Doors of Door County

The most famous Door County door, Death’s Door – the waters between the tip of the Door Peninsula and the rocky shores of Washington Island – is a rough place. History books are filled with stories of shipwrecks, missing vessels and lost lives in this passage, the only way to navigate between the Bay of Green Bay and the waters of Lake Michigan until the canal was cut through in Sturgeon Bay in 1881. The danger of the passage was so notable that it defined the region, which eventually was dubbed “Door County”– a warning more than a welcome.

Sarah Doneff

Photo by Sarah Doneff.

Doors, whether welcoming or prohibitive, have always evoked a sense of wonder that’s fascinated writers, philosophers, lyricists and poets. Doors often represent the portal between reality and imagination (think Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) – on one side the concerns of the outer world and, on the other, an entrance into one’s inner world or one’s fantasies.

In the Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, a door is considered the “mouth of chi,” where vital energy enters and exits, where friends, money and opportunities flow. Many make this correlation with our Door, where folks often come to escape the stresses of daily life and to be revitalized.

Door County artist Nan Helscher, who designed and built her Fish Creek straw bale home, dedicated extensive time and energy to her front door. It’s a true work of art, reflecting both the natural and artistic elements of the peninsula. Eight feet tall, this impressive, custom-made entry depicts an elegant, stylized tree, comprised of rainwater glass, birdseye maple and mahogany, and made functional with heavy stainless steel hinges.

“I wanted the front door to reflect the personality of the house, so that right from the start people would know what this house is about,” said Helscher. “The door is the first thing you see, and it has the power to make people feel closed out or welcomed in. I wanted my door to feel welcoming, and I think we were successful in creating just that.”

Sarah Doneff

Photo by Sarah Doneff.

By “we,” Helscher is referring to local artisan and craftsman Joel Thomas of The Studio Door County, with whom she collaborated.

“It was a really satisfying project,” said Thomas. “Initially, Nan wanted the tree to be made of wood and the surround made of glass, but we ended up swapping the materials. The rainwater glass mimics the bark of a real tree, and allows light to penetrate while the texture offers privacy. It’s one of the most unique doors I’ve seen.”

“With so many choices for ready-made doors,” he adds, “people often don’t consider having one custom built, but it can make all the difference in both the look and feel of the home.”

Businesses, too, benefit from well-designed entryways. On the West Side of Sturgeon Bay, at the corner of South Madison Avenue and Oak Street, sits the circa 1900s first branch of the Bank of Sturgeon Bay. Angled to the street, the entryway features a set of eight-foot-tall double entry doors, the first set copper clad and the second set made of handcrafted, rich mahogany. While Helscher’s door welcomed people in, these doors serve as both a welcome and an assurance, an entry into a solid realm where money could be safely deposited. This painstakingly restored building with high tin ceilings and original marble is now home to Spin, an upscale yarn shop.

“Before I bought this building,” said Spin owner Terry Smith-Kletzien. “I’d admired it for 20 years, and the doors were a big part of the attraction; this jewel of a building was just rotting away and I had to do something. I put an offer in the day it hit the market. The whole building is amazing.”

Sarah Doneff

Photo by Sarah Doneff.

Once inside, there’s an even better surprise, a truly one-of-a kind door. Tucked in the corner of the building, now stocked with gorgeous yarn, is one of Door County’s first safes, built by American Bankers Safety Company and complete with an exposed look at gears, gadgets and operating mechanisms. You want to talk about doors? Now this is a door. Stop in and take a look.

Keeping an unusual door which no longer serves its original purpose, as Smith-Kletzien did, is a stylistic choice that can add architectural interest. Or, finding a door in one place and bringing it to a new location can add an element of the unexpected. For many homeowners, moving a door from a childhood home or a favorite summer cottage brings an element of the familiar to a new place and makes it distinctly their own.

“You might not be able to move your grandmother’s house,” says designer Mitch Wise of Mitch Wise Design, “but if you can bring a door, you bring a memory.”

Wise remembers doors that he admired as a child. They once flanked the showroom at the Green Bay Broadway Chevrolet Garage. Thirty years later, when refurbishing his 1920s Door County home, he was lucky enough to purchase the doors via a salvage yard and use them to turn his single-car attached garage into a multi-purpose room:  a usable winter garage and an open-air summer porch.

Sarah Doneff

Photo by Sarah Doneff.

“I was thrilled to get my hands on these doors,” he says. “Even after all these years, they are solid. Their dings and worn areas add character and texture. I like that they came with a story.”

According to Mark Struck, custom homebuilder, the front door is one of the most critical elements of a house.

“It’s important to work with homeowners to create an entryway that’s personal. Approaching a home for the first time is like meeting someone new,” Struck said. “The front door provides an inkling of what’s inside. If you like what’s there, you’ll want to return.”

The same can be said for Door County. No longer known for churning waters and dangerous passages, nowadays our doors welcome you into coffee shops, farm markets, art galleries, theaters and homes – doors you want to return to again and again.