Dan and Pat Miller knew the boxed-in porch on the Italianate next door to them in Elgin, Illinois, wasn’t appropriate for the 1870s house. So when the property went on the market, the serial restorers couldn’t resist the chance to buy it and bring back its porch. Using details from pattern books and other Italianate homes in the area as inspiration for the new elements, the Millers began the process of bringing together an Italianate porch piece by piece. Their story is a good a guide for anyone looking to put a porch back on a Victorian-era house.
One of the couple’s first tasks was to figure out the porch’s scale. On Italianate houses, the porch roof and posts often intersect at a point just under a second-story windowsill, and the Millers had evidence of where the porch roof started on this house, but they weren’t sure of the pitch.
They turned to a neighbor’s porch roof to determine that they needed a pitch of 1:12. With that number in hand, they were able to establish the placement and height of the soffit and fascia. (To keep the soffit and fascia the same all the way around the porch, they needed to build a slight hip into the roof—without it, the fascia on the sides would have to be triangles instead of matching the style of the front.) Next, Dan and Pat determined the height of the porch ceiling. For Italianate porches, it’s usually the same height as ceilings in the rooms on the first floor—in this case, 10'.
Once they knew the ceiling height, the Millers were able to determine the height of the box beam; subtracting that number from the ceiling height gave them the height of the porch posts. They adjusted this measurement to account for the slope of the porch floor (¼" for every foot) to get the posts’ final height. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to come together.
To calculate the measurements for the apron, Dan and Pat measured from the water-table board (added to hide the undercarriage of the porch) to the ground, taking off a couple of inches to keep the apron out of the dirt so it won’t rot. An important element of the apron is the frame around it, which must be constructed to account for the necessary slope in the porch deck. The apron and the bottom of the water-table board should all be level, despite the floor slope, but the top of the water-table board should be angled with the porch floor, creating a trapezoid. “A very common mistake people make is to not make the water-table boards in the shape of a trapezoid,” says Dan. “Without this, the porch looks like it’s falling down.”
The next design detail—the height of the balustrade rails—also was crucial to the appearance and scale of the porch. Italianate porches, which are tall and thin, usually have very low railings, often placed at the same height as the first-floor windowsills, so as not to interrupt the view. On this house, the windowsills were 26" high—lower than the code requirements for Elgin. The Millers made detailed drawings of the porch with their calculated dimensions and brought them to the local code department. Citing exceptions for lower rails on historic homes in the International Building Code and the Building Officials Code Administrators (BOCA), they convinced their code department to not only allow them to build the rail at the lower height, but also to amend the current
codes to allow exceptions for historic homes in their area.
While scouring the neighborhood for inspiration for appropriate stylistic elements, the couple noticed an intricate historic porch on a neglected house nearby with posts and brackets suited to their project—but it was being bulldozed. With the wrecking crew’s permission, Dan pulled splintered porch elements from a Dumpster.
They used those elements—stop-chamfered posts with rail-height molding, scroll brackets, and vine-like ornamentation—as patterns for their new porch. However, some elements had to be resized because the Millers’ porch was slightly larger.
The posts required 40 individual pieces of molding, most of which Dan was able to make with a stop block on a miter saw, assembly-line style. He was also able to economize on router work, using a ½" bit to create the stop chamfers on the posts, the rounding over the rails, the cove and small applied molding on the apron, and the bullnosing on the stair treads.
The sandwiched brackets from the South Elgin house also proved to be a good match to existing brackets on the Millers’ house. However, they were too damaged to use, so Dan disassembled them and traced the three pieces on plywood to create a template, which he cut out on the exterior with a bandsaw, and the interior with a scroll saw.
The South Elgin house wasn’t the Millers’ only source of inspiration: A home in Geneva provided a model for the balustrade. They took tracings and pictures of the balusters, and made measurements with calipers, replicating that balustrade pattern for the entire porch. To save time, Dan made the balusters by nailing three pieces of wood together, tracing the pattern on the top piece, and then cutting out the pattern with a bandsaw, ending up with three finished balusters. “I drilled pilot holes for the nails so they would go in easily,” Dan explains. “The nails go in the part of the baluster that gets cut out,
so no nail holes show in the end product.”
The crown molding and the small bed molding on the fascia of the porch already existed on the house’s roof. To duplicate both moldings, Dan used a Belsaw planer and knives cut with his own Viel knife-cutting machine.
Other porch elements, such as the vergeboards, were modeled from old pattern books. Pat magnified the drawings on a copier until the image was blown up to the size needed. She often had to magnify multiple sections of the design, then tape them together to create the full-scale template. She also researched Sanborn maps to determine the footprint of the original porch, which was smaller and not as deep as the enclosed porch had been.
Dan and Pat struggled for a long time on the design of the porch apron, but finally settled on a simple frame with a beadboard field, corner brackets, and an appliqué medallion copied from their carriage house’s vergeboards. The brackets are the type used for screen doors; Dan created them from a copy of a screen-door bracket he had traced decades earlier. He made the small applied molding on a router table.
After they decided on each element of the porch, Dan created a full-scale mockup out of scrap wood, which they would leave in place for a few days to see how they liked the look of the design. (Neighbors occasionally gave feedback, too.) Some elements required multiple mockups—the apron, for instance, took four tries before they were happy with the design.
Though tracking down and creating the elements for the new Italianate porch was hard work, Dan and Pat say it was worth it. “We have 18 windows that we can look out of and see that house,” Pat says. “It’s an extremely satisfying transformation.” Plus, they know that a porch that matches the house will never go out of style.
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Online Bonus: Download homeowner Dan Miller's porch design guidelines.