With the heat beating on us, what better time to pause and praise that most graceful and communal of architectural conceptions—the porch.
Illustration by Tyler Darden
“Parents on porches, rock and rock …” James Agee, 1915
In the South, there are plenty of pretty decks, patios and pool areas, to be sure. But there is only one place, many people would argue, where one can find true peace of mind—a place indelibly linked to the region’s psyche. That place is the porch.
Often old and almost always cozy, the porch over the decades has achieved iconic status as what architects like to call a “threshold area”—a combination private and public spot. The porch is the quintessential warm-weather gathering space, and as such has come to symbolize deep communal and familial ties. Who doesn’t have a treasured porch memory—playing hide-and-seek beneath Grandmother’s porch as a child, sleeping in a hammock on the porch of your first home, watching fireflies from a porch swing on a soft summer night, or stealing your first kiss?
Formal or casual, screened or not, we love porches. And it’s easy to understand why: Though its origins go back centuries to other countries, the porch is a uniquely American cultural touchstone. And while porch styles differ significantly, its purpose is basic: to catch light and give respite, to lift away the routines and pressures of indoor life and replace them with … well, with a very pleasant existential calm, even when the crickets are in high dudgeon. As home builder Ben Larockella says in Michael Dolan’s 2002 book, The American Porch, “People like the feel of a porch. You have a chair or two out there. You can smoke a cigar in peace.”
The concept of outdoor shelters connected to larger dwellings goes back hundreds of years. There were loggias and portegos in 15th- and 16th-century Venice, and Dolan writes that 17th-century Brazilian slave dwellings “had an African theme—houses raised on platforms with roofed exterior spaces ….” Early Indian and Caribbean homes featured verandas. But Louis Nelson, associate professor and chair of the University of Virginia’s architectural history department, says that in more recent times, these “transitional” spaces have evolved into a distinctly American architectural form.
Always covered and generally found above ground level, porches began to appear on American homes in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Until then, the dominant Colonial and plantation architecture, based largely on European and particularly English models, rarely included a porch or any significant covered space outdoors. “Places like Westover and Berkeley simply don’t have them,” explains Calder Loth, a senior architectural historian with the Historic Richmond Foundation. But it wasn’t long before Italian and French verandas and portico styles began to influence American architects, along with models brought back from tropical colonies around the world.
Perhaps the most famous example of this influence is George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Washington, after a trip to Barbados in the late 1790s, returned to Virginia to create what Nelson says was “the first real example of a high-end, large-scale porch.” Thomas Jefferson, too, dramatically affected American architecture with his elegant porch and portico experiments at Monticello in the late 1700s.
Porches would play a role in historical dramas. In Virginia, the porch of Charlton’s Coffee House in Williamsburg served as a center of political intrigue and planning during the Revolutionary War. In 1765, it even provided refuge for a desperate British tax collector who was being pursued by angry citizens protesting his collection of revenue for the much-reviled Stamp Act. The taxman leapt onto the porch and was granted asylum by then-governor Francis Fauquier, who was on the porch at the time, according to Katherine Wilkins, reference librarian for the Virginia Historical Society.
Through most of the 1800s, porches remained a largely private space, says Jack Zehmer, retired director of the Historic Richmond Foundation. Some porches were placed to the back or side of the house to allow homeowners to cool off during the summer, or set on a southern exposure to capture the sun’s rays and warm the home in winter. “Before air conditioning, porches were a necessity,” Zehmer says. “They shaded the fronts of houses and created cool areas. You could open the windows on the cool side of the house to gain some relief.” In hot summer months, porches were a place for residents to perform minor chores such as shucking peas or mending laundry.
There was even a theory that having a porch was good for one’s health. According to Dolan in The American Porch, in the early 20th century in Saranac Lake, New York, physician E. L. Trudeau promoted screened porches as a treatment for tuberculosis, and dubbed his idea the “cure porch.” Simply sitting near a garden was said to increase an individual’s vitality and resistance to disease, and as a result, many homeowners created porches overlooking their back gardens.
In the 1850s, the arrival of mass-produced architectural pattern books, showing standardized pictures and plans for home building, spurred interest in outdoor spaces. “That’s when we really start to see porches take hold,” says Nelson, of UVA. In the 160 years since, virtually every type of porch has flourished in Virginia, from majestic Palladian columned porticos and wrought-iron filigree to stylized, gingerbread-laden Victorian and, of course, the simple, wooden frame version so common on farmhouses and middle-class suburban homes.
At some point in the 1800s, architects began to put porches on the front of homes—less for the homeowners’ enjoyment than to impress the neighbors, Loth says. Antebellum architecture, influenced by the Greek Revival movement, literally enlarged the idea into palatial two-level porches dominated by huge stone columns. Tara in Gone with the Wind exemplified such grandeur. It wasn’t long before the front porch became essential as a meeting place for small groups. When neighbors and friends came to visit, everyone sat on the porch. “They became outdoor living rooms,” says Loth. “When it was hot, it was nice to sit outside and be neighborly.”
Around that time, the porch got a major functional boost with the use of screens—first made of horsehair and later inexpensive wire mesh. They made possible the creation of the screened porch, which let air pass through but kept bugs out. Dolan quotes one observer as calling the screened porch “the most humane contribution the 19th century made to the preservation of sanity and good temper.” And, of course, the screened porch would become a fixture on Southern homes.
Porches were a key element of the architectural movement known as Arts & Crafts, a counterpoint to Victorian design as the 19th century ended. The classic California bungalow—“small, thin-walled, front-porch houses, inexpensive to build and easy on the eye and wallet,” writes Dolan—was emblematic of Arts and Crafts design. “Commentators praised its porch, not only for the visual appeal it contributed but for the way it enhanced family and community life.”
Porches even played a special role in courtship through the early part of the 1900s, explains Zehmer. They offered a semi-private space for engaged or dating couples to spend time together. Families could keep an eye on the couple’s activities from inside without being too close. “If a boyfriend came to call,” says Zehmer, “the family had to go inside and sit in the heat.”
In fact, in The American Porch, Dolan also explains how different forms of porch life were tied to socioeconomics: “Working class families sprawled across porches seeking respite from the summer heat. Middle-class suburban ladies served one another tea. Managers and businessmen unwound from the rigors of the office, relaxing with cigars and drinks. The homes of the wealthy often paired the porch with a porte cochere—a voluminous shelter that had the added benefit of making the house seem larger than it was, at a fraction of the cost.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, after the advent of air conditioning, porches fell out of favor with suburban builders and homeowners, who had become enamored with cheap and easy-to-construct decks. But this decade, say experts, porches are making a comeback. According to the National Association of Home Builders, roughly half of the new homes built in Virginia in 2005 (the last year for which data is available) had a porch of some kind. “I’m building more screened-in porches than ever,” says Peter Stockdon, a contractor with Stockdon & Sons in Richmond. “People want to relax on that old, Southern-style screened porch.”
Adds Janet Barouche, a landscape designer with Greenway Gardens in Richmond, “We’ve decided that we’re watching too much TV and are too connected to our computers. People want to disconnect a little, simplify their lives.” Lounging on a porch is life’s most convenient getaway.
Architect David Heymann, in a comment to the Austin American Statesman newspaper, recently described the porch as like “the brim of a hat. It shades you but also makes it possible to have an uninterrupted view of the surrounding landscape.”
One iconic porch form appears on the brink of extinction, however: the sleeping porch. It is typically a long, open structure along the back of a two-story house, where entire families would sleep, in years past, on muggy nights. “We always loved to spend the night at my friends’ grandmother’s house because of the sleeping porch upstairs,” says Betsy Gates Moore, a designer in Richmond. “It was just lined with beds, open on three sides and screened in. It was like a dorm room.” Loth says that after home air conditioners became available, in the 1930s and ’40s, sleeping porches were quickly glassed or walled in to recapture the valuable square footage.
These days, few if any builders include sleeping porches in their plans, and virtually no homeowners remove walls or glass to return them to their former state. Still, many of today’s homeowners do pay homage to the sleeping porch, in a way. Says Moore, “People are sleeping at night in their beds—but they are also putting hammocks, couches and other furniture [on their porches] for naps and occasional sleeping.”
Actually, they are doing lots more than that. Porch design continues to evolve—and through the new “outdoor living” design movement, porches are becoming spaces that can be used during three or even all four seasons of the year. They’re becoming outdoor rooms complete with furniture, fireplaces, eating spaces, weather-safe lighting and even kitchen areas with granite countertops, full-size ranges and refrigerators. “People are decorating the outdoors like we would the indoors,” Moore says, and using new outdoor-friendly fabrics, rugs and window treatments that make the porch as comfortable as the living room.
She sees herself and others in the Baby Boom generation seeking solace in nature, even if it’s only on their own property. “I remember my grandparents sitting on their front porch and rocking for hours at a time,” says Moore. “And I think of getting old with my husband in the same way—and rocking away.” •