It’s June. Summer’s seasonal activities and fine weather beckon us outdoors. This, combined with renewed desire for calm, traditional, home-based activities (as well as some necessary lifestyle adjustments secondary to COVID-19), invite us to turn a more appreciative eye to an old friend: the porch. Or veranda. Or portico. Whatever the preferred moniker, porches are synonymous with nostalgia for Americana. But, their history and evolution stems from intercultural influence and practical necessity. They span cultures and time periods. They also act as a bridge between the inner sanctum and the outside world. Noted landscape architect and influential 19th-century tastemaker, Andrew Jackson Downing, had this to say about a porch.

“A house without a front porch is as insignificant as a book without a title page.”

Porches are so much more than makeup for the face of our homes. Read on to learn more about their history, revival, and preservation.


Porch we rebuilt at the former Iron Horse Inn

 

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF A PORCH?

Answering this question necessitates examining the history and evolution. According to The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45, “porch” comes from Medieval English, and the French word “porche,” which stems from the Latin “porticus.” The linguistic influences obviously betray cultural influences by their synonymous existence: if there’s a word for it in another language, that culture also probably has it. The cultural heritage of the American porch mimics that of its people; a veritable melting pot of style and language that evolved into something uniquely American. The Preservation Brief No. 45 provides a historical evolution of porches as well.

 

Early years. Porches often served a practical purpose, in terms of a protected entryway. They also served to define a distinctive style, denoting cultural associations as well as the wealth of their owners. Before the United States became independent, in the original 13 British colonies, porches mirrored British design, French colonies followed French design, Spanish colonies borrowed from Spanish design, etc. These influences continued after the establishment of the United States. At the same time, styles evolved to echo classical inspiration – the Greek Revival style often distinguished by elegant columns – which reached the height of popularity in the 1830s and 1840s.

 

Social and other roles. From the late 18th into the 19th century, inns, hotels, and resorts served as natural social-gathering places and by their very social nature demanded porches be included in their design. They also emphasized a property’s state of grandeur. Homeowners understood those social benefits, and also referenced practical porch-uses; they opportunistically enjoyed the fresh air and connection with nature that porches afforded. Andrew Jackson Downing (landscape designer, horticulturist, and writer) is often credited with the popularization of the front porch, due to his widely publicized assertion of the porch as an essential connection between one’s home and nature.

 

Golden Era. These general porch roles subsisted as the 19th century matured, although porches evolved further in terms of style and purpose. The industrialization of America allowed transport of materials via canal boat and train that previously were not accessible to some buyers. It also meant that total reliance on skilled craftsman (craftspeople = greater cost and longer time) was no longer necessary when manufactured and pre-fabricated mass-produced parts increased availability and affordability to a growing middle class. The role of the porch became so significant it acted essentially as an “outdoor parlor.”

 

The hygiene movement. This early twentieth century movement touted health benefits of fresh air to address or prevent diseases like tuberculosis. Sleep’s influence on health also meant that fresh-air while sleeping was revered, and sleeping porches surged in popularity. Screens were typically added to protect against disease-spreading insects. These provided the additional benefit of natural air conditioning on uncomfortably warm evenings.

 

Decline. By the mid-twentieth century, the pendulum of innovation swung in the opposite direction, as pendulums do. The effects of the automobile boom (meaning more opportunity to travel from home for entertainment), greater telephone ownership (meaning decreased need for in-person “calls”), and increased value placed on private back-yard parties (including back patios), and the advent of air conditioning and TVs collectively sounded the death knell for porches. Porches became obsolete, outdated, and even were considered pejoratively as unsophisticated or agrarian.

 

Resurgence. Luckily, porches are rising from the proverbial ashes, at least in terms of existence and popularity, if not actual use. According to Lynn Freehill-Maye, some of the Baby Boomer generation initiated focus back on porches over 30 years ago, due to nostalgia and a push toward the New Urbanism movement, to increase a sense of community. In recent years, new builds have often included porches, and more movements have arisen encouraging actual use of front porches. 

 

HOW CAN I PRESERVE AND MAINTAIN MY PORCH?

We know regular readers of our blog are already preservation-minded. However, we can’t assume that if you’re reading this you fall in that category, so we’ll take the risk of “preaching to the choir.” In that vein, we must stress that porch maintenance is essential the same way that interior housekeeping is essential. The porch serves as protection for the front of your home, as much as it affords the previously-mentioned benefits. Therefore, it requires regular maintenance. 

 

Regular maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 recommends basic housekeeping such as sweeping frequently and mopping occasionally. These should be employed in lieu of hosing with water (for wooden porches or wooden porch accents) to prevent saturation and promotion of rot. Plants should not grow directly on the porch due to their encouraging moisture (and consequently insects and rot, both of which lead to open wood joints), but can be near the porch on free-standing trellises. Mats, rugs, and potted plants also trap moisture and condensation and should be avoided or moved frequently. In the winter, ice melters such as sand or litter are abrasive and should be swept away as soon as possible. Salt is not recommended due to its corrosive consequences, and magnesium chloride is considered a more appropriate substitute as it is less corrosive. Relatedly, only rubber-edged or plastic shovels should be used for ice and snow on wooden porches. 

 

Involved maintenance, repair, and replacement. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 provides an extensive overview of the more involved steps for maintaining and repairing (or even replacing) porches and their parts. The 2001 publication on porches by the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also highlights the main tasks for maintaining and preserving your historic porch. Keeping wooden porches painted is not only visually appropriate for maintaining the historic fabric, but also acts as a preservative measure. Replacement, when necessary, should be in-kind. If rebuilding something, only rebuild if its historical existence can be documented. Porch enclosures should maintain visual qualities of an open porch, and should not be on porches that are at the front of the building. If new porches are added, they should preferably be added only to the side or rear of a building.

 

If you have a porch and you don’t already love it, hopefully this post will inspire you to consider the benefits you’ve been missing out on all along and start enjoying your “outdoor parlor.” 

 

For further resources and reading:

At first glance, porches and doors may seem like no more than a way to get in or out of a home or business.   But there is much more to these architectural gateways.  They are frequently exemplary examples of carpentry that give us a peek into the artisanship of our architectural history and have a quality of craftsmanship difficult, but not impossible with the right skills and knowledge, to reproduce today.

The entrance of a house often defines its architectural identity more than any other element.  This is particularly true on the facades of Colonial townhouses (sometimes referred to as row houses), where the flat facades can easily run into each other.

In Colonial and early-American porches and doorways, elements of several different architectural styles can be seen.

  • The Post-Medieval English Style (1600-1700) can be seen in transom lites and drop finials (those that project downward).
  • Dutch influences show up in elevated wooden stoops, eaves, and slender turned columns with square bases.
  • The French tendencies find there way into our entrance architecture with raised paneled doors and arched brick lintels.
  • Our very own early Colonial entrances are more pragmatic – with simple triangle pediments and smaller porch platforms.
  • Late Colonial entrances became more expansive and decorative – with curved brackets, keystones, and decorative sunbursts above the doors, as the Georgian and Federal styles made their way to center stage.

When evaluating the significance of your historic porch, there are two important questions to ask:

What did your entranceway look like originally?

More often than not, changes were made to your porch that may not reflect the original architecture of your house.  You can consult with a contractor that specializes in historic architecture to evaluate any necessary restoration work.  Early photographs, insurance maps, tax records, documents at historical societies or libraries, house histories, and physical evidence can all be used to make a determination of what the porch would have been originally.

What historical evolution has your porch or doorway experienced?

There is a great debate in the preservation world – is it more important to preserve the original architecture of a building or to honor the architectural evolution it experienced over the years?  This is not an easy question (and in cases of historic sites it is often tied to the period of historical relevance) and it is up to you, as steward of your building, to determine what you think is the right answer.  Determining what architectural evolutions your entranceway has experienced may help you decide which preservation approach is important to you. 

Exploring the answers to these two questions will help you define which architectural features make up the character of your entranceway, how it contributes to the overall architectural fabric of your historic building, and which period of architecture you want to preserve.

Keep in mind that if you live in a historic district any changes to the exterior of your house must first have approval from your local historic commission (often if you are not making changes or you are just repairing/maintaining this can be done at the staff level without a hearing).

 

There is no architectural element in our historic architecture more nostalgic than the American porch.  We remember playing on them as kids.  We hung out on them with our friends as teenagers (probably stealing a kiss or two we weren’t supposed to have yet).  We sat on them as adults sipping iced tea on hot summer evenings.  We visited with friends and family laughing and playing cards.  We sat on them to watch parades.  Some of us even slept on them to escape the oppressive heat inside on hot summer nights.

But where did porches come from and how did they become the porches we know today?  Here’s a quick primer on the history of the American porch.

Late 1700’s –

Porches were utilitarian covered doorways or flanked “stoops” that protected the main entrances from the weather and served as transitions to and from the outdoors

historic porches, history of porches,

Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg
Photo by Fletcher6 on Wikipedia

 

1778 –

George Washington sets the porch building standard with his American classical porch at Mt. Vernon

historic porches, history of porches

George Washington’s Mt. Vernon
Photo by Martin Falbisoner on Wikipedia

 

Early 1800’s –

Longer porches that span the entire front of homes become more popular

 

1800’s –

Porches in the Northeast were called “piazzas”, a word adapted from the Italian word for “open space”

 

Porches in the south were called “verandas”, a term that reflected British colonial design influences from India.  This term would eventually become the dominant term along the East Coast.

 

Porches in the French colonial areas of the deep South wrapped around the entire house and were referred to as “galleries”.

 

Porches in Spanish colonial architecture were called “arcades”.

 

1830’s & 40’s –

The classic columns of the Greek Revival make their way onto porches of public buildings, hotels, and mansions

Historic porches, history of porches

Millford Plantation, South Carolina
Photo by Jack Boucher on Wikipedia

 

Mid 1800’s –

Porches have fully evolved from transition spaces into gathering places for socializing

 

The growing middle class builds homes with elaborate porches dressed with fancy millwork in new suburban neighborhoods.

 

Late 1800’s –

Highly decorated wrap-around Queen Anne style porches became wildly popular and are even added to small and simple houses.

historic porches, history of porches

Carson Mansion in California
Photo by Cory Maylett on Wikipedia

 

 

Porches are now used as outdoor living spaces and their shaded and landscaped privacy offered a discreet meeting spot in an age obsessed with propriety.

 

1873 –

President Rutherford B. Hayes: “The best part of the present house is the veranda.  But I would enlarge it.  I want a veranda with a house attached.”

 

Early 1900’s –

Growing understanding and acceptance of germ theory brings medicinal value to porches as doctors begin touting the benefits of fresh air.

 

Hipped roofs and exposed rafters hit the scene on porches with bungalow architecture.

 

SLEEPING PORCHES BECOME A POPULAR AS TUBERCULOSIS SOARS.

historic porches, history of porches

Sleeping porch at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
Photo by Rolf Müller on Wikipedia

 

1920’s – 50’s –

As autos hit the roads, porches move to the side of the house as we retreat from the noise and dirt and seek more privacy.  Eventually they will end up at the back of the house where they will predominantly stay in new architecture for the next fifty or sixty years.

 

History of the Harris-Cameron Mansion in Harrisburg, PA

historic porch restoration, historic porch

 

In the early 1700′s, Harrisburg’s founder John Harris Sr. immigrated to the area from Yorkshire, England after receiving a land grant.  When he first arrived, Harris Sr. built a homestead on the bank of the Susquehanna River and established a trading post, and then a successful ferry business that would funnel much of the Scottish, irish, and German immigrants west for over fifty years.  Known for his fair dealings and good relationship with local Native Americans, Harris Sr.’s also facilitated successful relationships between new settlers and the local Native American population.

After Harris Sr. died in 1748, John Harris Jr. inherited the homestead and business and continued the family legacy of good relationships with local Native Americans – during the French and Indian War two notable “council fires” were held at the Harris home for talks between the Indian Nations, local governing officials, and British representatives.

historic porch restoration, historic porch

 

In 1766, after the French and Indian War ended, Harris Jr. decided it was time for a more substantial house for the family.  Tired of evacuating their current homestead whenever the river flooded, Harris Jr. chose the current site of the mansion after observing that even during the worst flooding, the river had never reached the top of the rise in the ground the mansion sits on.

Originally constructed in the Georgian style of architecture using locally quarried limestone, the house had a total of eight owners over the years and each made changes to the house.  In the early 1800′s a rear wing was added to the original mansion, and in 1863 the house underwent significant changes when Simon Cameron (seven-time U.S. Senator, President Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, and former Ambassador to Russia) purchased the house.

File:Smn Cameron-SecofWar.jpg

“Having made an offer of $8,000 for the Harris Mansion, Cameron left for Russia. He traveled throughout Europe and stopped in England, France, Italy, and the German states. While making his way to Russia, Cameron was shopping for furnishings for his new house. In the parlor are two 14-foot-tall (4.3 m) pier mirrors, as well as mirrors above the fireplaces that came from France. The fireplace mantles are hand-carved Italian marble, and the alcove window glass is from Bavaria.

Cameron disliked being politically isolated in Russia, so he returned to the United States and resigned the post in 1863. After finalizing the purchase of the house, Cameron set out to convert it to a grand Victorian mansion in the Italianate style. He hoped it would be suitably impressive to his business and political associates. Cameron added a solarium, walkway, butler’s pantry, and grand staircase. He also had the floor lowered three feet into the basement in the front section of the house, because the 11-foot ceilings in the parlor could not accommodate his new 14-foot mirrors.”

-Wikipedia entry on the Simon Cameron House

In the early 1900′s, Cameron’s grandson Richard Haldeman, the last of the Cameron family to live in the home, made more changes when he redecorated, modernized the mansion, and added the West Alcove to the house.  When he died, his sister donated the house and other family items to the  Historical Society of Dauphin County.

 

Historic Porch Restoration at the Harris-Cameron Mansion

In 2013, we were contracted to repair and restore the Victorian style porch.  The porch was in disrepair – the brick piers that supported the floor were falling apart, the corner of the roof system was completely rotted out, there was a vermin infestation underneath the porch that was compromising the structural stability of the porch.  In addition to the disrepair, there had been alterations to the style of the porch over the years and the Historical Society wanted the porch both repaired and returned to its original style.

The major contributing problem that needed to be addressed was that the spouting and gutters weren’t emptying water away from the porch because the porch had settled and moved.  There had been attempts to repair the porch to keep it from settling, but they didn’t last or weren’t correct repairs – at one point someone had actually strapped the porch to the stone house wall to try and keep it from sliding by putting metal gussets at the spots where the framing was coming apart and separating at the corners.  But no one had ever addressed the problems with the porch foundation which was causing the settling and moving.

For the project, we started with demolition – a very careful demolition.  There were a lot of important materials on the porch that we encased in plywood boxes to protect them during the demolition process.  The stone where George Washington stood in 1780…  An original sandstone step that was already cracked…  All the important elements of the porch were carefully protected to prevent any damage during the construction process.

After demolition, we addressed the foundation issues by pouring five concrete footers at each of the column locations since that is where the porch had been failing and where the roof was sagging.  There had been brick piers there that we rebuilt with a combining of the existing brick and salvaged brick we purchased to match, but there had never been a frost-line footer under the porch.

All of the existing trim, arches, columns, floor, and skirtboard that could be salvaged were brought back to our shop where we removed the lead paint, repaired the pieces where necessary, fabricated new pieces as needed to match existing pieces, and reassembled them.  We fabricated new columns and elliptical arches from mahogany wood to match the style of the existing columns and arches that were re-used.  Several columns still had the original trim that we could copy when turning all of the capitals and column pieces.

We were able to level and save the porch roof by putting a large, carrier beam on the front of it.  We also put all of the columns and capitals on metal pipes before we installed them so we could put the columns on without cutting them in half.

The flooring and ceiling also needed repaired and replaced at some spots.  The original wood was vertical fir, but using fir would have been tremendously costly.  Mahogany was chosen instead for its availability and its cost.  While mahogany would not have been used as an exterior wood when the porch was originally built, it is an acceptable replacement material in preservation standards and actually holds up better as an exterior wood than many original woods.

This project was a collaborative effort between Richard Gribble at Murphy & Dittenhafer ArchitectsMcCoy Brothersand the Historical Society of Dauphin County, and us.

There are a variety of tasks that can be done on a regular basis to extend the life of a porch. In addition, a visual inspection of the porch should be made every spring and fall to determine if more in-depth repairs are necessary. Fortunately, ongoing maintenance significantly reduces both the need and cost for later repair work and represents good preservation practice. When properly maintained, a well-constructed porch can last for decades.

Routine Cleaning and Other Surface Work

Since many porches are essentially another living space, extending housekeeping to this space makes practical sense. Regular maintenance includes sweeping the wood porch decking, and, if needed, an occasional damp mopping. Removing dirt and leaves by sweeping is preferable to frequent hosing off the deck with water. The latter can saturate the woodwork, thereby promoting decay. Frequent sweeping will reduce the accumulation of abrasive materials, such as dirt and sand. While visually pleasing to some, vines and plants should be kept trimmed away and not be trained to grow onto or allowed to grow beneath porches. Plants and vines unfortunately reduce ventilation, promote a moist environment for insects and decay, accelerate open wood joints and impede cyclical maintenance. As an alternative, traditional freestanding trellises can be used to support plant growth away from the porch.

There are certain precautions that are recommended for wood floors. Rubber mats, rugs or indoor/outdoor carpeting can trap moisture and condensation on their underneath side and should not be used on a wooden porch floor. Keeping flower pots up off the wooden deck will help prevent moisture buildup and decayed spots – wood, clay or metal “trivets” that hold the pots an inch or more off the wooden deck are helpful, but the pots should be moved to different locations periodically. In colder climates, light snow can be swept off the porch. Snow shovels with a hard rubber leading edge or plastic shovels cause less damage to wood than metal, while paint in good condition helps ice to release more easily. Sand or clean kitty litter can be sprinkled on ice to prevent slipping; however, they should be later swept off the porch, as they are abrasive. Salt (sodium chloride) is not recommended for ice removal on older porches as it can promote corrosion and failure of nails and other fasteners. Magnesium chloride is an alternate de-icing salt that is less corrosive and less damaging to masonry and plants. If any de-icing salt is used, be sure to scrub and rinse off the porch deck in the spring. Boot scrapers and brush-mats at the bottom of the stairs are recommended for muddy areas.

Painting

45-painting-porch

Decay can start when wood is left exposed to the weather or where joints open up. An inexpensive way to extend the life of the existing porch paint without jeopardizing the historic material is spot paint and caulk where needed every year or two. This cost-effective procedure is particularly effective in maintaining wood porches where the exposure to weathering is high. Photo: John Leeke.

Spot painting and resealing of open joints should be undertaken at least every other year. Heavily used stair treads may require more frequent paint touchup. When peeling paint or bare wood is evident, inspect to ensure it is not signaling deeper problems, such as decay. With sound wood, scrape off the loose paint, sand, prime, and repaint the area. Where lead paint is present, appropriate lead hazard precautions and procedures apply. Only top-quality exterior primers and paints are recommended, selecting for the deck and stairs specially formulated paints. Where wood porch steps are exposed to moisture, grit added to the wet paint during application will help improve safety.

Repair

Many repairs may be successfully undertaken by property owners, while major projects often require the special knowledge and equipment of an experienced contractor. Repairs generally include patching and reinforcement of historic materials. The roof and foundation are particularly important to the preservation and the structure of a historic porch yet they often receive much less attention than ornamental features. Their neglect will usually lead to more costly work. Repairs to features such as a balustrade or flooring can encompass limited replacement in kind when the porch part is severely deteriorated or when a part of a repeated feature is missing altogether. Some common porch repairs are discussed in this section.

Filling Open Cracks or Joints

To seal open cracks or joints, start by scraping off the paint back a few inches from the opening and removing old caulk to expose bare wood. The opening should be examined for any signs of wood decay, and to determine if the joint is loose due to a loss of connection, such as rusted nails. After correcting any problems, apply a water-repellant wood preservative that can be painted. Such preservatives are either an oil-based or waterborne solution of oils or waxes with mildewcide, fungicide and pesticide added. Then apply a high quality exterior wood primer to the wood surfaces where a sealant or caulk is to be used. Most open cracks or joints then can be filled with a sealant or caulk, while larger ones may need the addition of a backer rod. In some cases, small metal flashing over the crack or open joint may be more effective and longer lasting but, when used, care should be taken with proper installation. The final step is painting.

Patching with a Dutchman Repair

end

The ends of porch roof rafters are often susceptible to moisture decay. When concealed by a soffit or ceiling, rafters can be repaired by adding new sister boards. Where roof rafter ends are exposed, splicing new wood onto the old (dutchman repair) and use of epoxy consolidants and fillers both preserve sound historic fabric while retaining the historic appearance. Photo: Paul Marlowe, Marlowe Restorations.

This traditional technique is often used to repair localized cases of decayed wood and, when undertaken with skill and care, will serve as a permanent repair. If the damaged area has a structural function, temporary bracing or other support will be necessary. Otherwise the first step after removing any paint around the damaged area is to chisel or mechanically remove the decayed wood. It is best to use the same type of wood being replaced and the new or recycled wood should be seasoned to avoid shrinkage. The repair procedure involves cutting a piece of wood, called a dutchman, slightly larger than the area of damage that has been cut out. The dutchman then is laid over the damaged area and an outline scribed into the original wood surface below. Next, a chisel or router is used to follow the scribed line to form an opening in the existing wood for the new piece. As a preventive measure, an appropriate fungicide should be applied to the surrounding old wood and allowed to dry. The dutchman is then glued into place with waterproof adhesive, such as an epoxy formulated for wood. The repair is finished by trimming or sanding the surface of the new wood down flush with the surrounding existing surfaces, priming and painting.

 

Patching with Epoxy or Wood Fillers

There are a variety of commercial wood fillers. Cellulose based fillers consist of wood fiber and a binder and have been available in stores for many years. Only those suitable for exterior applications should be used and they will require a protective finish. Epoxies are a more contemporary product, commonly used by experienced contractors and woodworkers. Epoxies are petroleum-based resins created by mixing two components in accurate proportions that result in a chemical reaction. The result is durable, moisture-resistant consolidants and fillers that bonds tenaciously with wood, and can be sawn, nailed or sanded. Epoxies are for use only in areas that will be painted, as they do not take stain and deteriorate under sunlight. Since epoxies are more difficult to work with than other wood fillers, experience working with epoxies is needed for successful repairs.

Repairing Railings and Balustrades

Balustrades and railings are not only practical and safety features, they typically are highly visible decorative elements. Unfortunately, balustrades and balusters are frequently altered, covered, removed or completely replaced even though in most cases they can be repaired in a cost-effective manner. To preserve historic fabric, the repair of old balustrades and railings is always the preferred approach. A broken baluster usually is one in need of repair, not replacement.

Loose railings and balustrades present unsafe conditions and need to be repaired as soon as possible. Start by examining the points of attachment to determine exactly why the railing or balustrade is loose. Common reasons include rusted fasteners, decayed wood, or physical stress that has broken the fasteners or split the wood. Paint and decayed wood must be removed. Where fasteners are broken yet the wood is sound, the balustrade can be re-fastened using hot-dipped galvanized or stainless steel nails or screws, setting the heads of the fasteners below the surface of the wood and using a wood filler to cover and seal. Next repair deteriorated wood by using a dutchman or wood-epoxy repair. The repaired joints then can be sealed and painted.

Replacing Missing Balusters

The balusters help comprise a wood balustrade and come in three general styles: simple rectangular shape; flat, pattern-sawn (usually a board with some decorative edge or cutout); and turned. It may be necessary to replace certain balusters that are beyond repair or missing altogether. Some are easy to replace with new matching balusters while others can be more challenging in terms of both design and costs. Finding or affording replacement balusters may take time since they should match the historic baluster as closely as possible. In the meantime, unsafe balustrades can be temporarily stabilized, introducing temporary new material that soon will be replaced.

In replacing individual balusters, simple, rectangular balusters should not be replaced with pattern-sawn or turned ones unless physical or pictorial evidence survives which indicate they previously existed historically on that particular porch. Such an alteration can change the historic appearance of the porch or be incompatible with the character of the building.

Determine the size and shape of the missing balusters either by examining adjacent ones or temporarily removing an existing baluster as a sample. Heavy paint buildup should be removed so that the original dimension can be established. Scrape and clean the joint locations and make repairs to any deteriorated areas. A new baluster is then fabricated to match the original in design and material, either on site or by taking a drawing or sample to a local woodworking shop. The new baluster should be made one-half inch longer than needed on both ends. Measurements are taken from the bottom surface of the top rail to top surface of the bottom rail. Joints on the new baluster can be laid out with a pencil, using a sliding bevel to transfer any angles, and the new baluster trimmed to fit with a handsaw. After test fitting, the ends and any exposed end-grain of the baluster need to be sealed with a high-grade primer or epoxy. Next, apply a paintable water-repellant coating to all exposed wood surfaces, and apply a primer. The baluster can then be fastened in place with hot-dipped galvanized or stainless steel nails, and the nails set. Finally, seal joints and fastener holes and paint the baluster.

Repairing Column Plinths and Bases

column-both

This nineteenth century porch column is made of wood staves, similar to the way a wood barrel is put together. After replacing the torus and making dutchman repairs to the apophyge along the base, the column and pedestal are ready to be reinstalled on the porch. Photos: NPS files.

Columns not only enrich the historic character of the porch, they provide support for the roof structure above. Because of their detail and complex construction they can be costly to repair or replace, making maintenance and minor repairs important. Column plinths and bases tend to deteriorate because of their exposed location on the outer edge of a porch. Leaking gutters can result in water draining into the entablature and down into hollow columns, while clogged or capped gutters can allow water to pour down and splash back onto the column bases. Open joints and limited wood decay can be repaired using methods previously discussed. Column repairs usually are undertaken by an experienced carpenter, since it may involve structural support of the roof above.

Repairing Floorboards and Ceiling Boards

Floors should slope down toward the outer porch edge for proper drainage. If drainage is inadequate, moisture buildup will cause deterioration of the floorboards. Flooring can also deteriorate due to movement in the supporting structure below. If a floorboard is soft or broken, the extent of decayed or split wood can be determined by probing gently with an awl. The existing floorboard can then be removed, cutting the length if needed so that the end will center on the next nearest joist or girder. Once the board has been removed, the structural framing beneath should be examined for deterioration and to ensure it is sound. A new floorboard is then cut to length, and the outer edge shaped to match the adjacent boards. After priming the replacement board, nail it in place and repaint.

If a section of the ceiling is deteriorating, it is likely that there is a roof or gutter problem. To determine the cause of deterioration, inspect the ceiling, gutters and roof, including the internal roof structure. After making necessary repairs, the ceiling boards can be repaired in much the same manner as a deteriorated floorboard.

Repairing the Porch Roof and Gutters

With roof leaks, the entire porch is at risk. Leaks can promote decay in roof rafters, ceiling joists, and columns as well as in areas more easily to detect such as the ceiling and fascia. Inspect the roof covering, gutters and flashing for deterioration and improper performance. They can then be repaired or replaced, as needed, to keep water out of the structure. Avoid having the gutters and downspouts on the main roof drain onto a porch roof.

Repairing the Foundation

Unstable foundation supports can cause serious damage to a historic porch. There are numerous causes and solutions. If the posts supporting the porch deck rest on stones or brick set directly on the ground, there can be seasonal shifts due to the changing moisture content of the soil or freeze/thaw conditions that will require regular attention. Under certain conditions, it may be advisable to extend footings for the posts below the frost line. Where moisture problems exist, improved drainage may be necessary. It is not uncommon to find that masonry joints in the foundation wall or piers have deteriorated as a result of rising damp, where moisture from the soil percolates up through mortar joints. This condition may lead to the eventual breakdown of the mortar and even old brick and soft stone. In such cases, it will be necessary to replace the areas of damaged masonry and repoint the mortar joints.

With wooden posts, insect damage or rot may necessitate corrective measures to strengthen the foundation. Techniques can include one or more of the following: epoxy consolidation; dutchman repair; or the addition of supplemental supports to the foundation posts and joists. In some cases damage may be extensive enough that the only real solution is rebuilding the foundation.

Repairing a Porch Apron

The apron, skirt, or latticework is a highly visible and functional porch feature. An apron keeps animals out from under the porch, while at the same time allowing air to circulate, preventing unwanted moisture buildup. Aprons typically are made up of a wood frame, surrounding either a simple lattice or a repetitive pattern of decorative sawn boards. Because the frame is so close to the ground, decay is common. Other causes of decay include plantings around the house that are growing too close to the latticework and improper water drainage. An apron may require partial or complete disassembly for proper repair. One or more of the apron frames should either be hinged or secured with turn buttons for easy access to under a porch for inspection and maintenance.

Replacement

When individual porch parts are deteriorated beyond the point of repair or missing altogether, replacement is necessary. To retain the historic character of the porch, the replacement parts should match the historic component as closely as possible in material, design, color, texture, and other qualities. To achieve this, existing evidence of the historic design, such as a baluster or column detail, or a tongue and groove floor design, should serve as a pattern for the replacement part. When replacing an element, it may provide a good opportunity to upgrade the wood to another species that is more decay resistant, or to one with a vertical grain that is more resistant to cupping or splintering. In limited cases, it may be appropriate to use a substitute material for the replacement material as long as it conveys a close visual match. Before replacing a deteriorated historic porch component, it is important to understand how it was constructed and installed, and what lead to its deterioration. If the replacement part does not sufficiently match the historic part, the character of the porch may be diminished, or even lost. If the cause of material failure is not addressed, the replacement will also fail.

Replacing Porch Floorboards

If a large section of the porch floorboards is deteriorated, the framing beneath may also be damaged and should be assessed. Replacing floorboards can often expand into repairing the structural sills, girders, and joists beneath. Complete floor replacement will likely require the removal of floorboards that are under structural posts or columns. This may necessitate the careful stabilizing in place or the removal of the posts or columns and the installation of temporary support for the roof structure. If the floor failure was caused by inferior wood, the wood quality can be improved at this time. However, the new wood flooring should match the existing in thickness, width, shape and texture. The slope of the floor should be maintained, or a slope may need to be created if none exists. A slope of ¼ inch per foot or greater, away from the house, is needed for adequate drainage. Boards are usually laid in the direction of the slope, sloping down to the outer edge of the floor.

Replacing Steps

Porch stairs receive heavy usage and are close to the ground, making them predictable candidates for deterioration. Stairs should be repaired or, if necessary, replaced by an experienced carpenter who understands the safety codes and is experienced in fabricating custom stair parts to match original detailing without depending only on store-bought parts.

shaft

The lower shaft of the porch columns had decayed as water wicked up through the end grain (top). The column shafts were repaired in place by cutting out the deteriorated wood and making repairs using epoxy consolidants and fillers. (bottom). The column bases were replaced. Photos: Paul Marlowe, Marlowe Restorations.

Replacing Column Plinths and Bases or Entire Columns

When plinths and bases are deteriorated beyond repair, they can be replaced without replacing the column shaft, which may still be in good condition or require only minor repairs at the bottom. Such replacement will involve temporary shoring for the roof. One-story columns and shafts are often more easily removed during this work, while taller columns are sometimes supported in place. If only a few plinths or bases are deteriorated, it is often economical to have new ones made of wood to match. If numerous plinths and bases are deteriorated, replacing with bases made of rot-resistant materials can make economic sense; however, care must be taken to ensure that all the visual qualities including design, size, shape, color and texture of the historic part are matched.

Entire columns may need to be replaced, but an owner should first consider all repair alternatives. Some contractors routinely recommend complete replacement of one or all columns due to the challenge of a clean repair (particularly with stave-built columns), or because they see the potential for more profit in complete replacement. If a contractor recommends complete replacement, other opinions should be sought to ensure repair is truly not feasible. Preserving the historic appearance of old columns is not the same as preserving historic columns.

Where a replacement turned or staved column is needed, a local millwork may be able to match the profile or pattern. Alternatively, the Internet is helpful in identifying potential sources of replacement columns that can match the appearance of the remaining ones.

wood

Replacement Materials

Wood

When selective replacement is necessary, the key to success is the selection of suitable wood. Dimensional stability, decay resistance and paint holding ability are wood characteristics that effect durability. Wood that expands and shrinks too much can cause paint to crack. Substances found naturally in certain kinds of wood repel fungi and insects that destroy wood. Selecting wood that is relatively stable and naturally decay resistant helps avoid problems.

The wood from trees cut one and two centuries ago was much different than most wood available today. The mature trees in older forests grew very slowly and, as a result, the annual growth rings were very close together. Today, trees grown by commercial companies for their lumber are fast growing so they can be harvested sooner. As a result, commercially farmed trees have annual growth rings much further apart, resulting in the cut lumber being less strong and decay resistant than older timber. These differences in quality are one of the reasons it makes sense to save old wood when possible.

Wood Selection: When choosing wood for repair and replacement work, the species, grade, grain and environmental impacts should be taken into consideration. This is especially applicable to historic porches because of their high exposure to the weather and vulnerability to decay. The best species are those with good natural resistance to decay, such as redwood, cypress, cedar or fir. A clear (knot free) grade of wood is best; however, if clear wood is not readily available or too expensive, a grade with small or tight knots is acceptable. Finally, the use of more stable vertical grain lumber is preferable to flat grain boards. Vertical grain lumber expands and contracts less with changes in moisture content, resulting in reduce warping and checks. Paint thus will hold better. The downside to using vertical grain boards is the cost, which tends to be as much as two to three times the price of flat grain lumber in the same grade and species. However, this expense is typically recovered through lower maintenance costs over the years. Thus, a decay-resistant, high-grade, vertical grain lumber is the best choice for the replacement of deteriorated porch elements, particularly flooring, stairs and milled elements such as balusters and moldings.

