Landscape Confidential: Porches through the years


BURLINGTON -- A porch is where we welcome friends, greet strangers, gab with our neighbors, sip a cool drink on a hot day, and store oddments of domestic life. It is a place of transition between our inner and outer lives.

"Technically, we can think of a porch as a covering over an entryway," explained Thomas Visser, a professor of history at the University of Vermont. But a porch is much more than that.

As Visser details in his book, "Porches of North America" (University Press of New England, 2012), a porch is a place where social and domestic activities meet and merge, a place that communicates our social standing and offers security, and a place where we seek health and comfort. The features and uses of porches have changed over the centuries in ways that reflect broad cultural shifts. Those changing cultural patterns can be seen in the kinds of porches present in nearly any town.

There are galleries and stoops, verandas and sleeping porches, porticos and porte-cocheres, gable loggias and enclosed porches. Though most modern porch architecture in North America has roots in Europe, porches were built by native cultures throughout North America as early as 2,000 years ago. These structures served as shade in the desert regions, protection from cold in the Arctic, walkways in Mayan Mexico, and storage in Ontario.

Following European colonization of the New World, various versions of porches were brought over from Europe and adapted to local needs and customs. The gallery, a long porch recessed under the eaves of a curved roof, is found on houses built in the 1700s in areas settled by the French, including Vermont and Quebec. These porches were places to do domestic work, store goods, and chat with neighbors.

Around the same time, the Dutch brought to North America the idea of the stoop (or stoep, meaning "step"), featuring benches on either side of the door, which became a place to sit and socialize with neighbors.

Porches became more and more popular in North America as places that allowed people to relax the strict social customs of the Victorian era. Porches on stores were places where residents of all classes could mingle and share news; porches on houses were where young ladies could glimpse and even chat with potential suitors without the formalities of indoor life.

During the late 1800s, many homes had porches that were not attached to an entryway. According to Visser, these verandas were specifically for enjoying the outdoors while being protected from the weather. In the same vein, hotels and hospitals installed long porches, called piazzas, where guests could walk. Thus, porches began to be seen as promoting health as well as social activities.

At the turn of the last century, the tuberculosis epidemic spawned a fad of building screened sleeping porches, where residents of sanitariums could inhale the healthful night air. Saranac Lake, N.Y., hosts a glut of sleeping porches because it was a popular destination for those suffering from tuberculosis.

Sleeping porches were not only for the ill; the healthy, too, could enjoy the cool breezes of a summer night while avoiding mosquitoes. Indeed, sleeping porches are common throughout the Northeast and they are easy to spot: they are typically on the second story of a house, off of a bedroom, big enough to put a cot in, and screened.

Some porches were status symbols. Porte-cocheres, which may be found in historically wealthy neighborhoods (and on the White House), project from an entrance and cover the driveway, offering protection from the weather for those arriving in horse-drawn carriages.

Porticos, or long porches with Grecian-style columns across the front of a building, are another example of status porches. These were not porches for lounging or walking, but porches that made a building look impressive.

"This was a way to symbolically add the impression of importance to a building, whether it be a home or a government building," said Visser. According to Visser, the Vermont Statehouse features a portico designed by architect Ammi Young in the early 1830s. That stately portico launched Young's career; he went on to design post offices and customs houses for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

While some kinds of porches can be found nearly anywhere, other types became trendy in a restricted area.

This is true of the Connecticut River Valley gable loggia (pronounced loh-hia). This porch is recessed under the gable, or peaked, end of an inn. It can only be found in the Connecticut River Valley, where the idea spread along stagecoach routes.

The gable loggia is an example of "a very peculiar type of structure that was being added to buildings as a way to make them attractive to potential customers at these stagecoach inns," explained Visser. "It was trendy at the time, it offered the appearance of comfort, and I'm sure the room that had access to that upper story porch was offered at a premium price. It was a way that an ordinary building could be made somewhat special."

Making a house special was a theme that led people to build even more porches, so that nearly every house built in the late 1800s featured a porch.

The porch craze didn't last, however. "If we trace the history of porches we can see that with the advent of air conditioning, with the development of automobiles on roads and city streets, there was a shift away from people sitting out on the front porch in the evening to staying inside and seeking more privacy," said Visser.

In the mid-1900s, when the Depression and World War II dominated public consciousness, domestic life contracted into the security of the home. By the 1950s, front porch use was tinged with racial and social stereotypes and instead it became trendy to build a deck or patio in the backyard. Magazines featured instructions for winterizing and enclosing a front porch; these former porches are identifiable by their rows of windows and, often, use as a storage space rather than a living space.

In the 1970s, that trend began to reverse. The U.S. bicentennial celebration spurred the public's interest in history, and porches became a place to display flags and flowers in patriotic spirit. Concern about sun exposure coupled with enjoyment of the outdoors also led to an increased appreciation of porches.

Finding representatives of all these porch types is not that difficult in Vermont, says Visser. The best places to find a variety of porches are historical neighborhoods. There, you are likely to see porches from every era of porch culture since the early 1800s - from stoops, to sleeping porches, to enclosed porches, to porches displaying the owner's pride and patriotism.


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