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: