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.

 

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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