Resurgence of the porch puts focus back on simpler times, when the alfresco space was the center of festivity with family and friends.
By Jessica Farthing
Our homes are our refuge. They are a place of comfort and joy, a sanctum full of memories, an escape from the outside world and all its activity. Historically, front porches have played an important role as a bridge between private life and community, and they are an iconic part of Southern culture, instantly conjuring images of sweet tea being served as family, friends and neighbors enjoy an opportunity to settle down and chat. Now, people are once again placing high value on relaxing outdoors and connecting with others in meaningful ways, making porches sought-after architectural elements in modern homes.
In Colonial times, most people were not able to find much time for leisure. Days were spent performing chores that contributed to survival. Everyone in the family participated, working to maintain the house, caring for the farm animals and producing food. Essentials were not available at the corner store, so Americans diligently crafted their own clothes, milled soap, preserved food and made candles for light.
A series of rapid inventions affected the way families spent their time. Textile mills and cotton gins became mechanized, eliminating the need to make fabric in the home. Companies like Campbell, Heinz and Borden, now household staples, began offering preserved cans of food.
All this innovation gave rise to an increase in time for the family; there were now more opportunities to relax at home. Andrew Jackson Downing, a respected New York architect in the early 1800s, was considered the first great landscape designer. His love of nature inspired him to create concepts incorporating the outside environment with home construction. At the same time, porch spindles, balusters and posts were being mass-produced in mills, making the idea of enhancing a home with a decorative and functional front porch a more affordable reality. All homes could be upgraded with this sought-after element, whether they were old or new, grand or simple.
With more time to spend on personal luxuries, there was a new emphasis on health and well-being. Fresh air was widely considered a cure for diseases like tuberculosis. The front porch became a common sleeping space, allowing for extended time in the outdoor environment but protection from the rain.
Starting around 1840, use of the front porch in American architecture was in its heyday. While the incredible pace of inventions in the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the use of front porches, ultimately, they also contributed to them falling out of favor with homeowners. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made his famous telephone call to Thomas Watson, establishing the Bell Telephone Co. shortly after. Telegraphs and telephones made conversation between neighbors instantaneous. As phones slowly became more common in households, the need for the social hour on the front porch in the evening declined.
A little later, use of American-made gasoline cars became widespread. Dr. Robin Williams, chair of the architectural history department at Savannah College of Art and Design, sees a clear impact on porch use stemming from the popularity of cars. “The expansion of automobile suburbs after World War II and their car-centric urbanism led to people having garages at the front of their houses and reorienting their enjoyment of outdoor space to their backyard, which contributed to the demise of porches,” he says. Additionally, an increase in concern for privacy made open-air porches less desirable.
The final, and probably most impactful, invention was air-conditioning. While Willis Carrier invented the first AC system in the early 1900s, it was intended for factory use—a solution for the humidity problem in the printing press where he worked—and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the technology moved from the factory to homes, making the inside environment pleasantly cool.
Around the same time, an enterprising 21-year-old inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth conceived and implemented a device that took moving images and projected them onto a screen. Radio giant RCA invested millions of dollars into the development of the TV in response. By 1955, half of the homes in the U.S. had the device. With entertainment so accessible inside the house, and the added level of comfort from air conditioning, porch sitting fell out of favor.
Despite the changing times, the iconic image of a family relaxing on the front porch on a summer’s evening has long been a symbol of traditional American values, particularly in the South. Dr. Ned Rinalducci, sociology professor at Georgia Southern University, believes porch sitting was both a cultural pastime and a practical solution.
“Front porches in the South date back to a time before air-conditioning was in every home,” Rinalducci says. “… Porches became areas where people could sit or congregate more comfortably.”
With a relaxed way of life and an often warm climate, the porch served as an ideal gathering place that also afforded hosts a way to meet and greet guests even if the interior of the home wasn’t prepared for visitors.
“If someone was on their front porch, they were visible and dressed accordingly,” Rinalducci says. “The porch represents a space between ‘inside the house’ and ‘outside the house.’ To be invited onto the porch is a sign of hospitality, but it is qualitatively different than being invited into the home.”
Today, there seems to be a renewed interest in porches tied to a sense of nostalgia. They conjure thoughts of that earlier American way of life, one that is slower, friendlier and less isolated. Architect Cooter Ramsey of Allison Ramsey Architects in Beaufort, South Carolina, includes a front porch in almost all of his designs and finds that they are wonderful for transitioning guests from the outside to the inside of the house and act as an
Relaxing on the porch is even more enticing with a coastal breeze and a picturesque setting. Guests of Sea Island’s new cottages at The Lodge are treated to an ocean view from each property’s own veranda. “All of our cottages have a fantastic view from the porch facing south of a new putting green just steps away, and the St. Simons Sound overlooking Jekyll Island,” says Terry Wiggins, The Lodge rooms manager. “The sound is very active with wildlife, including dolphins and birds. You will also see shrimp boats, pleasure boats for fishing and sailing, and cargo ships bringing in new automobiles to the Brunswick port. The sunset is also amazing each night as our bagpiper is putting the course to sleep.”
Sunset celebrations are further enhanced with The Lodge’s butler service. Any request can be accommodated, from shining shoes to room amenities, but the hotel’s professional staff can also deliver drinks at the perfect time, right on to the porch.
While porches are certainly in high demand, some modern versions reflect new approaches and features. For example, some new builds are shifting communal living spaces like porches so that they are centered on the backyard. A multifunctional area, porches could be the site for a business meeting, an impromptu family gathering or a private place for an intimate discussion.
“When folks come to us and have a list of ‘wants’ or ‘must-haves,’ a back porch is always a ‘must-have,’ ” Ramsey says. “I think more and more people are … using their porches. They are really outdoors. The porches are part of the house and people are throwing open the doors and taking advantage of it.”
Trending additions to back porches are nearly limitless. The most popular are fireplaces, TVs, outdoor kitchens and seating areas, but Ramsey cautions to take the details into consideration before designing. “Can the handrails hold a dinner plate?” he muses. “Are objects in your eye when you sit down? Put electrical outlets where you want to use them. Make sure your furniture will be fully protected from the elements.”
Whether located front or back, porches offer a chance to connect with nature while enjoying time entertaining friends and family in a casual environment. And while these architectural elements can be found in homes across the country, there’s nothing like a true Southern porch. It takes us back into that wistful image, where family and friends gather until the sun slowly goes down hour by hour, and one glass of sweet tea at a time.
Front Porch Style
Ruel Joyner, owner and designer of 24e Design Co., a bespoke furnishing provider in Savannah, Georgia, provides top tips for creating a comfortable outdoor space.
Paint your front door: Pick a great color that will look attractive with your house. Different shades of your main home color work, or choose one that is complimentary on the color wheel. In the South, bright reds, cool blues and Charleston green—so deeply pigmented it almost appears black—are all popular.
Add a swing or a bed: Better yet, add a swing bed. In the tradition of sleeping porches, the hanging swing has been upgraded with a swinging bed. Equipped with at least a twin mattress, this comfortable spot to land is adorned with fluffy pillows
Have plenty of seats: They should be comfortable, too. One of them should be a rocking chair, because there just simply isn’t any other choice for a Southern porch.
Provide entertainment: Budding musician? Ask them to play. If no one is available, make sure you have some sort of radio or speaker. Try some Ray Charles or Jason Isbell. Card games also make impromptu fun while increasing time spent outdoors.
Add some flowers: In the summer, there are copious amounts of greenery available in the warm climate of the South. Some favorites are hanging baskets of ferns and geraniums, ready to make your outside space seem even more a part of nature.