University of Vermont

University Communications

New Book Examines the Age of Porches and Porches Through the Ages

Porches book cover

Before the days of automobiles, air conditioning, television and radio, there was the front porch. No dust kicked up by traffic, a cool breeze on a hot day, and the entertainment of neighbors and strangers passing by made the porch a haven for neighborhood dwellers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"The porch was this kind of extended threshold," says Thomas Visser, associate professor of history and director of the Historic Preservation Program. "It was neither inside nor outside, but it was a place to meet and greet strangers. It was a place to socialize informally." That time period is what Visser calls the "golden age" of the porch, a structure, he says, that serves as a virtual stage for human interaction. "It's a prop, if you will. Without the porch, it often would be very difficult for that social engagement to happen."

Visser traces the story of the porch -- and verandas, colonnades, porticoes and piazzas -- their styles, attributes, and functions in his latest book, Porches of North America. He's spent the past 10 years researching the topic and writing more than a few lines of the book, it's worth noting, on the porch of his Burlington home.

Visser's fondness for porches stems from childhood memories of summers spent eating and even sleeping on the screened-in, southeastern-facing, corner porch of his parents' New Hampshire home. "It was just one of the most enjoyable parts of the house and one of the most enjoyable aspects of summer life."

But the academic connection is tied not to the ease of porch life, but to the challenges they present to historians and preservationists. "Porches are somewhat difficult to describe for a number of reasons," Visser explains. "One is that the architectural vocabulary of porches -- the types of trim, the stylistic clues -- is not always congruent with the style of the rest of the house. From a preservation point of view, that itself raises questions. Was this porch part of the original house? Was this porch added? What can we learn from that difference between the style of the porch and the style of the house?" These difficulties, he says, have perhaps caused historians to devote less time and place less significance on unraveling porches' unique histories. Porches of North America fills that void.

The book discusses the rise, decline and resurgence of porches, covers their history dating back to Native American structures and ancient Greece, and contains a glossary of types of porches and their popularity over time. Historic photos throughout the pages, many of which are from UVM Libraries' Special Collections, show porches in use through the decades.

"One of the serendipitous things about doing research on this topic," Visser says, "is that this golden age of porches in many ways corresponds with the golden age of photography. Particularly in the 19th century and early 20th century, before the advent of flash photography, one of the most common places to take a photograph of a family would be sitting out on the porch. So there's a wonderful collection of images at Special Collections and at other places that show these porches as they were being used a century or more ago."

As for where porches stand today, Visser says he feels there's a resurgence brewing. Front porches suffered in the 1950s and 60s when privacy became more of an issue and "the social life of families tended to move from the front of the house to the back of the house." However, Visser notes that climate change and energy conservation are strong motivators for reconsidering the usefulness of a shaded, outdoor space -- not just the open decks and patios that were popularized through the 1970s. "The porch is actually a very effective way to have a comfortable space for living without relying on artificial air conditioning," he says. "I think from that point of view, perhaps there's a future for porches."

There's certainly a future for at least one porch. In another moment of serendipity, the western-facing porch on Wheeler House, home of the Historic Preservation Program, the Department of History, and Visser's office, is experiencing its own resurgence. The porch was restored as a veranda, when the university made plans to relocate and bring up to code the building's wheelchair access route, originally built onto the porch in the 70s. Completed last summer, the veranda restoration project, Visser says, has brought a new life to the department.

"I can tell you it's been the most wonderful change to this building that we have seen in a very long time," Visser says. From welcoming events for new students to reunions for alumni, Visser says, "making that veranda livable again has enabled things to happen here that just wouldn't have happened otherwise."

In other words, it's been that "virtual stage" for human interaction that's helping make the Department of History feel like home. And on May 2, the Patricia Julien Project, a jazz group featuring Music Department faculty, will turn the porch into an actual stage, with a free concert from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on the veranda.