Porches return to forefront - 5/16/04

May 17, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Come and sit a spell.

Take a rocking chair. Have a seat on the glider. Shoot the breeze on the swing.

Welcome to the front porch, an important feature - both architecturally and culturally - of the American home.

Once common - a place to visit with neighbors - the porch went the way of the horse and buggy when technological advances produced air conditioning. Some people still had them, but few used them.

The porch is back.

"It has become a real big thing," said Richard Guy Wilson, commonwealth professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.


The origins of the front porch are complex, Wilson said.

There are European - largely Mediterranean - influences. There is some controversy, Wilson said, about connections to porches in tropical climates - India, Africa, the Caribbean.

Front porches began to appear in America in the late 18th century and became prominent in the 19th century.

There were important functional reasons, Wilson said. Among them was the shade they created. Especially in the American South, the porch was almost another room in warmer months, he added.

But, the porch has another less practical use.

"It's a mediating space," Wilson said. In towns and cities, the porch functioned as a gesture toward the street - a welcome to neighbors and friends walking by.

When Sue Gemeny bought her stone house on South Main Street in Keedysville about 17 years ago, there was no porch - just a big concrete slab in front. There had been porches, Gemeny said. An 1880s porch was long gone. So was a circa-1950 porch.

Gemeny wanted a porch. The house looked "so naked," she said, adding, "This is kind of a porch town."

She and her partner Harry Britner have been renovating the late 1820s home, and, when the house was selected to be one of 16 Main Street homes on a December 2000 Washington County Historical Society candlelight tour, the time was right.

Gemeny found five pillars in a Martinsburg, W.Va., "junk store." She found the decorative gingerbread trim - including a large arched piece for 50 cents - "everywhere."

"Porches certainly had character," said Hagerstown-based architectural historian Paula S. Reed.

From 1977 to 1978, Reed inventoried Washington County's 1,400 properties that were more than 100 years old.

"Almost everything had 'working' porches," she said. A working porch was just that - the place where peas would be shelled, soap would be made, sewing might be done.

Andrew J. Downing, a landscape architect and author who became known as a spokesman for American taste in the 1840s, propagated the idea of a man's home being his castle, Wilson said. Downing called the chimney and the porch the two most important elements of the American home.

Downing was rebelling against the study of formal architecture, Reed said. He was a proponent of blending the home with the landscape, making the home part of the environment, using earth tones - not white - in painting a house. He was about romanticizing the home, nostalgia.

Typically, Reed said, porch ceilings were painted "sky blue," presumably to keep flies from landing. Floors were painted gray, a good neutral color that didn't show the dirt.

Another element in the popularity of the porch was the invention of the vacation - people going away to a resort - around the time of the Civil War, Wilson said. There were porches on resort hotels in places like Cape May, N.J., and in American fashion, people wanted to enjoy the experience year-round. They wanted porches at home, he said.

Upstairs porches were used for sleeping in warm months, a practice that became common in the 1880s as the idea that fresh air, year-round, is good for you replaced the 18th-century concept of sleeping with the windows closed, Wilson said.

Front porches declined in American homes as the automobile came into prominence, Reed said. Neighbors no longer were strolling by and stopping for a friendly visit.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the focus of home changed from the street to the back yard, Wilson said. Backyard vegetable gardens were common. Patios and decks became popular.

The front porch has been experiencing a revival in American home-building since the 1980s and 1990s, Wilson said.

"There's a revival of porches but not exactly for the same purpose. The porch has become a redundant element," Wilson said.

A porch can be an important power saver, cooling the house in summer, Wilson said. But many people have air conditioning to serve that purpose.

Carl Vogel could testify to the renewed popularity of the front porch.

He has been in sales for five years with the 57-year-old Oliver Homes. He estimates the Hagerstown home construction company has built 3,000 homes through the years.

Oliver offers about 30 standard plans for homes as well as a variety of custom features. The majority have some type of covered front, he says.

"Most people don't use them," he said.

Why do they want them?

"Nostalgia," Vogel answered.

Ron Koontz of Creative Home Builders agrees.

"I think a lot of it is appearance," he said. Most of the people for whom the Hagerstown business builds homes want porches.

He also agrees that porches aren't used in "this fast-paced day and age."

"We don't take time to smell the roses or sit on our porches," he said.

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