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.