Fixed porches

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(Host) As we look forward to summer, commentator CB Johnson reflects on the history of that warm weather fixture, “the porch.”

(Johnson) About this time of year, after another wet,cold Spring, Vermonters are ready. Ready for warm weather. Ready to enjoy morning coffee on the porch or a barbeque on the deck. But it was not always that way here.

Open porches are as old as the oldest GrecoRoman and African civilizations, but not something at all common when Vermont was settled. Among Vermont houses that date from the 18th century, I’ve never seen any with convincing evidence of originally having an open porch.

After 1800 door hoods and small porches began to appear over the formal entrance on some houses to shelter visitors who needed to knock and wait before entering. No wonder they first appeared on the homes of the prominent and wealthy. And as these homeowners competed in social standing, formal entry porches reached a stylistic and literal highpoint during the Greek Revival with massive Doric or Ionic columns, sometimes two stories high.

But most houses by 1850 added “piazzas” to shelter the ell or kitchen entry used by family and friends. A good place to store a bit of wood in winter or boots and tools during supper, the side porch was outfitted in summer with old chairs or a “settee.” Used for chores, such as shelling beans or dashing butter, these porches also provided a cooler place to visit with company and a place to enjoy a few moments leisure on Sundays.

Victorian tastes then separated leisure and work, with elaborate front porches for sitting and visiting and simpler back porches to accommodate hanging laundry and chores. Walk through any old neighborhood in one of Vermont’s larger villages, and you’ll instantly appreciate what a fixture these fancy front and plain back porches are. Bellows Falls, for example, proclaims itself “the front porch capital of the world,” but it is hardly alone in its plethora of porches.

After 1925 as automobile traffic has increased, slowly at first but exponentially in the last quarter century, the back porch has become the porch of choice for leisure. Screening these porches to keep out insects or enclosing them with windows has extended their usefulness, as Americans generally have gained much more leisure time.

Outdoor decks have really only become popular since the 1960s. They’re an idea borrowed from suburban and vacation homes built out West, where less rain and snow and fewer insect pests make a roof and screening unnecessary.

So today if you’re thinking about enclosing or removing your old porch, consider what you might lose if you do. If it’s original to the house, it’s an important part of its design. And a bit of the social history of your house resides where the minister knocked and waited, where the farmwife dashed butter, and where neighbors visited and sweethearts spooned. So this summer as we enjoy our back porches and decks, we can reflect on whether they will remain as evidence of the moments of leisure we are so incredibly fortunate to enjoy.

This is C.B. Johnson on the Vermont Vernacular.

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