One of the most characteristic features a house can boast is an architecturally interesting front porch. Much as the eyes are the window to the soul, the porch is the window to the house. Well, that’s a bad metaphor, since the porch is the porch to the house and the windows are the windows to the house, but you get it. The historic quality of your porch deeply affects the perceived historic quality of the rest of the property. Removing or enclosing a historic porch can irretrievably alter a house’s visual character.
Restoring a historic porch, on the other hand, can be an excellent investment in returning your house to its former glory, but it can also be a bit of a bear. Preservationists across the globe know that water is the number one mortal enemy of historic buildings and materials. Your porch, which protrudes from the main body of the house, is often made of wood, and makes direct contact with the ground, is essentially a large, unprotected sponge. It is constantly exposed to moisture, not to mention heavy sunlight, extreme heat, extreme cold, vegetation, and if you’re lucky, vermin. And let’s not forget about heavy foot traffic.
So what’s a sensitive homeowner with a crumbling, architecturally significant porch to do? The first step is probably to do a bit of reading, and as per usual, the National Park Service has us covered. NPS Preservation Brief 45: Preserving Historic Wood Porches is a great place to start, even if your porch isn’t made of wood. Much of the information is necessarily very general, but it contains a nice survey of porch history (sexy) and also troubleshoots a lot of common problems.
Once you’ve read up on common porch issues, it’s a good idea to try to diagnose or at least identify any problem areas on your own porch before you bring a professional into the fold. The thing about porches is that they are essentially mini-houses. The structure and basic parts are the same. There is a foundation, a floor, wall-like balusters, columns or other structural supports, a ceiling, and a roof. There are a lot of moving parts — well, hopefully they’re not actually moving — and therefore, there are a lot of opportunities for damage. The key is to identify where that damage is most likely to take place, and take the steps necessary to prevent excessive deterioration.
Why even bother, if you’re going to hire a skilled carpenter or mason to do the actual work, anyway? So glad you asked. As I said, a porch is like a microhouse. If you can figure out where things are going wrong, where things could go wrong in the future, and why they’re going wrong in the first place, you can build up your diagnostic confidence and get some good practice for when age gets the best of your house itself. Think about it like this: odds are, your dad wasn’t a mechanic. But after he bought the family car, he learned some automotive basics, and he made sure to change the oil every four thousand miles. And that’s how you got stuck driving a frustratingly reliable and painfully lame wood-paneled station wagon to high school. Dad took care of it, and it lasted forever.
Take care of your porch, and it will last forever (or at least for a long, long time) too.
In case you haven’t had enough, here are some fun porch facts. Use these at your next bar trivia night:
- Nearly all of the porches you see on houses that were built between 1850ish through the 1930s have wood ceilings that are painted light blue. It’s practically universal. Occasionally you’ll see a ceiling that’s white or just varnished, but the blue is everywhere. There are lots of possible explanations. There was a historical idea that the color deterred spiders and wasps (see below). Creole Southerners thought a particular shade called “haint blue” protected them from spirits. I like to go with the more boring idea that the Victorians stuck with blue paint to mimic the sky, as they’d commonly use the porch on rainy, gray summer days.
From above: the insect repellent theory probably derives from the fact that early porches were painted with milk paint, as opposed to the oil-based paint you’d find elsewhere in a historic house. Milk paint contained lye, which was used as as insect repellent on its own, ere go, vis a vis, etc.
- You may have heard of sleeping porches, which became a popular variation in the late 19th century. Sleeping porches were usually screened in, and could be found practically anywhere on the house. The generally accepted idea is that families could sleep out on the enclosed porch during the hot summer months in the days before air conditioning, and while that did come to be true, a lot of architectural historians think that the trend began as a result of a rise in tuberculosis cases in the U.S. Victims were thought to benefit from clean, fresh air, and if you couldn’t take your sick cousin on a spa trip to the Mediterranean, closing up your porch and sticking them out there for a while was the next best option.