By Kate Crowder | Photos by Bruce Wentworth
Throughout the history of American architecture, trends have come and gone. The imposing columns of Greek Revival mansions gave way to the fanciful gingerbread trim of Stick-style Victorians, which in turn yielded to the geometric simplicity of Craftsman bungalows. But through all those permutations in style, one element has remained: the porch. Few architectural features have been more important in the formation of a unique American identity than this highly beloved perch.
The image of the front porch remains “as one of the few semi-public outdoor spaces associated with community and neighborliness,” says Victor Deupi of the Institute of Classical Architecture. Porches link us to an idealized past—one before e-mail (or even the telephone), when face-to-face interaction formed the core of communities. Then there are the practical considerations that have long kept the porch in favor: “Porches add beauty to a streetscape,” Depui says, “and they also offer environmental advantages by providing shade and breeze in the summer, and, if oriented south, allowing low winter light to enter the house.”
Porches (as well their architectural cousins, balconies) have been in use since the earliest buildings. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans found the porch well-suited to their sun-soaked climates. While largely out of fashion during the Middle Ages, porches and balconies once again found themselves in widespread use during the Renaissance. In contrast to many other American architectural traditions, however, the roots of our porches don’t appear to be found in Europe, but rather in the architectural heritage of colonial trading partners. Traders en route from the Caribbean to the British, French and Spanish colonies were influenced by island architecture, rich with large open porches to accommodate the humid climate.
Little by little, colonists (primarily in the South) began to incorporate porches in their homes, mixing this tropical influence with European classicism. In Virginia, porches often took on the look of their Palladian predecessors—two symmetrical stories flanked with columns. The classical porch also was popular in Charleston, blended with the climate sensitivity of the Caribbean building tradition to create regal, double-story piazzas. Perhaps the most famous early American classical porch is George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, which set a standard for the porch-building tradition in the American South. French settlers in the South also found the swampy climate of the low country suited to their elevated country homes with wide porches and pavilion roofs. Spanish settlers on the West Coast and in the Southwest brought a knowledge of porches and balconies from their native country. Second-story porches, often spanning the width of the house, were both practical and widespread, and corridors running along the back of the house became commonplace in Spanish America.
Perhaps this country’s most iconic porches belong to the Greek Revival movement in the Civil War-era South. (Who can think of a grand porch without conjuring visions of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara in Gone With the Wind?) The Classical Revival is remembered for its devotion to tradition and grandeur, but it also incorporated a new sensibility. Across the South, Greek porches (or porticos), with their thick white columns, easily merged with the prevailing French plantation architecture. Often the full width and height of the house, the porch served to not only provide much-needed shade, but also bring a sense of stateliness to already-impressive homes.
Soon, the fashions of Europe flooded this new American style, adorning homes with delicately ornate cast iron (particularly on second-story sitting porches) that added softness to impressive porticos. The Greek Revival porch remained the height of fashion throughout the Antebellum Era, only to be whisked out of style with the fall of Southern society with which it was so closely linked.
Once the Greek Revival porch fell out of fashion, Americans turned their eyes to a different European trend, one that would ultimately prove more enduring: Victorian Gothic. A style facilitated by industrialization (which lowered the price of building materials and upped the ease with which porches could be constructed), the American fascination with Victorian architecture left few houses without a porch, balcony, or both. Moreover, industrialization created a larger white-collar job market, widening the American leisure class. More time spent with families and neighbors, coupled with the era’s Transcendentalist love for the outdoors, made porches a popular gathering place.
Victorian porch architecture became a wonderful display of technical virtuosity. From Gothic Revival to Italianate, from Eastlake and the coastal Shingle style to Queen Anne, the Victorian porch saw many reiterations of its original architectural form, but all remained true to the spirit of their European influences.
Back to Basics
Though they were in direct contrast to the elaborately decorated outdoor spaces that characterized the Victorian era, porches on Arts & Crafts bungalows and the Prairie-style homes of Frank Lloyd Wright were no less prominent. Bungalows, the last major historic architectural style in the United States to incorporate the porch, are instantly recognizable for their prominent deep, wide porches. Wright’s homes also made great use of porches, which reach out from under his signature cantilevered roofs. Wright, however, had a tendency to reorient the porch from the front of the house to the side or back, wishing to maintain the privacy desired by the modern family while also preserving his belief in the importance of a connection to the outdoors.
Soon, though, streets filled with noisy automobiles, the twin indoor delights of television and air-conditioning, and a middle class focused more on work than leisure conspired to dethrone the porch from its prominent place in American culture. But the underlying love for porches and their associations with the American identity never waned, and recent decades have seen a revival of porch-building. The classic image of a front porch filled with family and friends on a hot summer evening has long been a symbol of traditional American values, and it’s one that still holds true today.Published in: Old-House Journal July/August 2008