August 2019

Porches: Stop, sit, and have some real face time

Author: Laura Jacobi

If you’re not sitting on your porch, go there. Take a glass of lemonade, sweet tea or the drink of your choice along with your magazine. Then sit back, relax, and read on. A quintessential feature of Southern homes has long been the grand front porch. The porch is romanticized in movies and art, with visions of plantation homes surrounded by live oaks draped in Spanish Moss and lazy afternoons spent drinking sweet tea and mint juleps. Front, side, and wrap-around porches create the picturesque curb appeal and visual interest real estate dreams are made of.

Porches were an essential aspect of Southern, and especially coastal, architecture in the days before modern conveniences. This design element provided a practical purpose: respite from the hot, humid weather. According to William Court, architect and partner of Court Atkins Group, in the days long before the modern convenience of air conditioning, the porch was developed to create shade and a form of passive cooling—a non-mechanical method of cooling down the home’s interior.

According to Court, the classic examples of porches in Southern architecture include the Charleston stacked, side porches on multiple levels. These homes were typically on narrow lots, only one-room wide. The porches provided relief from the heat and often faced the south or west, which facilitated cross ventilation from the “prevailing local sea breezes.”

Acadian-style homes of the Gulf Coast feature wide, wrap-around porches (sometimes called gallery porches). And then there are the porches with columns that pull away from the porch to create large overhangs called rain porches or Carolina porches. “These were prevalent in areas that tended to receive extreme rain or weather conditions,” Court said.

Bring the outdoors in
According to Court, many people credit Andrew Jackson Downing with the popularization of the front porch in the 1800s. A New York native, Downing was a landscape architect who saw the porch as a link from the house to nature. He is known for his various published landscape designs and writings including his 1841 A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

Flash forward nearly two centuries and those sentiments still have merit. “We tend to use porches now, especially rear porches, as a passthrough,” Court said. “They’re a way of blending the indoor and outdoor living spaces.” Rear porches are also a place to enjoy the views so popular in the Lowcountry, whether homeowners look out to the water, marsh or golf course.

Jenny Nelson owns May River Custom Homes with her husband Jay, and they’ve been building and renovating homes in the Lowcountry since 2007. She agrees with Downing and says outdoor living spaces, such as porches or sunrooms, are a way to blend the comforts of indoors with the beauty of the outdoors especially here where outdoor living is a way of life. “Porches can bring a sense of peace,” Nelson said. “Being outdoors and around nature is so relaxing and can serve as a source of inspiration.”

Creating community
But a porch is more than just a passthrough, more than just a spot to kick the dirt off shoes or shake the rain off an umbrella. The porch is a welcoming parlor, an extension of a home’s foyer or entranceway. It’s a place to embrace family, friends and neighbors. People have an innate desire to connect with one another, and the porch provides an open, inviting environment to greet others.

According to Nelson, who grew up in Georgia, “If you were sitting out front, that meant you were happy to have visitors. As a Southern gal, sitting on the porch was a way to say, ‘Come sit, stop by and say hello!’”

Anne Middleton and her husband, Scott, build custom and semi-custom homes throughout the Lowcountry with their company, Southern Coastal Homes. Middleton works closely with her clients to create the custom, Lowcountry home of their dreams. One of the most commonly requested features of that new home is a picturesque porch, she said. According to Middleton, front porches enable couples and families to share each other’s company, enjoy the fresh air, relax and interact with their neighbors. “Porches help create community,” she said.

Southerners are known for their sense of community and being neighborly, which is one reason why the Lowcountry continues to be a top relocation area. Court calls this the “Pollyanna” effect—neighbors helping neighbors. Porches create an open-air platform for neighbors to get to know each other and lend a hand. When people are out on their porch, versus tucked inside their home, they are more available and, therefore, typically more approachable.

In the South, the porch is more than a place. It’s a verb. To porch is to sit in a rocker, sway back and forth in a porch swing. To porch is to sip sweet tea, wine or bourbon, reflect on the happenings of the day and wave to neighbors who pass by. To porch is to take things slowly and enjoy the sights and sounds around you.

Call it a comeback
According to Court, porches were originally popular in American architecture during the pre-World War era and pre-mass production of automobiles when cities were designed for walking. As more Americans could afford cars, homes were built farther apart from each other. But in the mid-1980s, American residential design saw a rebirth of the front porch, he said. “Although porches are no longer needed as a primary source for passive cooling, they are still a strong part of our Southern architectural vernacular.”

A porch design renaissance took place with the rise of New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood design in the 1980s, but truly took off in the ’90s, Court said. These developments were designed as walking neighborhoods with homes on smaller lots, closer together.

According to Middleton, these Traditional Neighborhood Developments, or TNDs, encompassed smaller homes in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods to facilitate community interaction. These homes might have differing architectural styles, but a common element is a front porch. The idea is for the focus to be on the street side so neighbors can be in community with each other. These neighborhoods are a “nostalgic reminder of days gone by,” she said.

These TNDs can be found locally in Newpoint and Habersham as well as sections of Palmetto Bluff. Another great example of a community thoughtfully developed to be within walking distance to parks, schools, shops and restaurants is Bluffton Park in Old Town Bluffton.

Why so blue?
Southern porches are not only known for the people who sit on them, but how they dress them. Whether the porch is open-air or screened, it can be home to wooden rockers, hanging swings and lots of comfortable touches. Another notable feature of Southern porches is the ceiling—the ceiling color to be specific.

A popular and extremely common feature of a Lowcountry porch is its blue ceiling, often referred to as haint blue. According to Nelson, haint blue is a shade of blue-green that was once believed to ward off evil spirits, or “haints,” in Southern and coastal folklore. Many Southerners painted their porch ceilings blue to protect the house and its occupants from those unwelcome spirits.

Others believed the blue ceiling served as an insect repellent, and some simply enjoyed the light blue because it appeared to extend daylight. No matter the reasoning behind it, this color tradition has continued in the Lowcountry.

The lure of the porch is compelling. As busy lives seem to pass by with each smartphone notification, the peaceful porch beckons. A porch provides a physical reminder that it’s okay to stop, sit, and have some real face time with family, friends and neighbors. 

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