The mystery of the disappearing pocket doors

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings, Old House Construction, Obsolete Design Elements

How many times have you wished for a way to close off larger rooms in your home that don't get much use? Whether it's to cut down heating costs or to keep pets from jumping on the furniture, wouldn't it be nice to simply shut a door? Bedroom and bathroom doors can be closed easily enough, but there aren't too many options for larger openings.

It hasn't always been that way -- there was a time when many houses had doors that could close off living and dining rooms and even parlors. Pocket doors were a popular architectural detail during the late 1800s and early 1900s -- it wasn't unusual for a house to have several sets. Unfortunately, they seem to have gone the way of root cellars and out-houses; the unique doors aren't found in too many modern homes.

double pocket doors

Pocket doors were a popular fixture in old houses

Pocket doors: a marvel of old house engineering

My first experience with pocket doors was the set in the old house my parents purchased in rural Virginia many years ago. I hadn't seen anything like them, but they seemed to make perfect sense. They were doors that could be used to close off the five foot opening into the living room, but disappeared into the walls when my mother wanted them open.

My parents' home had an antiquated heating system at the time, so the doors could be shut to keep the living room warm and cozy. When the doors were open, the panels were completely hidden and took up no wall space at all. The doors' track system appeared to be fairly simple -- almost the same as that found on many barn doors.

Installing pocket doors: a lost art?

So what happened to pocket doors? Why have they all but disappeared from modern homes? I've seen many beautiful custom houses with double doors leading into studies where the open door panels seemed awkward and out of place. In almost every case a set of pocket doors might have been ideal.

During my time in construction and remodeling, I heard many theories as to what caused the doors' demise: wall thickness requirements and a lack of hardware were often mentioned. However, the prevailing thought was that the doors required constant adjustment and created too many warranty problems.

As someone who spent countless hours attempting to make bypass and bi-fold doors work correctly -- door types that are found in just about every house today -- I didn't put a whole lot of faith in that theory.

I may have stumbled upon the real answer when I included pocket doors in some customizations I was doing. The first clue should have been when the trim carpenters looked at the doors and hardware as if they were seeing something for the first time -- which unfortunately they were.

We ended up tearing out the pocket doors as they never did work right. A pre-hung French double door was put into the opening instead. Installing pocket doors may just be a lost art and a part of architectural history. The units in my parents' old house still work great and to my knowledge have never needed adjustment.

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  1. 4 Responses  to “The mystery of the disappearing pocket doors”

  2. AJ Schmitz
    Apr 5, 2013
    I finished the lower lever in a ranch style house during the mid 1980's in Sun Prairie, Wiscosnin. The hall at the bottom of the stairs would not allow a conventional door to be installed as an entry to the laundry room. I installed a pocket door which worked out well. When visitors went to our lower level entertainment area, we simply closed the pocket door for added privacy. I researched old carpentry books regarding installation and the pocket door installation kit had all components and plans. Worked great for my project.
  3. AJ Schmitz
    Apr 5, 2013
    My wife and I built a new single story w/walk out lower level in 2000. I modified the floor plan from the garage entry, so we would have a half bath and a laundry to the right of the garage entry. We wanted a door to the half-bath and laundry area to separate the hallway from these areas. In our case, a pocket door was installed to the half-bath and laundry. There was no room to swing either door if a conventional door were considered. These work great.
  4. Nov 29, 2012
    We live in a 1902 Queen Anne home, which we purchased in 1989. There was a set of pocket doors leading from the front sitting room into the dining room. We later uncovered a second set leading from the dining room into the entry foyer. Both sets still work great with no adjustments made by us. Love these doors!
  5. Laura Dumovich
    Nov 29, 2012
    WOW, I just had some one finish a remodeling job my husband started 26 years ago. He passed away three years ago. So I call a designer in my are Wisconsin sheboygan. And they put in a pocket door. I just love how the room. I have a hall way and a bathroom that are separate from each other.I grew up in this house and the hall bathroom had a door on each end. i found out from my Dad just this year that was so the bathroom could be used by the people living upstairs as well as downstairs. The pocket door was the answer to that.