Doors Open & Open House: 2 Incredible City Wide Celebrations of Architecture & History

This is Part II in a 3 part Series

Part I On Milwaukee’s 2016 Doors Open Festival is here

What follows is a brief historical overview of 2 parallel programs…Doors Open & Open House. In the Introduction I’ll touch upon the key characteristics of both programs and identify their common aspects. The remainder of this post will discuss how they’ve gone on to become phenomenally engaging weekend events. How, despite their humble beginnings, both have emerged from Western Europe and branched out to the far reaches of our globe. And the most important, what the overall impact has been since their inception.

Toronto's Skyline 466 KB

Above:  Toronto’s CN Tower


September marks the beginning of the fall season for a relatively new and uniquely fun worldwide opportunity for anyone who loves art and architecture, design and history, and learning about how manufacturers and businesses operate. You could call it an insider’s look at a few unusually progressive cities. My guess is that the cities that have embraced and nurtured opening their doors may actually surprise you too. But first, what exactly is meant by ‘opening doors?’

Below:  Chicago’s Wrigley Building

Chicago Wrigley Building

The easiest way for me to explain it is this. If you’re the kind of person who’s always been intrigued by places you’re not allowed to enter, or by secret spaces or the inner workings of different kinds of entities, then you’ll embrace this concept. Places that you normally wouldn’t be allowed to enter will welcome you during this 2 day event. It’s the kind of experience that truly has something for everyone. Early on in the programs’ infancies in Europe their intent, at least in part, was to demystify the architectural world. Over time however, both programs have grown so much that their most common aspects today may be primarily limited to their original principles which are outlined below:

Key Principles Behind Opening Door Events

  1. Business and building owners open their otherwise locked doors to the general public
  2. Anyone and everyone who’s interested is invited and family attendance is encouraged
  3. The events usually last for just one weekend. In the United States these tend to be in either the spring or fall.
  4. The event is always free!

Me on the Roof of Milwaukee City Hall


Above:  Me on the Roof of the Milwaukee City Hall Doors Open 2013

Both programs operate the same way. Local Doors Open and Open House sponsors select sites that are unique to their community in one of several ways. It’s actually this selection process which renders the individualism that defines each city’s event. Although each city defines their own criteria, in general the selection criteria include:

Selection Process & Critera for Sites

  • Buildings that hold historical significance.
  • Buildings with unique architecture due either to their age or their innovativeness.
  • Buildings that are beautiful either architecturally or they house unique artistic details or art collections.
  • Buildings with amazing interiors or landscapes.
  • Buildings with an ambiance which, while not necessarily beautiful per se, are aesthetically interesting
  • Buildings which house companies that make unusual products or provide interesting services or that use unusual processes in their fabrication.
  • Buildings which house companies that provide really unusual products or services…ones that aren’t usually accessible to the public or that are expressly prohibited normally.
  • Government operated buildings and facilities
  • Many times historical churches, schools, museums and art galleries are included
  • Brand new buildings with groundbreaking or innovative designs and sometimes even ones that are still being built!

So, for 2 consecutive days in either the spring or the fall, the public is invited en masse to see the sites that were selected for that year. Those who attend are treated to tours with a broad range of subject matter. Some take the form of demonstrations about inner workings, some may be introductions to ingenious architecture or design, oftentimes including information about how these were achieved. Some may just provide knowledgeable volunteers who are strategically positioned to answer the questions of attendees on self guided tours. All in all though, many people will come just to soak up the enthusiastic camaraderie that these events seem to invoke and the ambiance of literally thousands of fascinating building’s and exteriors.

London Trafalgar Square

Early History of Events

As I previously mentioned, the framework for these singularly popular events can be directly traced back to 2 distinct sources which occurred at almost the same moment in history. Most people believe that the movement began with the first Open House held in London in 1992. 24 years later the program’s grown to include 34 cities that host Open House programs annually as well as another 36 cities hosting the almost identical program known as Doors Open. This early history is a somewhat tangled tale which I’ll attempt to unravel and explain here.

How Open House Began

The main Open House program is loosely overseen by the Open House Worldwide organization. More recently they became affiliated with another grass roots operation which branched off of Open House, known as Open-City. As I mentioned above, this first Open House was hosted in London, but what I didn’t mention was that it grew up and evolved mainly through the efforts of one person, the founder of Open House, Victoria Thornton. Victoria believed that London’s architectural circles were closed off and alienated from the general public. That their somewhat mysterious inner workings were something that should be understood by people. She felt that the architectural community could benefit greatly from showcasing their talents to a general public she believed was inquisitive and receptive.

Ultimately, her idea was so phenomenally successful that Rory Olcayto, who was called by the UK’s Architect’s Journal ‘the world’s foremost architect’ stated that “Open-City is the biggest success story to emerge from British architectural culture in living memory” in their 2015 journal news article. In that same article Rory also states that ‘Open London’ is like a consensual dream made real, for thousands and thousands of city-dwellers, who for one weekend every year are free to wander in and out of buildings across London, that are usually (though not always) off-limits.


How Doors Open Began

Identifying the roots of the second program isn’t quite as ‘cut and dried’ as the circumstances were for Open House. It is known as ‘Doors Open,’ and it appears to have grown out of the 1st Doors Open event held in Glasgow in 1990. But many French people believe that they were really the first via their La Journee Portes Quovertes in 1984.

To confuse matters even more, Doors Open is also believed to have originated out of a Council of Europe initiative originally known as European Heritage Days in 1991. The European Heritage Days website states this:

The European Heritage Days originated in Granada (Spain) on 3 October 1985, during the 2nd Council of Europe Conference of European Ministers responsible for Architectural Heritage. On this occasion, the French Minister of Culture suggested extending to a European level the “Monuments’ Open Doors” initiative launched in France in 1984. Several European countries, such as The Netherlands, Luxemburg, Malta, Belgium, the United Kingdom (Scotland) and Sweden soon set up similar events.”

Regardless of the true origins of Doors Opens Glasgow is still recognized as the 1st official ‘Doors Open’ site. But unlike London’s Open House Concept, Doors Open took off immediately with more participating countries in its early days. So in 10 years time the number of countries which hosted ‘Doors Open’ grew from 10 initially to 47…and the number of visiter’s reached the 20 million mark in 2000.

Despite the somewhat murky attributions for the early Doors Open contingent, everyone agrees that in North America, Toronto was the first city to open their doors to the public 17 years ago, in the year 2000. Today Toronto still holds their event on the 4th weekend in May. Their 2016 event included 130 buildings.

Toy-ronto Origami

One year after Toronto’s inaugural event, Lowell MA hosted the first ever American ‘Doors Open’ in 2001. Why Lowell, you might be asking? Because, as Lowell’s website states, “Lowell was the first large-scale planned and successful industrial city in America, using the power of the rivers in their area, textile mills and canals help put Lowell on the map in the 1820’s. Today the city thrives as a cultural center, that is home to various museums, colleges, minor league sports franchises and of course the Lowell National Historical Park.”

The next American city to join the scene was New York City which hosted their own 1st event in 2003. New York’s event was an ‘Open House,’…it was the first Open House event to be hosted in the United States. Immediately following 911 on September 11, 2001 the idea was introduced to NYC by founder Scott Lauer who had been involved in London as a volunteer. It took a few years to launch the inaugural event because of the unique circumstances facing NYC at that time. In retrospect, those circumstances may have also contributed to Open House’s early success in the USA…NYC needed it in a way no other city could.

While the main thrust of all activities were aimed at protecting NY’s citizens and infrastructure, their overall effect was both isolating and restrictive. Open House, by it’s very nature, is the exact opposite. Once the massive work to renew the city’s physical and psychological spirit in a broad array of aspects following 911 was well underway, the inaugural Open House finally took place in 2003.

Denver city skyline

Denver City Skyline

Mid-History to Current Time

United States

The next American city to join the ‘Open Doors’ ranks was Denver, CO. Their first event was held in 2004. While Denver’s event has struggled a bit since the city removed themselves as their main support a few years back, it’s also diversified under their new guiding foundation…The Denver Architectural Foundation. DAF also hosts a really interesting twist on the Open Doors idea…they call it ‘Open Doors Hard Hat Tours.’ ODHHT gives people the chance to visit a building as its being constructed. One recent tour was of 1401 Lawrence Street, which is described as the ‘new front door for the city’ and was both designed and built by Beck.

It wasn’t until 2011 that Milwaukee, WI came on board with what perhaps has grown into one of the most consistently successful venues for ‘Doors Open’ in the United States. Milwaukee’s idea was originally spark plugged by a retired public librarian, George Wagner after he visited similar events in Toronto and Denver. That first event was widely successful and included 100 buildings. In 2016 that number has risen to 165 sites with over 25,000 people expected to attend. This marks Milwaukee as the 3rd largest Doors Open venue in the U.S.

Chicago River

Chicago’s Iconic River

2011 also welcomed Chicago to the scene with their inaugural ‘Open House’ event which included 120 sites. and 50,000 to 75,000 visitors. One reason Chicago began their annual Open House events so late (relatively speaking) was because the city originally had hosted a somewhat similar type event called ‘Great Chicago Places and Spaces‘ for many years. The city discontinued the much smaller ‘Places and Spaces’ program in 2009 because of budget reasons. By 2015, Chicago’s ‘Open House’ had grown to include 250 building sites, but in 2016 that’s been scaled back somewhat to 200. Despite to reduction in number of sites Chicago retains their # 2 position as the 2nd largest event venue in the U.S.

