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The Great Room: A Throwback to Medieval Times Finds Its Way in the Modern Age

The Great Room: A Throwback to Medieval Times Finds Its Way in the Modern Age


What exactly is a Great Room?


During my stint at a PR agency in New York City, our office had a “Great Room” – a huge multi-purpose space with high ceilings that was used for client meetings and social events.  The room opened onto a wrap-around terrace - a perfect spot for gatherings and parties in the late fall, spring and summer.


That Great Room – although in an office – served some of the basic purposes of the one in a home: casual entertaining, dining and relaxation with family and friends.


   Great room of charming country home (163-1020)  Great room looking up at balcony 163-1020) 

Two views of the great room of this two-story four bedroom mountain home illustrate the high ceilings and free-flowing space with the living room, dining area, and kitchen island/breakfast nook.


By definition, a Great Room is a centrally located space in a home that combines the functions of the living, family and dining rooms. As the kitchen increasingly became the hub of social activities, the walls separating it from the dining and living rooms were dismantled.  Tearing down the walls created an open floor space – warm, inviting, and comfortable - that metamorphosed into the great room.


Features of the Great Room

Most images of Great Rooms depict an open space that combines two or more rooms – usually, the living and dining room; or the triangle of living/dining rooms and kitchen.

Other features include:


-- High ceilings with exposed beams– the tall ceiling adds to the spatial dimensions of the room


-- Chandeliers, lights on a ceiling fan, light fixtures suspended from the ceiling, track lights in some modern Great Rooms


-- Lots of windows to allow natural light


-- A fireplace adds to the atmosphere of warmth and comfort


Great room with vaulted ceilings (house plan 134-1327).  Great room with exposed beams.       

A Great Room with vaulted ceilings (plan #134-1327). On the right are several views of a great room with a fireplace and lots of windows that provide plenty of light.



A Look Back at the First Great Rooms


The idea of a Great Room may be traced to the Great Hall in medieval castles. The tallest room in the castle, the Great Hall was supported by arches, warmed by several fireplaces and lit by torches. It was the center of activity: the place for meals, entertainment, dancing, celebrations such as holiday feasts and weddings. It was also the room where the lord of the manor received visiting royalty and conducted his business meetings.


In the U.S., the inspiration for the Great Room may have been the multi-purpose room featured in the house plans designed by architect Joseph Eichler. During the 1950s, Eichler started building suburban ranch homes in Northern California with open floor plans, large floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed ceiling beams, and a multi-purpose room.


By the ‘70s and ‘80s, architects were designing and constructing huge homes with matching Great Rooms. The trend continued through the 1990s, especially at the height of the economic boom when homeowners were looking to build mansions and estates.


A typical Eichler house plan with an open floor space – showing one huge room combining the living and dining room. The floor-to-ceiling windows “invite the outside in” with a wonderful view of the courtyard – and easy access to it.


The Great Room Evolves


By mid-2000, the demand for homes with Great Rooms began to decline. In fact, an article in The Wall Street Journal (May 23, 2008) noted that people who initially loved their Great Room were experiencing a change of heart. Several homeowners who had the two-story rooms were looking for ways to fill in the top space… and some of them actually built lofts, office space, and extra bedrooms.  

The Great Room may not be as popular or as grand as it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. However, its original concept of a free-flowing open space in a home – no matter how large or small - where a family gathers in comfort and ease remains a significant part of the American lifestyle.  The high ceilings and ornate light fixtures may be gone – but the room is still around.


Great room space with open floor plan to dining and kitchen (house plan #126-1287)   Modern Prairie style home with great room and open floor plan (153-1808)   

Free-flowing open floor plans define these two Great Rooms. With these plans, family and friends can navigate from room to room with ease.  On the left: plan #126-1287; and on the right: plan #153-1808



So, take heart! You can design your Great Room as simply or as impressively as you wish. Just remember to make it cozy, homey, comfortable, warm, and welcoming. 


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