The best species to choose will vary depending on the region the house is located. For example, in the South, cypress is more available, making it the selection of choice in the region. Because of this wood’s relative ease with which a carpenter can shape it, cypress is a good choice for replacing brackets and trim boards on a porch. In contrast, vertical grain Douglas fir is less workable, but is a very good choice for the replacement of porch floorboards in most climates. Although Douglas fir is from the Northwest, it is generally available throughout the country. For most protected trim boards on porches, white pine is a good choice as it is easy to work and is moderately decay resistant, especially if the wood is back-primed before installation. Availability of any specific wood will change annually based on market supply and demand.

Chemically Treated Wood: Chemical wood preservative treatments are available to resist insect and fungal attack, but care should be taken to avoid using ones that may cause environmental or health risks. Borate preservatives can be applied to surfaces or injected to penetrate and protect the entire volume of the wood. Preservatives with zinc napthenate can be applied to the wood surface, where necessary, especially to protect hidden joinery and the end grains of wood. Water-repellants can also be used to help seal out moisture. Finally, primers and paints should be applied to both protect the wood and to maintain the historic character of the porch. Note that these treatments are different than those used on most pressure-treated wood, which is typically a plantation-grown southern pine of lower quality that is impregnated with chemicals. Pressure-treated lumber can be effective when used for hidden structural members like posts, joists and sills. However, because typical pressure-treated wood is very susceptible to the deterioration of checks, warping and splitting, especially when left unpainted, it is not a good substitute for the better quality wood that is needed for visible finish porch parts.

 

Stock Components

For over a century, prefabricated architectural parts have been sold through catalogues or at home improvement stores. Some companies still make generic, stock architectural components in the same general sizes and designs as those that were first manufactured. These components can be available in both wood and substitute materials. Thus, it may be possible to replace a historic stock component, such as an architectural grade column, with a new prefabricated column that matches the original. Unfortunately, these replacement parts are not designed to match the historic parts of any particular porch. Because traditionally there were many different porch elements, a wide range of styles and considerable regional variations, stock replacement parts available today are not often found to match what is needed in a specific porch repair project. When faced with deterioration of a few porch parts, all the historic material should not be removed in favor of a readily available stock design that does not match the historic appearance. The expressed goal may be to create a porch with a “consistent look,” but this approach diminishes the building’s historic character and authenticity.

Plastic and Composites

A variety of modern materials are marketed today as a substitute for wood. They are usually composite materials typically in the form of plastic resins, including vinyl (PVC), fiber-reinforced polymers and polyester resin. There are other products on the market as well, including medium density wood fiberboard and composite fiber-cement boards. The market is ever changing with the introduction of new synthetic materials and the re-formulation of existing ones. The more costly synthetic products tend to offer the best potential for matching historic features while offering good durability. This means that potential cost savings over new wood tends to be more long term than immediate. Such products generally are not carried in local home improvement stores but rather are available from building supply companies or direct through catalog sales.

The historical significance of a particular property and its porch influences decisions regarding possible use of substitute materials. In general, greater emphasis is placed on authenticity and material integrity when maintaining and repairing individually significant historic properties. However, a front porch that is repeated on rowhouses may be one of the defining characteristics of the historic district and thus of importance to the entire streetscape. So, too, can the location and appearance of a porch influence material decisions, as with, for example, a prominent front porch with ornate detailing as opposed to a small porch over a rear door.

Thus, when the historic porch contributes to the historic character of a building, the particular substitute material that is being considered should accurately match the appearance of the wooden feature being replaced. Composite materials that can be routed or shaped in the field to match specific pieces being replaced have greater potential for use in repairing a historic porch. Materials that cannot be shaped to match the visual appearance of the historic pieces being replaced usually are not suitable for use on historic buildings.

Substitute materials need to be finished to match the appearance of the historic elements being replaced. In nearly all cases, this means that the material should be painted, or where historically appropriate, stained as with some porch ceilings. While there are substitute materials being marketed as pre-finished with either a plain flat surface or generic wood-grain texture, select those that can be painted or stained in the field.

When a substitute material is to be used in conjunction with existing or new wood material, it is important to consider the differences in expansion and contraction due to temperature and moisture changes. Before making a decision, it is also important to understand how a particular substitute material will age, what its maintenance requirements are, and how the material will deteriorate. For example, sunlight can break down exposed surfaces of plastic resins, so painting the surfaces is needed just as with wood. Low and medium density plastic foam parts are easily damaged by abrasion and physical damage, exposing the interior foam to weathering.

Wood porches are just that, porches made out of wood, just as a brick houses are made of brick and cast-iron porches are made of cast-iron. The type of materials used historically in the construction of a building helps define its character. Limited use of substitute materials that closely match missing or deteriorated features may not endanger this historic character, but wholesale replacement with substitute materials usually will.

 

Considerations for Contemporary Alterations

Enclosures

A porch

This old porch enclosure, located on the back side of a house, has acquired significance over time and is remarkable both in the appropriateness of its detailing for use by others today, as well as its high degree of maintenance. The enclosure is set behind the columns; the balustrade has been retained; and the light divisions and the size of the glass panes echo that of the windows above. Within each bay there are two well-crafted, inward swinging doors, providing for greater seasonal use of the porch. Photos: Charles Fisher.

Much of the character of a historic open porch is clearly its openness. Therefore, in most cases, a historic open porch should not be enclosed. If a porch enclosure is being considered, its significance and location—as well as the nature of the planned enclosure—play key roles in whether it can be done without changing the porch’s and building’s historic character. While it is almost never appropriate to enclose a front porch on a historic building to create interior space, enclosing a less prominent porch on a less visible elevation could have less impact. In addition, an enclosure should retain as many of the historic porch features as possible.

Insect Screening and Awnings

Traditionally, the seasonal use of porches was extended with screens and awnings. Screened porches have been popular since the advent of inexpensive and durable wire insect screening in late 1800s. Screens were often set unobtrusively behind railings and columns so the decorative components of the porch remained prominent and visible. Since screens can be damaged easily, the screening material was often set in slender, easy to repair, removable wood frames that could be installed during the warmer months, and stored in the winter. When screening a porch today, this historic precedent is recommended. Screened panels should have minimal wood framework painted either to match the porch or in a darker color to make the framing less visible. Decisions on whether screens should be installed inside the porch railings and posts, between the posts, or on the outside will depend on local traditions and on the design of the porch and trim. Screen doors on porches should be sized to fit proportionately with the porch, made of wood, and hung to swing out so insects are not brought inside with use.

Awnings, drop curtains, and valances were common porch accessories during the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries. Both functional and decorative, these canvas features helped shield porches from the sun’s direct rays, while their colorful stripes embellished and complemented the house’s exterior. Some awnings were fixed in place; others were of a roller assembly that allowed owners to easily lower or retract the awning, depending on weather conditions.

Today, modern solution-dyed acrylic fabrics—materials that resemble, but are more durable than canvas—are often used on porch awnings and drop curtains. When new awnings are installed on a historic porch, the selected awning should be appropriate in shape, material, size and color. Care should be used not to damage existing historic porch features such as columns or cornices.

Temporary Enclosures

Temporary enclosures allow a porch to be used in colder months while not permanently altering its appearance. In fact some have become historic features of buildings. Particularly in New England, there is a continuing tradition of installing relatively substantial glass and wood panels on porches during the winter, especially around an entrance door. These tended to have small divided lights. Sometimes porches were fully enclosed with a divided light glass door for entry, creating an enclosed vestibule that reduced the amount of cold air entering the house when the door was opened. Others consisted of simple sidewalls perpendicular to an existing entrance door, serving as a windbreak. Such enclosures were generally removed in the spring.

In recent years, some porches have been enclosed during the winter with plastic sheeting (polyvinyl) for perceived energy conservation or for creation of an enclosed space. Such a treatment generally diminishes a building’s historic character and is not recommended for highly visible porches.

oldporch

Particularly in New England, there is a cold weather tradition of installing temporary glass and wood panels at entrance doors, thereby creating an enclosed vestibule. These enclosures with their small divided lights were generally removed in the spring. Photo: John Leeke.

New Permanent Enclosures

Enclosure of a historic porch can result in significant changes in the appearance and character of the building. When considering the possible enclosure of a porch, a number of questions and concerns should be successfully addressed.

Is the porch on a significant elevation of the building? A porch on a prominent elevation was there to be seen and its open qualities are visually important. Enclosing such a space should be avoided.

aoldporch

The enclosure of a prominent porch can dramatically change the historic character of a building. The L-shaped porch on this 1896 Shingle-style New England residence was later enclosed with aluminum windows and screens. Recent owners elected to reopen the historic porch. Among the other work, it was necessary to correct structural damage, as with this post, where beneath the wood casing carpenter ants had done serious damage. In reopening the porch, the historic character of the residence has been brought back and the traditional use of the porch is once again enjoyed. Photos: Mark Landry, Landmark Services.