Lowell, MA has had the longest run of all the Doors Open cities in the United States. They celebrated their 15th annual event on Thursday May 12, 2016 through Saturday May 14, 2016. I was surprised to discover there’s a much newer oarticipant in my own backyard…Madison, Wi held their inaugural Doors Open event in April 2016. They opened 29 sites including several at the University of Wisconsin. Jamestown NY and Baltimore, MD celebrated their 1st Doors Open events in January and October. Jamestown’s 1st Doors Open was small with just 14 sites but distinguished itself by hosting the most sites named after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez.  Baltimore will open 52 sites this year on October 22nd. Like Madison, Pittsburgh, PA will celebrate their first event in 2016…on Oct. 1-2 with 40 sites in the inaugural repertoire. One cool thing about Pittsburgh’s celebration is that it coincides with the city’s Bicentennial.


2017 will celebrate Ottawa’s 16th consecutive year of operating Doors Open. Ottawa’s event remains the 2nd largest Doors Open in North America, while Toronto continues to hold onto 1st place in terms of visitors and building sites. In 2016 they opened 132 sites and have altogether had visitors of over 920,000. Also, in 2016 Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary which will mark a very special year for the Doors Open event for Canada’s capital city.

All Open House Sites World Wide

Open House Worldwide’s website has links to all 28 Open House venues around the world.

What Makes These Events So Popular?

For many people it’s the idea that under any other circumstances these buildings would be inaccessible to them. A common theme repeated in news story after news story is that people are interested in seeing and knowing about things which are considered off limits to them. That, coupled with the idea that it feels like something you’d do while on vacation, gives the whole concept wide appeal.

Of course the fact that everything is free is a significant factor too. But beyond the buildings just being open, the cities that host these events have all jumped in to make as many experiences as possible really unique and interesting. Volunteers are trained to provide interesting background information at each site. And the sponsoring organizations work throughout the year to assemble not only an interesting combination of sites but great literature that explains each one’s significance.

The events usually last for 2 days, and site owners are encouraged to keep as many sites as possible open for that entire duration. This flexibility allows people to just show up on either day and visit the places they are most interested in that year.

Differences Between Doors Open & Open House Programs

There are a few minor differences in the way that ‘Open House’ administers their program from that of ‘Doors Open’. One key difference is that the Doors Open events focus only on buildings (which are usually of historical significance) and businesses (which usually have unique products, services, or manufacturing processes.) While ‘Open House’ events also include private residences…oftentimes many of them. This explains why, in general, there’s a significantly greater number of building sites for most of the ‘Open House’ events. Another key difference is that Open House cities are offered support and resources by Open House Worldwide…the organization that oversees things around the globe…which also happens to be the same one that grew out of Victoria Thorntons initial stroke of genius. Doors Open lacks the organizational backing that Open House venues receive.

A few other differences I noted while gathering information for this post involve the way and where each organization has grown up. Remember that London’s first event fell under the Open House umbrella. It seems somewhat unlikely to me then that the closest events to London are all Doors Open events…including Manchester’s, Wales’ Glasgow’s and Scotland’s. But all the Austrailian events fall under the Open House umbrella too. All Canadian events are Doors Open events, but the United States has a mixture of both.

Milwaukee sign on a rooftop

Oddest to me is that Milwaukee’s and Madison’s events are both Doors Open, but Chicago’s, which is also geographically very close is an Open House. Maybe Chicago felt they needed to become an Open House city because their arch rival New York was too? Virtually every US event is a Doors Open venue except New York and Chicago. But not for long! In 2017 San Diego, CA and Atlanta, GA will host their own 1st events and both will fall under the Open House umbrella too!

One last interesting distinction revealed itself as I was pondering Chicago’s choice…Wisconsin and New York are the only states in the USA to currently be host to 2 of these city-wide celebrations…but in New York there’s one of each…an Open House and a Doors Open whereas in Wisconsin both Milwaukee and Madison host Doors Open events.

If you’d like access to more resources and links for all many of the events mentioned here, you can use this link (when it’s done!) to visit Part III…the final part of this series.

Please Feel Free to Leave Any Comments Below

…(especially off you learn of an event which is mentioned here or in the 3rd part.)


About vsajewel

Hi...I'm the author of 2 main blogs on WordPress...vsatips...where I write tech tips for mobile devices...primarily ios...2nd is vsatrends...where I write less about tech things and more about everything else. I also host a YouTube channel which I use to better illustrate some of the 'how to's' in my posts. I love everything about technology. Currently, my main interests/platforms are ios, Windows and Amazon Echo. Recently I decided we were spending way too much money with our local cable provider. So I decided to cut the cord. There is a definite learning curve, especially the antennae part, but we successfully did that and are now saving a boatload of money, so I write some about that. I also am extremely conscientious about security because of an event my family endured , so I write a lot about that too. Two sub-categories of security I tend to focus on are the password manager Dashlane and Hardware Firewalls. Last, I take a lot of notes and have been a beta tester for Evernote for many years. I love Evernote! In recent years Apple has beefed up Apple Notes a it’s become a fairly serious note long as its OK if you lose or mess up all your Apple note data. I write about those 2 note platforms primarily.
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