Carved Door Casings
Use vintage moldings to embellish entrances,
trim a tall mirror, or surround a plush headboard
Elaborate casings like these were typically reserved for public rooms, where homeowners entertained. Private areas, such as second-floor bedrooms, had simpler trim.
At the risk of sounding like a total old-house nerd, I must confess that a couple of elegantly carved door casings helped clinch the deal on my New Orleans wedding back in 2001. My fiance, Jon, and I had been looking for a bed-and-breakfast in our favorite vacation destination where we could gather our clan and get hitched. While touring the Claiborne Mansion, an 1850s Greek Revival house turned inn, I was struck by how gracefully the casings, with their delicate dentil details, framed the views of the interior spaces. Six months later, Jon and I walked through those well-dressed doorways as husband and wife.
I've stayed at Claiborne every year since, including twice while working on stories for This Old House about post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. The restored house and its door casings look as gorgeous as ever, perhaps even more so considering they could have been lost.
So it was with a tinge of sadness that I admired some paint-caked door casings propped against a wall on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, Demolition Depot in New York City. I couldn't help but think of the fate of the houses they once ornamented. You can tell a lot about the architecture of a place by its door casings. And judging by the looks of these, the houses must have been grand. The floral and fan details in the built-up entablature tops are typically seen in the door surrounds of Victorian-era American houses from the late 1800s. Their height—about 12 feet—and ornate styling indicate that the casings were probably used on the first floor, either in parlors or off front vestibules, where ceilings were lofty and guests would be sure to see them as they entered the homes.
By the turn of the 20th century, door casings, which were sold through mail-order millwork catalogs, began to reflect a less fussy Arts and Crafts aesthetic that emphasized the beauty of natural wood grain and clean lines over applied ornamentation and intricate carving. The lower ceilings in Craftsman and Prairie bungalows also left less room for those entablature tops, which were made by stacking up to six individual molding profiles to form one big one.
The diversity of house styles popularized after 1920, which ranged from classical Colonial Revival to eclectic Spanish Mission, caused a decline in the number of standard molding patterns and in the trim catalogs that sold them. Builders then turned to local manufacturers and craftsmen to create complementary door casings.
Today, salvage yards offer another source for the moldings, which can be reused in period restorations and in new houses to make drab doorways with thin or nonexistent surrounds more attractive. Or you can rescue one of those forlorn-looking casings and turn it into something completely different. I used just the top of a Queen Anne–style casing bought for $200 as the crown for a tall mirror. When I was building the frame in the TOH offices, a coworker remarked how great it would look around her living room fireplace. "It could even be a headboard in my bedroom," she said. All I'd have to do was put a padded insert in the middle instead of mirror glass, and then cart it over to her house. "In your dreams," I replied. I'd already picked out a space for the reconfigured casing in my own apartment. Positioned in the front hall, the mirror is the first thing Jon and I will see when we come home. And even though it's a different style than the casings from New Orleans, it'll evoke their elegance and trigger memories of our favorite place.