A keeping room. Sounds kind of creepy, right? Actually, a keeping room, or “hearth room,” is a centuries-old trend that seems like it could have been designed for modern life.
The broad definition of a keeping room is “a common room (as in a colonial house) usually used for multiple purposes,” and the first one appeared in 1771. In colonial times, houses usually had a fireplace or wood-burning stove in the kitchen that heated the entire house; the keeping room was built onto the kitchen, and the family would sleep there during the winter months to be closer to the heat source.
Nowadays, with central heating, the keeping room has evolved into an additional common area in a house, usually adjacent to the kitchen. It is also sometimes referred to as a “flex room” or a “free room” by modern homebuilders. Here’s what you need to know about keeping rooms, including what adding one to your home might look like for you.
The history of the keeping room
Ever noticed how at parties, everyone always congregates in the kitchen? Keeping rooms are a response to that dilemma. In the 18th century, cooking outside over an open fire was common, and families would sit and wait for the cook in a separate building from the house. After evolving into a single-building structure, keeping rooms were often used for sleeping during the winter in colonial times.
They have developed over the years into rooms where people can gather to keep the cook company, but stay out from underfoot in the kitchen. Popularized in 18th-century colonial architecture, today you’ll see them in some new construction builds as well as in historic homes in the South.
What makes a keeping room, a keeping room?
There are several criteria a room must meet in order to be considered a keeping room and not just an additional common room.
First, the room must be adjacent to the kitchen. Size doesn’t matter — a keeping room could seat a couple of people or many people.
Keeping rooms are also called hearth rooms because there is typically a fireplace as the focal point, a carryover from the original use of the room. There’s also usually seating, such as sofas or comfortable chairs, for guests to perch on while keeping the cook company.
In colonial times, when the room wasn’t used for keeping warm at night, people would often sew, read, or prep food; today, you can set up board games, a television, video games, or other fun distractions.
“A keeping room here in the South is a room near the kitchen — sometimes we call them sitting rooms or eat-in kitchens — where typically there’s comfortable furniture for people to hang out while someone is cooking in the kitchen,” explains Baton Rouge real estate agent Meagan Cotten.
Old-school idea, modern layout
While the idea of a keeping room is somewhat old-fashioned, builders today are giving the room a modern twist. Below is a sample floorplan from Walker Homes in Virginia.
Here’s another floorplan from Murray Custom Homes in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Here’s a third example of a keeping room, referred to as a “flex room” by Schumacher Homes in Canton, Ohio:
With the overwhelming popularity of open floor plans, keeping rooms are having a moment in modern architecture. The wall between the kitchen and the rest of the house is being knocked down in a lot of homes, so people cooking in the kitchen aren’t isolated from the rest of the family.
A keeping room gives the people keeping company a comfy place to relax while they socialize with whoever is in the kitchen. “It doesn’t require a ton of space, so it can be small and cozy as a kind of combination living room and kitchen,” notes Cotten.
The kitchen is considered by many to be the “heart” of the home, which is why guests often hang out there at parties (after all, it’s usually where the food is, right?). A keeping room provides a nice place for your guests to sit while you’re prepping, cooking, or cleaning, so they don’t end up perched on your countertops or standing around. Even if people aren’t keeping you company while you’re cooking, there are often 5- to 10-minute spans of time where you need to be close to what you’re cooking. With a keeping room, you have a nice place to chill while you wait, without being too far away to keep an eye on your dishes.
Keeping rooms are also a great alternative to a kitchen island or a bar peninsula with stools, which are often uncomfortable. And for day to day, if you don’t allow eating in the family room, the keeping room can be a comfortable place to snack instead of sitting at the table.
Modern keeping rooms come in all shapes and sizes — some are large enough to accommodate lots of people, and others are more like small nooks with a cushioned bench. And because woodburning stoves aren’t used to heat houses anymore, in the larger iterations of these rooms, many people choose to put in a fireplace to keep the cozy feel. They’re usually decorated in a cozy manner, with warm, rich colors and comfortable furniture and fabrics. Built-ins are also a popular choice for many keeping rooms, allowing storage for board games, books, and other miscellaneous items.
In houses that only have a formal living room and no sitting room or den, a keeping room can fill that void, serving as a multipurpose room for the family while keeping the living room reserved for entertaining guests. Smaller keeping rooms can serve as excellent reading nooks while the kitchen is not being used.
Over the years, many homebuyers converted keeping rooms into office space, so finding a home with a keeping room left intact can be a special treat. “If we’re going to list a house and there’s a keeping room, that’s usually the buyer’s favorite trait of the house,” says Cotten.
“They usually say, ‘This is why we love this house. This is the heartbeat of the house.’”
While 18th-century keeping rooms were designed with a very specific purpose in mind, modern keeping rooms are open to interpretation! Lots of people choose to keep with the classic idea of a cozy sitting area off the kitchen, but others are going a bit more off the wall.
A keeping room can be a great place to put your good china on display, if you have built-ins made for that purpose or a nice baker’s rack that will fit. Some use it as a crafting room for knitting, sewing, scrapbooking, and so on. It can be used as a mini-library, with bookshelves or built-ins for books and knick-knacks. A game room is another way homeowners set up modern keeping rooms, with a small table and storage space.
Keeping rooms can increase your home’s value, in addition to providing a comfortable and versatile space for your family and guests to hang out in. Sometimes the addition of a keeping room will add square footage; other times, it just serves as an added bonus to an already lovely home. If you’re not looking to increase the square footage of your home, sometimes builders can “borrow” space from large kitchens or mudrooms that they can convert into a keeping room with just a few structural changes. This is especially helpful if you have a good amount of dead space that you’re not using.
Though not seen as a “must-have” for some, keeping rooms increase a home’s value in a lot of markets, and are generally viewed by homebuyers as a huge plus. “It’s almost a luxury these days,” comments Cotten. “It’s an extra little thing that wasn’t designated, and you can make it into whatever you want.”
Is a keeping room right for you?
Whether for convenience or comfort, If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen and want a designated space for people to keep you company, or if you entertain a lot and find your guests gathering in the kitchen, then you might want to look for a home that has a keeping room.
If you don’t already have one, adding a keeping room can increase the value of your house, and allow you to put a nice personal structural touch on your home. Ask your real estate agent if they have any listings with a keeping room, and you may just find the perfect home with that extra special something that makes your house the best one on the block.
Header Image Source: (Chalo Garcia / Unsplash)