What’s on your dining room table? Mine is cluttered with papers, a laptop, a stack of CDs, my daughter’s book report, and my grandmother’s crystal fruit bowl. I’ve seen friends’ tables used for fabric swatches, sorting laundry, and jigsaw puzzles. The separate dining room, dominated by the long plain of an infrequently used formal table, is clearly an inefficient use of space. For decades, it’s been predicted that dining rooms will go the way of the coal cellar. Yet dining rooms won’t die.
“In upscale new homes, dining rooms are here to stay,” confirms Stephen J. Melman of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C., which represents the builders of 80 percent of new homes in the U.S. The group surveyed members in 2006 and found, Melman says: “If any room is an endangered species, it would be the distinct living room,” not the dining room. “Home buyers seek to create a lifestyle,” he says, “and when that requires entertaining, all the rooms are necessary—foyer, large kitchen with island, dining room, and at least a parlor/living room.” When affordability is paramount, the living room is sacrificed, and the dining room is downsized and partially open to the kitchen.”
Realtor Barbara Breton of Palmer, Massachusetts, agrees. “I’ve never had a client ask for a house without a dining room,” she says. “I’ve found that people always want bigger dining rooms.”
One of the country’s biggest dining rooms is at its most famous estate, Mount Vernon. George Washington’s dining room, completed in 1788, is the largest room in the house, ascending two stories, with two sideboards, a Palladian window, twenty-four dining chairs, and an elaborate set of French porcelain.
But the wealthy and stylish Washingtons were ahead of their time and had an unusually public life. (They fed 650 guests the year after George retired from the presidency.) Rooms intended solely for dining weren’t common in most homes until the mid-nineteenth century, says Cindy Lobel, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College in New York. “The separate dining room is a relatively new phenomenon,” she says. In the eighteenth century and into the early part of the nineteenth,” she explains, “even elite homemakers used their dining rooms for sitting, visiting, and sleeping.”
According to Lobel, several factors gave rise to the typical room we know today. Mechanized furniture manufacturing allowed middle class Americans to afford dining room furniture; improved transportation meant that people could also afford a greater variety of food; and new kitchens gadgets and appliances led to the preparation of more complex dishes, which they ate with new mass-produced silver plate.
The dining room became “a status thing,” in Victorian days, says Lobel. It was the place where you could, “show off your wealth and social standing through your house.”
And that hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, Nilou Navab, an interior designer in West Hartford, Connecticut, sees that rather than disappearing, dining rooms are becoming more elaborate than ever. Today’s fashionable dining rooms have wainscoting, chair rails, tray ceilings, and built-in cabinetry. Her clients are asking for more drapery and fancier chandeliers. “People are going all the way with their dining rooms,” she says. “They’re looking for something chic, very classy.”
I don’t care a lot about chic and classy; nevertheless, I’m enmeshed in the dining room status cycle. My house has a dining room, so I bought a dining set (table, chairs, sideboard, china cabinet) to fill it up. If I moved, I’d want a house with a dining room so that I’d have space for this costly stuff. Dining rooms, like Nana’s crystal fruit bowl, aren’t disappearing any time soon.