A great porch is an airy and welcoming outdoor room that inspires relaxation and good conversation. It can be a sitting room, dining room, or outdoor kitchen.
And it can frame the view, as this marvelous photograph by Joe Fletcher — like a modern “screen grab” of a desert painting by Maynard Dixon — illustrates. It shows the porch on a house designed by Marmol Radziner Architects, from the new ranch house book by David Weingarten and Lucia Howard mentioned last week.
Architect Greg La Vardera (portrait below), who has eleven plans in our Exclusive Studio Collection, has thought a lot about porches. This week he is our Guest Blogger with an essay on The Front Porch. I’m illustrating his article primarily with images of his plans.
The Front Porch by Greg La Vardera
“The front porch is seeing a revival. But what happened to the front porch in the first place? Where did it come from, what makes it so great anyway, and why did it disappear?
The front porch creates a transition zone between the public realm of the street and the private realm of the home (as shown in plan 431-1, below). It’s a safe place, neither inside nor outside, where you are sheltered from the elements and can sit and watch your neighborhood. It’s a friendly place where neighbors and visitors can approach without invading the privacy of your home. It makes the street safer by providing “eyes on the street:” passive surveillance that drives away the type of trouble that wants to remain anonymous.
Let’s look back first. I’ll give my non-academic, observer-on–the-street history. Some of the oldest homes in the country can be found in our colonial cities on the East Coast. In my home town of Philadelphia you see a timeline of American building as you cross the city from east to west following the expansion of the original settlement. In the oldest sections there are no porches: town homes sit right on the sidewalk and there is no place for a porch.
It’s not until the late 1800s and early 1900s that we start seeing houses with porches, in West Philadelphia, or more northern neighborhoods. Twin houses — a new pattern — emerged. These houses are slightly set back from the street with a small green garden between house and sidewalk, and a front porch! It’s hard to say why the porch emerged at this point. These houses were built in outlying neighborhoods — suburbs — at the time, and the urbanity of these places was less intense than in the historic core. A similar pattern of relatively dense suburban development with houses featuring porches was extending all over the country at this time.
Fast forward another 50 years, and most of the houses being built still looked the about the same, but now they were really no longer of the times. Life had changed, the automobile was now the primary transport, suburbs had expanded and zoning had begun to separate business from dwelling in new communities. The writing was on the wall — the car was going to be necessary to go anywhere. Without foot traffic in the neighborhood, and with cars zipping by to get where they were going, the porch was now obsolete. It had become a vestige of traditional home styles, but was no longer a necessary social space of the home.
Around the same time a new house type emerged — the modern ranch house — partially as a result of the Bauhaus school of designers that settled in US universities after the war. The ranch house often turned its porch inward to a courtyard or rearward toward the private yard, creating another in-between space. Other, European-inspired modern homes lacked porches in the American sense at all. And while these houses enjoyed a brief popularity they by no means became the dominant housing style. Yet much of the American housing that followed them also abandoned the porch. In the 50s and early 70s American suburbs were built out with thousands of split level homes, so called “raised ranches”, and other new house forms that were often finished with traditional details although their form was entirely modern, including their lack of front porches. I grew up in such a neighborhood, and lacking a front porch, people would roll up their garage doors and put folding chairs on the threshold. The porch persisted despite its absence!
Another jump to today finds us with a radically different status quo. Houses are larger, most definitely inspired by traditional styles, but the style is often reduced to a front treatment, brick falling away to vinyl siding at the first corner. A porch on such a house is a similar shallow representation, often without space for even a rocker. What happened? In some circles the modern house takes the rap for the disappearance of the front porch. History shows that this is probably not so. Yet the break from tradition that the modern house represented, and the following loosening of the use of traditional styles is what led to its demise along with the changes to transportation and neighborhoods.
So what is driving the revival of front porches today? Part is the renewed interest in traditional town planning patterns for new suburban developments. And the recognition of the social value of the front porch as the home’s interface with the neighborhood. While this New Urbanism is fairly recent, the research and ground work for the ideas started with Jane Jacob’s treaties on cities and city life. In any case the front porch is back and its appeal is confirmed and value verified. People recognize it as a symbol of home, and it grants the neighborhood and the homes an authenticity that is glaringly missing from the suburban status quo.
What of the houses, and the styles? With today’s freestyle traditionalism a front porch can be designed to work on nearly any style home. Now it still makes more sense on a street, with neighbors and sidewalk within eyesight. But it can still be a great asset in other situations too. Imagine that great site for a vacation home, but the view is from the front of the house? A porch is the perfect solution. And what of the modern house? Well there is no reason that a modern style house cannot enjoy the benefits of a porch as well. A porch on the modern house has to find its own form, and its own modern materials, as it really does not want to borrow the traditional details. But it can do the job with the same essential ingredients: a deck above the ground, some posts, and a roof over your head.” Thanks, Greg. We’ll include other guest bloggers in future postings.