Is the enclosure necessary?An enclosure will undoubtedly change the porch as a historic feature and may result in damage or loss of historic materials. Depending on the significance of the porch and the nature of the building, a new porch enclosure may also change the historic character of the building. Consideration should be given to alternate solutions such as recapturing underutilized space in an attic or basement .

Is the porch a highly distinctive feature of the building? Even porches on secondary and rear elevations can be distinctive, such as a two-story porch on the side ell of a farmhouse. Porches ornamented with decorative trim that embellishes the house can also be distinctive. Enclosing these features should also be avoided whenever possible.

Is the porch a feature repeated on a row of buildings in a historic district?Open front porches on a block of row houses can be not only important to an individual building but can also make up a significant feature of the streetscape. Enclosing such a porch usually is inappropriate even if a porch on an adjacent building already has been enclosed.

Will the proposed enclosure encompass the entire porch? History has shown that the enclosure of a portion of a porch on a secondary elevation does not always alter the character of a building. In the past as indoor plumbing was introduced to old buildings, the partial enclosure of a one or two-story porch on a secondary elevation was a convenient means of providing new bathroom space while limiting disruption to the building’s interior. Since early bathrooms were traditionally small in size, most of the existing porch could be retained as open space. It was common to create new walls set either between columns or behind them, since the columns usually served a structural as well as decorative purpose. Where sleeping porches with full-length louver shutters were present, the new wall could simply be set behind and the shutters retained and fixed in place. In both cases the resulting effect minimized the impact of the partial enclosure on the appearance of the building. This also provides us with an approach that may be appropriate for a particular project today.

Will the enclosure result in the loss of considerable historic fabric? Unless the historic porch is so deteriorated that it is beyond repair, any consideration of enclosing all or part of a porch should incorporate retention of historic fabric. This may mean that the existing structural system needs to be augmented but generally not replaced. Distinctive features such as columns, brackets and balustrades should be retained and the new wall set behind them.

Is the foundation adequate for the enclosure of the porch and the new use of the space? Porches were often built on simple posts or piers, some with only minimum footings. Such structural supports may be inadequate to carry the added load of the proposed changes and the typical low space beneath a first floor porch may make installing a new porch foundation difficult and expensive. Such installations may result also in an extensive loss of historic fabric.

How will the proposed enclosure be viewed from the outside once the interior space is furnished? One of the approaches to enclosing a porch is to utilize near full glazing set behind existing columns in an attempt to retain a feeling of transparency. Whether such a treatment is successful depends on how it will look once it is constructed and how will the appearance on the outside be impacted by interior lighting, mechanical systems and furnishings. The traditional use of plantings and porch awnings for shade also provided extended privacy. If historically appropriate, an existing or new awning and plantings may help to reduce the impact of a porch enclosure on a secondary but visible elevation.

45-glass-enclosure

A traditional technique of porch enclosures still used today involves the insertion in each column bay of one or more glass enclosures set in wood frames . This enclosure is properly set back an entire porch bay from the front of the house and utilizes traditional light divisions and wood frames. The balustrade, added here for illustration purposes, shows the importance of retaining this linear feature within the enclosed bays. Photo: Charles Fisher.

Is the design of the proposed porch enclosure in keeping with the historic character of the building? Where the enclosure of all or part of a historic porch is appropriate, the selection of a compatible design and materials is important. Windows, doors, and wall material selection, along with how the new infill fits within the existing porch, are all factors to consider. A traditional technique of porch enclosures still used today involves the insertion in each column bay of one or more glass enclosures set in wood frames. The enclosures are located between or behind the columns, depending upon the nature of the porch, and mimic the pattern or size of glass panes found in historic windows on the building (Figure 15). An alternate treatment involves the use of much larger sheets of clear, non-reflective glass recessed behind the porch supports, balustrade and railing. This more contemporary treatment may be appropriate, depending upon the historic character of the building, location of the porch, and other factors. Windows, doors, and wall material selection, along with how the new infill fits within the existing porch, are all factors to consider.


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From the National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #45: Preserving Historic Wood Porches:

In colonial America, buildings in the northern colonies tended to echo British precedents with small gable-roofed extensions to protect main entrances. Whether open or enclosed, these extensions were called porches (from Medieval English and the French word porche, which stems from the Latin, porticus). Also known as porticos when supported by columns, these covered entrances were sometimes designed to respect classical order and details, especially on more stylish buildings. Hooded doors or small covered entryways flanked by benches, often called stoops (from the Dutch stoep for step) that served as short covered transitions to and from the outdoors were common features, especially in New York and the mid-Atlantic colonies.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s as longer shed-roofed porches became more common, they were typically called piazzas, as they were then called in England. This term, still popular in some areas of North America, is adapted from the Italian word for open space or plaza. An alternate term for a long open porch, veranda, reflects British colonial design influence from the Indian sub-continent.

Porch

Porches help define the architectural character of a building, serve as living areas and can be designed to take advantage of views. Cedar Grove, the home of the 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Cole, has an L-shaped veranda on the front and a two-story porch on the rear, with an enviable view of the Catskills. Photo: Marilyn Kaplan.

In French colonial areas, such as the Louisiana Territory, houses were often built with broad roofs extending well beyond the exterior walls to form surrounding porches, known as galleries. Porches were also important features of Spanish colonial buildings. In California, for example, many adobe ranches featured a portal with the roof supported by wooden posts. African and Caribbean influences can also be found in North American porch traditions.

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, porches became more common in larger, wealthier areas such as Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston. In both the North and the South, formal colonnades with tall columns dressed in classical orders were sometimes added to help dignify public buildings, hotels, and mansions. This trend continued through the 1830s and 1840s, as the Greek Revival became the dominant architectural style in many areas of North America.

The social role of porches as a transition space between indoors and outdoors and as a link between private and public realms evolved during the 1800s. By offering grand entrances and sheltered landings with views of the surroundings, prominent porches became expected features of inns, hotels and resort spas, where they could serve as promenades, social gathering spots, and refuges for more private retreats. Porches were also added to private homes to serve many of these same functions (Figure 2). As the country began to thrive and expand, porches became more than just covered entrances or ceremonial features; they became an integral part of domestic social life.

milwork

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millwork catalogues offered a wide variety of designs for porch parts, including columns, newels, balusters, spindles and brackets. As extolled in the Cedar Rapid Sash & Door Company’s Standards Design Book, stock parts made embellishments to porches affordable both for new construction and “updating” existing homes. Courtesy of Charles Fisher.

Some of the most significant factors that aided this shift were America’s industrialization and later suburbanization. As improvements to mass production methods helped spur industrial growth, many Americans had more money to spend and more leisure time. Meanwhile a growing middle class was moving to new suburban neighborhoods. Inspired by the pattern books of Andrew Downing and George Woodward and the published designs of such architects as Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux, the homes of these mid-1800s suburban neighborhoods were typically ornamented by elaborate porches dressed with fancy millwork. By this time, millwork catalogues and builders’ pattern books offered a wide variety of designs for porch parts. With mass production, these fancy brackets and other ornamentation became less expensive, making it easier and more affordable to construct decorative porches (Figure 3). With mechanized wood turning lathes, the cost of posts, balusters and decorative spindle work also decreased to a level affordable by many. Adding a porch with wood ornamentation could enhance even the smallest and simplest of houses. Even older homes could be modernized with a fancy porch addition, stylized to the latest fashion trends. Such changes culminated in the large, highly decorated wrap-around porches of the Queen Anne style.

The second half of the nineteenth century was the golden era of porches. The social role of the porch increased as it evolved into an outdoor parlor, a true extension of the house into the landscape. Often partially screened by shrubs, porches could provide occupants with discreet opportunities for social contacts that might otherwise be difficult to achieve in an age obsessed with manners and proprieties. For many, sitting on the porch became an important part of their daily routine. Perhaps President Rutherford B. Hayes best summed up the love that Victorian-era Americans felt towards their porches when he recorded in his journal in 1873: “The best part of the present house is the veranda. But I would enlarge it. I want a veranda with a house attached.”

By the early twentieth century, the hygiene movement, which stressed that access to fresh air could help prevent or remedy such diseases as tuberculosis, contributed to the development and proliferation of the sleeping porch. These porches were usually located on the second floor next to bedrooms. This era also saw the rise in use of insect screening on porches to guard against the discomfort of mosquitoes and the diseases they spread, such as yellow fever and malaria.

