The Early 20th Century Sun Parlor

Early twentieth-century sunrooms tended to be vernacular creations, reflecting local craftsman traditions rather than formal architectural designs. In 1916, Julia Wolfe of the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse took it upon herself to design a sun parlor without employing a professional architect. F.E. Palmer, in Milady’s House Plants: The Complete Instructor and Guide to Success with Flowers and Plants in the Home, including a Remarkable Chapter on the Ideal Sun Parlor (1917), remarked on this lack of formal designs for sunrooms:

It seems at first sight a simple proposition that anyone desirous of building into, or onto, his house a small, practical plant room, could easily do so. All the elements are readily available the willingness to pay, easy access to the fundamental requirements in design and necessary materials, yet to obtain the sympathetic co-operation of an intelligent architect seems almost an impossibility. One would almost think, judging from the stubbornness of architects in this respect, that there is a natural antagonism between their art and that of horticulture; or is it failure on their part to recognize the growing importance of the latter in the domestic life of the nation?

The availability of piecemeal parts in mail-order catalogs allowed homeowners the opportunity to create a customized sunroom. The 1921 Morgan Woodworking Organization’s Building with Assurance catalog noted that new woodwork patterns could be arranged in variety of combinations and adapted to fit any style or size. In light of the add-on and piecemeal nature of sunrooms, home design guides emphasized the importance of harmonizing the sunroom space with the rest of the building.

F.E. Palmer set forth an entire chapter on the components of the ideal sun parlor. As specified by Palmer, a sun parlor should consist of walls with three to four feet tall main windows and one and a half to two feet tall transom windows for proper ventilation. To protect against cold weather, the entire structure needed to be insulated with storm windows to achieve a double-glazed effect. Palmer noted that this

makes an absolutely frost-proof double wall of glass and saves its first cost in economy of fuel in an incredibly short time; it allows the plants to grow close up the glass, even to touching it without chilling them, and the glass is always clear, never being covered by frost even in coldest weather.

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Diagram of Interior of a Sun Parlor or Conservatory,
Palmer, F.E. Milady’s House Plants (1917).

Sunlight and wind exposure also dictated where to attach the sun parlor. It was recommended that the addition be located on the “south, east or west side of the house” and “project from the house so as to have three of its sides exposed to the light and air.”

Historic house museums are physical buildings in which architecture and spatial relationships reveal social and cultural meanings. Sun parlors, as their name suggests, were social gathering spaces that merged the outdoors with the indoors. Paired with sash windows to maximize sunlight, the presence of plants in the sunroom fostered an outdoors, health-inducing atmosphere. Sunrooms, although architecturally similar to sleeping porches, were not linked to sickness and disease; thus, the sunroom existed as a sanitized version of the sleeping porch.

At Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the sun parlor addition is attached beneath a sleeping porch on the south-facing side of the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse. The layout of the sun parlor follows closely those specified by F.E. Palmer’s 1917 guide to the ideal space. Comprised of the three walls of glass windows, the sunroom features both a doorway into the main house as well as a side entrance to the veranda. These two entrances enabled “easy access to the out of doors so that plants, etc., may be handled without disturbing the rest of the house; also for complete shutting off from the rest of the house when necessary for purposes of fumigation.”

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Sun Parlor, Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville, NC,
Photograph by Author.

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Sun Parlor, Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville, NC,
Photograph by Author.

The décor of the early twentieth-century sunroom focused on foliage and flowering plants and maneuverable furnishings. Household plants, aided by abundant sunlight and fresh air, were a staple of the sunroom and reflected a therapeutic effort to bring the outdoors into the home. Homeowners often opted for light, wicker furniture pieces, such as those illustrated in the 1921 Building with Assurance catalog, which could be easily moved by themselves and/or domestic servants for cleaning purposes. Boardinghouse proprietress Julia Wolfe outfitted her sun parlor with caster furniture so the space could be cleaned with ease. The caster furniture found throughout the house served a two-fold purpose: ease of cleaning and rearranging to accommodate boarders. The furnishings of the Old Kentucky Home’s sun parlor tell a great deal about health and sanitation ideals of the time.

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Sun Porch M-398, Morgan Woodworking Organization,
Building with Assurance (1921).

Sources:

Homes and Interiors of the 1920s, a Restoration Design Guide. Originally published as Building with Assurance, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: Morgan, 1921.

Palmer, F.E. Milady’s House Plants: The Complete Instructor and Guide to Success with Flowers and Plants in the Home, including a Remarkable Chapter on the Ideal Sun Parlor. New York: A.T. Delamare Company, Inc., 1917.

Saxton, Glenn L. The Plan Book of American Dwellings: Moderately Priced Bungalows, Cottages, Residences. Minneapolis, MN: Glenn L. Saxton, 1914.