The Porch as a Style Setter

Old houses have long been subject to changing architectual trends and fashion. Since its beginning, the United States has been a place of change and experimentation; the fact is just one reason why we have not done so well at preserving our architectural history as have other nations. Our readiness to embrace the next trend has long taken a toll on the integrity of our built environment.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” remains an American pastime today. Books and travel have both driven past changes in popular culture. Today, television programs devoted to home remodeling (along with Big Box home “improvement” centers) are far more likely to influence choices made by homeowners. The impact of the internet would be difficult to measure, but it’s been enormous in terms of both spreading ideas and in making materials accessible.

Prior to the industrial revolution, porches were relatively uncommon, and much has been written about their subsequent popularity. Many staid colonial-era facades were made stylish in the 19th century by adding porches where none had existed previously.

This Federal-period home was modernized in the mid-19th century with the addition of a porch.
This Federal-period home was modernized in the mid-19th century with the addition of a cast iron porch.  Photo courtesy of JPG Photography, Philadelphia, PA

Once it became the norm for houses to be built with porches, it did not take long for the porches themselves to become vulnerable to changes in prevailing tastes. By the early 20th century, many homeowners seeking to update their homes found that a re-styled porch could be a cost-effective solution (just as adding a porch had been in the 19th century). A porch in the latest fashion would create a modern first impression without the expense of remodeling the entire house. Paint was then frequently used to mute any embarrasingly outdated architectural details elsewhere.

This Italianate house was updated in the 1920's with a masonry porch evoking the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.
This Second Empire house was updated in the 1920’s with a masonry porch evoking the Prairie aesthetic.

 

Cosmetic changes to this former Italianate included a new porch in the Craftsman style around 1915.
Cosmetic changes to this former Italianate included a new porch in the Craftsman style around 1915.

 

As another former Italianate, this house has been restyled at least twice. First remodeled in the Queen Anne manner (hipped roof with ornate gables), it was later updated in the 1910's with a Colonial Revival front porch. The 6/6 windows are a late 20th century alteration.
As another former Italianate, this house has been restyled at least twice. First remodeled in the Queen Anne manner (hipped roof with ornate gables), it was later updated in the 1910’s with a Colonial Revival front porch.  The 6/6 windows are a late 20th century alteration.

Many porch modifications were far less drastic in nature; some were fairly sublte. Of these, the most comon involved the addition of brick piers to modify existing columns. While this type of modification was primarily aesthetic, it also served to protect columns from rot and decay. Many porches were altered in this manner only after deterioration had begun.

Only the lower (balustrade-height) section of this Italianate porch was altered when brick was utilized to simplify its appearance it in the early 20th century. It is probable that the original wood columns either continued to the porch floor or rested upon wood pedestals. A low wood balustrade may have also been present.
Only the lower (balustrade-height) section of this Italianate porch was altered when brick was utilized to simplify its appearance it in the early 20th century. It is probable that the original wood columns either
continued to the porch floor or rested upon wood pedestals. A low wood balustrade may have also been present.

 

The lower half of the posts on this Queen Anne were replaced with brick piers for a subtle yet stylish update, probably in the 1920's. The brick has since been painted.
The lower half of the posts on this Queen Anne were replaced with brick piers for a subtle yet stylish update,probably in the 1920’s. The brick has since been painted.

By the mid-20th century many houses were frequently “spruced up” in one of two prevailing architectural themes: Modern or Colonial. Homeowners then were just as unconcerned with maintaining architectural integrity as their 19th century counterparts. The goal was to follow current fashion regardless of the underlying canvas:

 

This 1960's masonry screenwall presents an austere face to the street in stark contrast to the open and inviting porch so typical of Craftsman-style bungalows. It is now old enough to be in vogue again.
This 1960’s masonry screenwall presents an austere face to the street in stark contrast to the open and inviting porch so typical of Craftsman-style bungalows. The alteration is now old enough to be in vogue again.

 

Shutters and a door surround with broken pediment attempted to give the entry of this Prairie-style house a "Colonial" look in the 1960's.
Shutters and a door surround with broken pediment attempted to give the entry of this Prairie-style house a “Colonial” look in the 1960’s.

 

This Craftsman bungalow was updated in the late 1950's in an effort to make it more like a ranch house by emphasizing the horizontal. Gone are the bulky battered porch posts of the past. New brick veneer, picture windows and delicate structural ironwork gave the house more contemporary lines. The jaunty porte-cochère relates to the house in that it mimics the original open rafter tails of the eaves. Sadly, this quirky remodeling has just been remodled again... just as it was starting to get interesting.
This Craftsman bungalow was updated in the late 1950’s in an effort to make it more like a ranch house by emphasizing the horizontal. Gone are the bulky battered porch posts of the past. New brick veneer, picture windows and delicate structural ironwork gave the house more contemporary lines. The jaunty porte-cochère relates to the house in that it mimics the original open rafter tails of the eaves. Sadly, this quirky remodeling has just been remodeled again… just as it was starting to get interesting.

Porch modifications remain a popular and affordable way to keep up-to-date. However, recent trends have seen something of a change in the approach of homeowners seeking to restyle their porches. Since the resurgence of interest in historic houses in the 1960’s, many porches have been accessorized in an attempt to make them appear older or more ornate – as opposed to simpler and more modern. A generic “Victorian” look appears to be especially popular, fueled in part by the ready availabilty of stock parts.

This Craftsman-style house has been outfitted with lacy scrollwork. Such trim is antithetical to the straight-forward expression of structure which is inherent to the style.
This Craftsman-style house has been outfitted with lacy scrollwork. Such trim is antithetical to the straight-forward expression of structure which is inherent to the Craftsman style.

 

When built, this house Craftsman-style house possessed a rugged handsomeness characteristic of the Arts and Crafts era. The weighty front gable, masonry balustrade and rusticated block walls give this house a visual heft that no amount of pink paint, spindled fretwork and shutters can obscure.
When built, this house Craftsman-style house possessed a rugged handsomeness characteristic of the Arts and Crafts era.  The weighty front gable, masonry balustrade and rusticated block walls give this house a visual heft that no amount of pink paint, spindled fretwork and shutters can obscure.

 

This house actually is a Queen Anne, but has been altered and supplemented in a manner which is not characteristic of the style. Many of the decorations seen here, including the scroll-sawn "bargeboard", gable ornaments, brackets, cast iron porch supports and patterned foundation tiles, date to a renovation sometime around 1970.
This house actually is a late Queen Anne, but has been altered and supplemented in a manner which is not characteristic of the style. Many of the decorations seen here, including the scroll-sawn “bargeboard”, gable ornaments, brackets, cast iron porch supports and re-purposed ceramic tiles applied to the foundation, date to a renovation sometime around 1970.

 

This gable-roofed Prairie-style house has been "Victorianized" with turned stock balusters, porch brackets, a new door with oval light and a bright three-color paint scheme.
This gable-roofed Prairie-style house has been “Victorianized” with turned stock balusters, porch brackets, a new door with oval light and a bright three-color paint scheme.

While some early- and mid-20th century remodelings are now regarded as having acquired a significance of their own, I’m not as confident that the neo-Victorianization of early 20th century houses will be viewed as compassionately as they age. It’s hard to say what future generations will value, so I may well be wrong. Hopefully the concept of architectual integrity will win out; only time will tell.

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