While innovations fostered the proliferation of porches in the nineteenth century, new inventions helped lead to its decline in the twentieth. As the automobile boom of the early twentieth century made it easier for people to get out of the house for entertainment and relaxation, porches began to lose popularity, especially as architectural styles and social attitudes changed. With the telephone, neighbors and friends could chat without personally meeting. And housing styles popularized in the construction boom after World War II often omitted front porches all together as backyard patios became the focus of private outdoor activities. Finally in the mid-twentieth century the broad availability of air conditioning and television enticed many people to stay inside at night and brought the golden era of the American porch to an end.

Understanding the History and Significance of a Porch

In preserving historic buildings, it is important to understand the history and evolution of a particular structure and what features contribute to its historic character. This is especially applicable when working with historic porches since they usually are prominent features, significant to the character of a building.

Answers to the following questions will help establish the significance of a porch.

Celebrating the 4th of July in 1912, this gathering of family and friends reflects the popularity of the porch as a social gathering place. While not overly ornate, each detail of the porch from the roof balustrade to the turned columns to the simple lattice work facing the deck contributes to its character, creating in effect the dominant architectural feature of the building. Photo: © Utah State Historical Society

Celebrating the 4th of July in 1912, this gathering of family and friends reflects the popularity of the porch as a social gathering place. While not overly ornate, each detail of the porch from the roof balustrade to the turned columns to the simple lattice work facing the deck contributes to its character, creating in effect the dominant architectural feature of the building. Photo: © Utah State Historical Society

 

 

 

What has the porch looked like in the past?

Early photographs, insurance maps, or tax records can provide useful information. These may be found at city or county offices, historical societies, libraries or even from former owners or neighbors. Such documents may indicate the footprint of the building or show long-lost details of the building’s appearance. Physical evidence of historic porch footings may exist. Paint shadows of a former roofline or moldings can provide clues about details now missing. Old porch parts may have been “stored” under the deck during past repairs.

What, if any, changes have taken place to the historic porch over the years?

On many porches elements such as columns, balusters, and finish details correspond with the design and detailing on the rest of the house. With other porches, the style of these features may differ from the rest of the building, but may reflect an important chapter in its history. Sometimes, parts of porches may have been lost due to neglect or remodeling. Questions about what historic fabric remains, what has been altered over time, and whether earlier changes are now an integral part of the historic character should be resolved before planning major porch work. Determining the historical evolution of the house may require both physical and archival research and in some cases the professional eye of an architectural historian.

What are the character defining features of the porch?

The open qualities are one of the key features of most historic porches. Overall size, shape and design are obviously important components as well. There are numerous other contributing features which may exist, including the shape of the porch roof, the way a large porch is divided into distinct bays as with columns, the nature of the supporting foundation, the style and size of columns and balustrade, and whether the porch is raised or largely at grade. The simplicity of a porch or its richness in detail will also help define it. Materials are usually important as well, not just the wood features, but also whether other materials exist such as masonry columns and steps (Figure 4).

How does the porch contribute to the building’s overall appearance?

The size and location of a porch and how much of the historic features survive will help define its significance. A highly ornate porch across much of the front facade may be the most distinctive feature of the entire house, while a small simple porch on an otherwise plain cottage may be equally significant. The architectural style of a porch may relate to the building and may help define its character. Sometimes a later style porch may have been added to a building or may have replaced an earlier porch. In such cases, the later porch may have acquired importance in its own right. On the other hand, a later porch may be of such poor quality that it detracts from the building’s historic character. Because porches are so diverse in terms of style, size, shape and detail, their significance should be assessed on a case-by-case basis with an understanding of the overall importance and evolution of the building.

The Anatomy of a Porch

  1. Pier, penetrates ground, supports floor structural system and columns
  2. Fascia covering floor framing
  3. Floor (or deck)
  4. Bed Molding covering joint between fascia and floor
  5. Column supporting entablature above

anatomy-porch-drawing

Entablature (f, g, h)

  1. Architrave of entablature
  2. Frieze of entablature
  3. Cornice of entablature

Roof Railing (i, j, k, l)

  1. Newel (or Pedestal) of roof railing
  2. Balusters of balustrade
  3. Top rail of balustrade
  4. Bottom rail of balustrade

Balustrade around floor (m, n, o)

  1. Top rail of balustrade
  2. Balusters of balustrade
  3. Bottom rail of balustrade

Structural system of deck (p, q, r)

  1. Girder rests on piers and ledgers, support joists
  2. Ledger fastened to house sill, supports girder
  3. Joist fastened to girder, supports floor

Roof Structural System (s, t, u)

  1. Beams inside the entablature span from column to column, support plate
  2. Plate of the entablature rests on beams, supports roof rafters and ceiling beams
  3. Rafter of the roof structural system

 

THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF YOUR HISTORIC HOME is a crucial component of protecting you, your home, and possessions. Today’s blog post includes typical topics related to safety and security, and how to ensure that your home is protected. 

2 safety issues: peeling paint that is probably lead-based, and worn, slippery stairs.
Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

 

Lead Paint. Lead paint has been used heavily since the 1700s through the late 1970s (mostly any house built pre-1978 is of concern – unless it has been abated). Health risks of lead exposure – a potent neurotoxin – are well-known, and include brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development in children, among other things. Follow the steps below to appropriately manage your lead paint: 

  • If you are unsure if your home still has lead paint, pick up a DIY test kit at a hardware or home improvement store.

  • If you know that the lead paint has not been abated, you can still safely live with it if it is undisturbed, as long as it is well adhered. In such cases, it is helpful to encapsulate it under a latex primer and topcoat. Preventing paint failure this way is the most cost-effective method.
  • If you plan on updating the paint, follow safety guidelines, including these:
    • Prioritize safety over speed of removal – people who have opted for speedy techniques have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, and this dust created by removal is the most common route of exposure to lead. We recommend chemical paint strippers (reduces exposure to lead dust) or SpeedHeaters (an infrared paint stripper with an operating temperature lower than the vaporizing point of lead, that only heats the surface vs. going in between or under work areas, decreasing chance of fire). These methods are less likely to cause injury to person or to the historic fabric underneath than other – including abrasive/aggressive – methods. 
  • If you feel you need professional assistance, hire a qualified contractor who has EPA RRP (renovation, repair, and painting) certification.
    • However, we acknowledge that hiring a professional to strip paint is expensive because it is labor-intensive. Use the 80/20 rule: 80% of work is unskilled or semi-skilled, 20% is skilled. If you do some of the unskilled/semi-skilled work yourself, you can save money and some of the historic fabric. For example, instead of assuming you must remove an entire piece of historic fabric because it is covered in lead paint, such as a built-in, consider taking time to do some of the work, then hire a contractor for the parts that are out of your wheelhouse.  
  • Further resources include the EPA’s website information on lead, here.

Asbestos. Asbestos has been used as a relatively inexpensive and effective fire-retardant material and insulator, and was highly popular between the early 1940s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is also harmful if the material is damaged or disturbed it is likely to be harmful, as tiny abrasive fibers are easily inhaled. Prolonged exposure can lead to lung disease or cancer. Signs of damage include crumbling easily, or if it has knowingly been sawed, scraped, or sanded.

  • If undisturbed, it does not pose a threat, so the best tactic is to leave it undisturbed. This is generally the only step you can safely DIY; damage or disturbance requires professional intervention.
  • If you are unsure if it has been damaged or disturbed, have it inspected by an industrial hygiene firm.
  • If the inspection confirms that it needs to be addressed, contact an asbestos abatement contractor.
  • The EPA also has information on managing asbestos, here.

Porches, Balconies, Railings, Steps. These areas pose several potential safety issues, especially when exposed to the elements. They function not only as safety features but also as highly visible decorative elements, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Depending on when they were built, they may have less protection from and be more susceptible to insect damage. A damaged or missing porch apron can allow moisture or animals under a porch, leading to problems of a weak and unstable foundation, and bio-hazards. Also, limited maintenance or mere ageing may lead to unsound areas for walking, increasing the chance of people slipping and falling. It is important to check for obvious signs of damage or danger, including rotting, broken or loose features, bite marks, cracks, mold and mildew, uneven level, and unusual sounds or give when weight is applied. 

  • If you determine there is damage, depending on the type and severity, you can attempt to rectify it yourself utilizing information from NPS and our many blog posts on porches (here). First and foremost, keep in mind that preservation of as many elements as possible is always the first line of defense, before considering replacement. 
  • A simple fix for step surfaces exposed to moisture (and therefore posing increased slippage) as suggested by NPS is to add grit to the wet paint during application.
  • If you determine animals or insects are present, you may consult your homeowners insurance in finding exterminators or a professional pest removal company. For mold and mildew removal, wear protective gear and cleaning standards as recommended by the EPA, here
  • Hire a qualified contractor for more complex needs.

