set of steps leading up to the door, but a removable set of wooden steps would be put in place for these two occasions.

I don't know if this solves your myth or makes it more mysterious. I had never heard of coffin doors, so I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

Jeroen sent the following reference for his Dutch information, H. Janse, Houten . Huizen, een uniekebouwwiize in Noord-Holland, Zaltbommel: Eur:opese Bibliotheek, 1970 (ISBN 90 2884367 1) and added some German lore.

The Germans have something known as a "soul/spirit window" (see/en fenster) through which the spirit of the deceased could escape. They were usually very small windows located inside the flue of a large walk-in fireplace. I have seen them in Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania German country - the Fisher Homestead on last year's VAF tour had one, in the period 1 section. I don't know if the Palatine Germans in the Hudson Valley also would have used them.

It's new to me but perhaps some reader out there has seen one here in The Valley.

Peter Sinclair, Editor Ulster County, NY

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