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.
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 Paint was then frequently used to mute any embarrasingly outdated architectural details elsewhere.
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.
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:
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.
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.