Structural Problems. This is very similar to the above topic, but may also include entire foundations, walls, and roofing support. It should go without saying, but structural problems are an entire-house problem. But, they also are generally salvageable and should not be considered a lost-cause. It’s important to be aware of and look for common causes or signs of structural problems, including overgrown vegetation, house features leaking water or other sources of too much water like flooding or springs, damaged or missing roof tiles, and cracks or bulges in walls, uneven or difficult-to-open or close windows and doors, as well as sagging, bowing, cracked, or sloping floors. 

  • If plants are the problem, simple actions such as pruning crowns and roots of the plants can help prevent further issues
  • Depending on the type of water damage, you may need to replace roof tiles, or clean gutters and pipes
  • Utilizing general facade maintenance, such as the methods suggested by NPS or our blog (here) can help guide you
  • Many problems will likely require hiring a structural engineer

Fire. Fire is a major threat to historic homes, and permanently changes the historic fabric, if the building survives. The biggest risk of fire is actually during restoration, when tools can overheat, chemicals can mix together, etc. Along with fire comes smoke and water damage. 

  • Do a cursory inspection for potential fire hazards.
  • Plan an escape route.
  • Keep fire alarms and fire extinguishers throughout the home, and escape ladders in upper floor rooms. Sprinklers can be a great addition if your budget can afford them, as the new systems are designed to do less damage to historic fabric on installation, and certain systems are specifically designed to suffocate a fire without damage to historic fabric. 
  • Keep important items and documents in a fire-proof safe.
  • Be especially careful during the holidays, when holiday lights and extension cords pose major threats.
  • If smokers are present, set limits on when and how smoking can occur, if at all, on the property.
  • Inspect chimneys for damage and keep them clean.
  • Inspect wiring. Knob and tube wiring can be functional, if in good condition and if they are not overloaded. However, if something needs to be updated and we recommend upgrading electrical panels from fuses to circuit breakers.
  • Ensure that contractors and other workers follow strict safety guidelines to prevent fires.

Security. Security is a concern in every home, and there are several things you can consider for your historic home.

  • Consider having layers of protection, the first layer being physical security. This should include deadlocks and bolts, preferably low-profile so as not to interfere with the historic fabric. Windows should be maintained, including their locks. If your home still has functioning historic shutters, these can add additional protection. This may also include historically-accurate walls, fencing, and gates. 
  • Another layer may include electric alarms and detection. Wireless alarm and camera systems are preferable for historic homes to decrease damage to historic fabric.

 

KEEPING YOUR HISTORIC HOME COOL IN SUMMER is an essential part of living comfortably today. But, how was it done in the past, and what can we do now? We’ve outlined the history and applicable steps for you. 

 

1880’s photo of a British home in India. Image source: Wikipedia’s entry on Punkahs

 

Historic Cooling and Passive Cooling

Older buildings (primarily those built prior to the mid-twentieth century) were built to be energy efficient and are the quintessence of passive cooling. Fuel was not easy to obtain or manage and it was not cheap. Many people today are surprised to learn that the biggest energy usage has been attributed to buildings built between the 1950’s-1970’s, according to GSA. Below are several features and methods used in the past that you can still successfully use today:

Homes built between the 1950’s-1970’s have been proven to use more energy than buildings before that time.

 

Cross Ventilation. Cross ventilation was frequently used. Cross ventilation refers to a passive way of supplying air to, and removing air from, an interior as a result of pressure differences from natural forces. This requires one opening for air to come in, and another for air to go out. Windows – particularly double -hung – are one way of accessing these natural forces. Open a lower window on the cooler side of the home, and an upper window on the warmer side of the home to be most effective. Tall, single-hung windows are also appropriate for allowing more air into the home. Opening as many windows (and doors and hallways) as possible will multiply the benefits. Other features that aid this natural cooling process include door and window transoms, undercut doors, window and door screens, louvered shutters, and shotgun and dogtrot/center hall-style architecture (both of which have windows or hallways front to back or side-to-side to allow for natural airflow).

The image above is of the John Looney House, a classic dogtrot-style home, attributed to photographer Chris (last name not listed), as found on the Wikipedia page on Natural Ventilation

 

Thermal Mass. Thermal mass – a building materials’ ability to store heat – can also play a significant role in passive cooling. A house with thick (especially stone-based) walls can act as a conduit for passive cooling via thermal mass, if nighttime temperature is cool enough. Ideally, the building/wall material will cool overnight, allowing for cooler daytime temperatures because it will only slowly warm over the course of the day (and release that warmth at night). 

 

The image above of a stone mason is by flickr user diamondmountain, as found on the Wikipedia page on Masonry

 

Shutters. Louvered shutters (those that are constructed with overlapping uniform slats of wood set into a frame) allowed air circulation and privacy. They allow for air flow while blocking direct sunlight and heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above is of a louvered shutter we built for the Hampton National Historic Site

 

Porches and Awnings. Porches and awnings both act as blocks from solar radiation, resulting in cooler internal temperature. “Sleeping” porches to sleep outside during warmer summer months (popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods) were another way to enjoy a cooler experience. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above is of the porch at the historic Harris-Cameron Mansion following Keperling Preservation Service’s porch restoration

 

Shade Landscaping. Shade trees are an obvious aid for a cooler home. Shrubs, bushes, and groundcover are also beneficial; they can provide shade as well as absorb heat radiation and cool the air prior to it reaching your home (unlike a paved yard-space which is more likely to reflect heat). These plants can also shade existing pavement to decrease heat.               

 

The image above is by Arno Senoner on Unsplash.

 

Other Methods. Homeowners of the past also employed other practical ways to cool their homes. According to an article from New Orleans Architecture Tours, homeowners modified interior design and decoration by exchanging heavier draperies for light linens and lace (which could double as window screens). Thick rugs could be replaced with grass mats. Furniture was covered by linen or cotton. They also adjusted food preparation and meal location; preparing foods with minimal cooking to avoid heating the home unnecessarily, and having more picnic meals outdoors. 

 

 

 

Image of the painting “Ready for the Ball” by artist Sophie Anderson, from the Wikipedia entry on Hand fan

 

How to Cool Your Historic Home Today

There may be no need to reinvent the wheel. If you are lucky enough to own a historic home, particularly one whose old features are intact, a practical preservation method would be to use one or all of the time-tested passive cooling methods noted above. This will not only honor your home’s heritage and historic fabric, it will also save you money over the long-term, and benefit the environment. However, we acknowledge that practically-speaking, sometimes passive cooling alone is not sufficient. Below are several modern options that can effectively cool your home and simultaneously have minimal impact on the integrity of your home’s historic fabric: 

Time-tested passive cooling methods can save modern homeowners money and be energy efficient.

 

Window and Portable Units. These are a classic, generally economical option, though there are cautions for historical homes. Window units may not easily fit into old windows due to size differences and inconsistency in some older windows. They also put significant pressure on sills and walls due to their weight. The water drips often created by the cooling system can also cause damage to the window and surrounding walls. Portable units can also sometimes leak, causing damage to historic floors. 

Targeted Cooling. Mini-split systems are a ductless, targeted form of heating and cooling. The indoor unit is mounted to the ceiling or wall and the cooled refrigerant is pumped in via refrigerant lines that run to the outdoor unit. These may be ideal for difficult-to-cool areas of the home, particularly additions or enclosed rooms that do not have ductowork. However, beware that they require drilling through the wall of your home for installation; once this is done, it is hard to undo. Further, these are not low profile, so visually, they disrupt the flow of a historic interior and exterior. 

High-Velocity Cooling. SpacePak and the UNICO system are high-velocity/low impact systems. They work similarly to central air, but are about 1/10 the size of a traditional central air system. Both require ducts, but they are small and the vents are minimally-intrusive. They are generally installed in attics/upper floors to allow cooler air to drop down. These are less disruptive, more visually-seamless options than the aforementioned cooling systems so they are better at maintaining the integrity of a home’s historic fabric, and frequently recommended by preservation contractors. Listen to our podcast with UNICO here.

 

IN SUMMARY:

There are several passive and active options for cooling your historic home. Arm yourself with knowledge before you decide what options are best for your home and your budget. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • The EPA provides a detailed resource on energy efficiency in old homes here, and we also discuss energy efficiency here and here
  • Read about a historical landmark’s retrofitted HVAC here.
  • Learn more ways people stayed cool before air conditioning here and here.
  • Learn about the advent and evolution of air conditioning here.