When it came time for Stephanie Blatchley and her husband, Tyler, to buy their first house, the young couple knew exactly what they wanted.
Having grown up in western Howard County, she was most comfortable in a country setting. Both of them wanted to be near family and friends. And the idea of easy access to major thoroughfares was appealing. They also knew what they did not want: a formal dining room.
"We lived in an apartment for two years, and although we enjoyed that lifestyle, we wanted to buy a house of our own," Blatchley explained. "We looked at everything. All of the older homes we saw were compartmentalized. Every room had its own walls," she said.
The Blatchleys eventually found a budding townhouse development by Ryan Homes in Sykesville that checked off most of the boxes on their list. But to get what they desired most, the couple chose a model from another Ryan community they had visited in Glen Burnie, a house style dubbed "The Mozart."
Walking in the front door, the couple knew they had found what they wanted: an open floor plan that didn't waste space on a formal dining room.
The Blatchleys are part of what home design experts see as a gradual shift away from formal rooms. Most houses still incorporate those spaces, but now homeowners are putting them to other uses, ranging from playrooms to first-floor master suites.
"I wouldn't say the dining room is completely dead," said Eileen Bumba, a real estate agent in the Green Spring Valley office of Long & Foster. "But there is no question that many of today's house hunters are interested in an open floor plan."
Bumba said many buyers make plans to tear down walls between the living and dining rooms, or the dining room and kitchen. "They feel they can get more use out of an open space."
A year and a half later, Blatchley said there is nothing they do not love about their new home. Except for a powder room and a closet, the main floor of the three-story structure is completely open. Hardwood floors unite the space.
"When I walk in the front door, we can literally see the back of the house," said Blatchley.
The kitchen spans the width of the house, allowing room for an eating area separate from the preparation area. Even without a formal dining room, the couple easily entertained 27 people in their new home on Thanksgiving.
"I love to cook, and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. My husband works from home and is a movie fanatic. If we had a house full of closed-off rooms, we would technically not 'see' one another," said Blatchley, a kindergarten teacher at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City. "With the flow of our home, we feel togetherness."
The couple's home choice represents a popular trend, said Chris Rachuba, vice president of operations for the Rachuba Group, a family-owned, Eldersburg-based builder.
"I am seeing a trend of open floor plans with a 'family center' that includes kitchen, family room, and eat-in area," he said. "There is not necessarily a formal area in which to eat." He said some of the space that used to be for formal areas is going toward first-floor bedrooms, "a place for older family members to sleep in order to avoid stairs."
But Bumba cautions that there may come a time when homeowners will want to move on. For that reason, she reminds her clients of an important rule in real estate: Never eliminate the potential for something that another prospective buyer might want.
"Some cultures require a formal dining room," she said. "On the other hand, if you decide to take down a wall, it can always be put back up again."
Bumba said that in today's fast-paced culture, families are more comfortable being informal.
"Ninety percent of the women I deal with work outside the home, and they don't have all day to spend in the kitchen anyway," she said. "Formal entertaining is pretty much a thing of the past."
But the need for families to make connections at mealtime still exists, said Linda Lombardo, the executive director of Lighthouse, a family counseling agency in Catonsville.
She noted that the dining room has not always been a room reserved for special family meals. Upper-class Colonial Americans considered that space in their houses to have multiple functions, Lombardo pointed out. It was not until Victorian times that a room set apart with the finest china, silver, and crystal, as well as furnishings, defined the dining room. And maybe, she suggested, we have come full circle with today's families.
"I know this is difficult, but it's not about formality," Lombardo said. "We need to meet the challenges of split schedules and still find a way to have a relaxed meal together."
How that activity is translated into modern life is another story. The room, the furnishings, the time of day: none of this is really important, just so families connect with each other.
"Whatever it takes to achieve that goal is good," she said.
Dining with history
A number of historic houses in the Baltimore metropolitan region and beyond that are open to the public offer a glimpse into dining rooms from days gone by. The following properties provide a "good sense of how people's dining rooms have changed over the years, " according to Connie Yingling of the Maryland Office of Tourism:
The Hammond-Harwood House, 19 Maryland Ave., Annapolis. Built just before the start of the Revolutionary War, this Georgian house includes an enormous grand dining room that was used for more than just dining. Call 410-263-4683 or go to http://www.hammondharwoodhouse.org.
The Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum, 844 E. Pratt St., Baltimore. Mary Pickersgill's home gives a glimpse into how her 19th-century middle-class household wasted no space. Call 410-837-1793 or go to flaghouse.org.
Ladew Topiary Gardens, 3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton. Socialite Harvey Ladew entertained lavishly in the early 20th century. On the guest list at times were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Call 410-557-9570 or go to ladewgardens.com.