By 1870, balusters fret-sawn from flat boards were commong millwork items, along with turned spandrels that bridged the tops of many porches with “Steamboat Gothic” ornament.
(1850 to 1910)
Italianate, Stick, Queen Anne
Beginning in the 1850s, when the Gothic Revival style was still influential, many kinds of nonclassical porch elements also appeared in millwork catalogs, and they can be seen on most house styles of the latter 19th century. It’s hard to precisely differentiate Victorian-era porch millwork items by style because plan books sometimes used porch parts interchangeably, and millwork catalogs didn’t always identify them with descriptive labels like Queen Anne or Eastlake. The sale of porch parts as complete packages adds to the confusion, since buyers relied on the millhouses to put together all the congruent parts. Though often medieval in basic inspiration, the exuberant variety of Victorian-era porch parts also stemmed from new woodworking tools that allowed craftsmen almost unlimited creativity and increased world travel that brought design ideas from the far corners of the globe.
Called posts and veranda columns among other names, these porch supports differ from classical columns because they are generally far thinner (typically 4 1/2″ to 5 1/2″ square compared with 8″ or more in diameter for true columns) and lack classical detailing (flutes, entasis, capitals, etc.). The round posts common on Queen Anne and folk Victorian houses are turned on a lathe and almost always filled with multiple balls and curves. The top 24″ and bottom 24″ to 36″ are left square to allow railings or brackets to meet the post effectively. Post faces are often decorated with carving and applied ornamentation as well as simple chamfered edges. Square posts, such as those popular for Italianate and Stick-style houses, are not decoratively turned but instead often have stop-chamfered edges (a chamfer that tapers, often ending in ornament) or applied moldings.
Railings and Balusters
The balustrade between the posts could be as varied and uninhibited as a child’s imagination. Turned balusters lost the Greco-Roman moldings of classical porches, taking on more fanciful swellings, whorls, and incisions. Spindles that are pencil-thin connections between knobs show the influence of Eastlake furniture design. Other options included flat, fret-sawn boards, inspired by Swiss-chalet architecture, or a Chinese-Chippendale pattern of narrow horizontal and vertical rails, reflecting the Victorian fascination with the Far East.
The degree to which brackets were built up (and out) and ornamented depended largely on the budget and whims of the buyer. Rand McNally’s 1890 catalog contains more than nine pages of brackets. Posts might be visually united by sweeping circles or friezes filled with virtual spider webs of spindles. Tips
Porches of this period can be complicated to reconstruct. It’s easier to match existing parts (custom manufacturers are your best source) than to re-create an entire porch from new parts, since the original millwork options were far more varied. If you need to replace a railing, keep in mind that the historic height was often as low as 30 and would fail today’s building codes in many places. You may be able to get a variance, however, especially on a house with a grandfathered porch or historic designation. Changing the height can affect the traditional Victorian proportions and scale.
Garden-variety Arts & Crafts poroches like this bungalow’s were lean on millwork compared with Victorian houses, but railings and piers were regularly ordered from catalogs—often along with the rest of the building.
Arts & Crafts
(1900 to 1925)
Bungalows, Foursquares, Dutch Colonial
There are fewer Arts & Crafts porches highlighted in millwork catalogs, in part because these porches are relatively simple and their heyday was relatively short. Also, many porch components like support pedestals and bases had been replaced with brick and stone. However, catalogs do show expressly Arts & Crafts porch parts, such as piers and brackets, along with generic millwork like railings that were also regularly ordered for these buildings.
The archetypal Arts & Crafts porch support is a pier: a wood post that is distinctively battered (tapered) from bottom to top on all four sides. Often springing from the top of thick stone or brick pedestals, they were only a few feet tall and sometimes used in twos or threes. When present, the capitals on these piers were eclectic and nonclassical, incorporating Prairie-School or Japanese motifs for instance. Trim if any could be a bit of half-round or an inset panel. Where full-sized masonry supports of stone or stucco were used, as in pergola porches, wood detailing might be present at the top or in the decorative tails of rafter supports.
Railings and Balusters
In some cases, the main cladding of the house (brick, shingles, clapboards) extended to the porch balustrade, wrapping the porch in a solid, lower shield. The more typical balustrade would likely have square balusters and a wide, heavy railing. Fret-sawn boards derived from Arts & Crafts motifs occasionally appeared on custom homes, but were less evident in millwork catalogs.
Other detailing was minimal. Brackets, if they did appear, were spare, lean, and structural looking. Pier and roof beam decorations occasionally mimicked the bungalow’s open-tail rafters.
When designing or reconstructing a porch of this period, expect a varied use of materials. The building industry was moving away from all-wood construction as a result of fire concerns and the desire for a longer-lasting product. Masonry piers were likely to replace newel posts on the sides of front-porch steps.
Substantial balustrades were a practical necessity on raised porches, but also evoked the stonelike volumes of other classical forms.
Choose durable wood. Because porches are exposed to the weather, choosing the right wood may give it the best chances for long-term survival. In the South, use longleaf pine or red cypress. In the Northeast, use white pine—old growth, if possible. In the West, pick redwood or fir. For parts really prone to the elements it may be best to use a marine-grade wood like mahogany.
Consider water the enemy. Plan installations so they don’t hold water. Prime all sides of exposed wood, even the underside of floorboards. Make sure all water spills away from the house, and that every exposed molding pitches away from walls and foundation. A horizontal surface will hold water that ultimately eats away at your home.
Study historic porches. Look at old catalogs and photographs or carefully restored museum houses. The original builders generally got the details right, from the size of columns to long-lasting railings. Trying to build period porches on a budget can be a challenge, but you will have help if you follow the historic models.
Historic Millwork. Brent Hull is the principal at Hull Works in Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of