This article was written by Rebecca Yerger and previously published in the Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine in November of 2014. To keep Porchfest awareness alive, NCL thought it would be appropriate to re-publish. Enjoy!
The American porch is a prominent and defining feature of a building, especially a residence. Over time, its purpose, function, form and popularity have evolved as a reflection of changes in the American lifestyle and social idioms.
The origins of the American porch and its architectural history has been the topic of considerable debate. Some individuals theorize its ancestry reaches back to the Greek and Roman Empires, such as the Roman portico.
Still other academics are of the opinion that the origins of American porch are rooted in Equatorial Africa. One such person is author Michael Dolan.
In his book, “The American Porch – An Informal History of An Informal Place,” Dolan explores this possible connection. During the 1400s, European explorers were intrigued by the Equatorial African “dwellings (that) often featured an exterior space that functioned like a room; but was open on three-sides, and had a roof supported by poles.” Dolan added, “During the day, when the (dwelling’s) interior became oven-like, these semi-public areas provided comparative comfort to conduct daily activities.”
Dolan noted the European explorers had never before seen such an exterior space in their respective homelands. He then added the Portuguese explorers have been credited with naming these exterior spaces “alpainters.”
Following its introduction to Europe, each culture adapted this exterior space into their native landscape and buildings. They gave this exterior space different names which vary slightly in meaning. Author Joan M. Brierton provided examples of these variations in her book, “American Restoration Style – Victorian.”
She said, “The terminology for this open-air room reflects cultural influences even more than architectural differences. The word ‘porch’ is derived from the ancient Greek and Roman term ‘portico,’ referring to an exterior structure often attached to a building that, although providing access to the outside, is sheltered.” She then added, “For the Italians, a covered open-air walkway, very commonly two-stories in height, was referred to as a piazza or loggia.”
Brierton noted a term related to the porch is verandah. It is “…virtually synonymous with the French (term for the porch), galerie,…” or gallery. She added, although popularized by the British, “…verandah is apparently Hindi in origin.”
However, even with all these cultural preferences for terms referring to porch-like areas, Brierton suggested an even greater influence on the terminology used on house plans. She continued, “The (actual) terminology used…appears to be derived from the term favored by the architect.”
While personal and cultural preferences influence the term used in reference to the porch area, the climate did and still does play a role in the design and purpose of the American porch. For example, in warmer regions of the U.S., such as the South and Southeast, the porch and/or verandah is deeper in dimension and envelopes more of the building. For instance, a wrap-around porch provides greater shelter from the southern heat as did the African alpainters.
However, regardless of its lineage and historical intent, the American porch has evolved beyond its original purpose of providing shelter. It is also more than a place to showcase the features and decorative details of its architectural style. The porch is also the point where the public exterior and private interior spaces of a residence converge providing the occupants and community-at-large a place to meet.
Author Jan Ciglaino addresses this convergence zone in her book, “American Restoration Style – Bungalow.” She said, “Porches…define (a home’s) communal character and domestic face… the integration of house and land, architecture and landscape…it also offers the homeowner wonderful flexibility in living arrangements…” from working to relaxing to entertaining.
Dolan noted that porches have also provided a political backdrop and stage. For example, in 1880, James A. Garfield successfully campaigned for the presidency from his front porch. His fellow republicans used the “porch stumping” plan well into the 1900s.
As this political practice waned, so did the popularity of porches. Viewed as an 1800s relic, the porch began to be considered as an unnecessary structural appendage. Contributing to its demise was the limited resources during both W.W. I and W.W. II as well as the financial woes of the Great Depression.
This movement was further enhanced by an American lifestyle change during the 1950s – 1960s. Americans moved to suburban tract homes with substantial street setbacks and large backyards to focus on their private lives. Another key contributor to the demise of the porch was the post W.W. II developers’ profit margins. By eliminating the costs of constructing porches, developers were able to quickly construct modest and architecturally streamlined dwellings which resulted in faster and bigger profits.
Dolan cited another contributor to the demise of the porch – a shift in architectural design philosophies and trends. The new styles of architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and architectural movements like the Bauhaus essentially eliminated the porch from residential designs and the American mindset.
The glimmer of the porch’s revival began in the 1960s and continued to strengthen during the 1970s and onward with the advent of historic preservation, ecology and community movements. Also, there was an increasing desire to live in older homes endowed with porches. As a result, the American porch was reincorporated into new residential construction.
The American porch, while originating globally, has been transformed through the generations from a simple shelter from the elements to an expression of aesthetic trends reflecting American principles, life, sense of community and self.