Perhaps no single element of the American home is more symbolic of neighborhood than the front porch. It is an unassigned part of the house, a social interface that is open to the public, almost belonging to everyone, and yet at the same time acting as a threshold into the private sanctuary of the home.
While the porch has existed since prehistoric times, its evolution reached its zenith in American culture during the middle and late nineteenth century and lasted as an almost universal and distinctive element of the American home for over a century.
The physical development of the American front porch parallels the development of housing styles in our culture. The first porches in America were manifested in two early architectural styles during the Colonial period from about 1600 to 1820. These primarily southern styles exhibited porches that provided shade and coolness to the house and were no doubt products of the climate. The French Colonial Style featured a wide veranda covered by the extension of a pavilion roof, sometimes encircling the entire house, while the Spanish Colonial Style included a balcony porch that overhung the ground floor.
The Romantic Period, from about 1820 to 1880, marked the proliferation of the porch as a stylistic and cultural element, rather than just a practical climate controlling device. Porches on Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Stick Styles all offered a somewhat formal processional to the front door of the home. Often times these porches were elaborately detailed, borrowing design elements from the home itself. In most instances the porch elevated the house, providing privacy and vertical separation from the public realm and further accentuating the transition from public to private space.
It was during this time that nearly every single house built had a front porch, and while it was a stylistic element, it also provided a practical solution to the way people lived. The backyard of the house usually contained stables, horses and outhouses and thus was not a particularly pleasant place to be, so outdoor living occurred at the front, giving families a place to relax and interact with the public and the outdoors.
It was only after the Second World War that the front porch vanished from most new homes, primarily because of the proliferation of automobiles and the invention of air conditioning and television. Homes built during this era gradually evolved into an architectural type which essentially reversed the front of the house, moving outdoor living areas to the rear in the form of patios and decks while relinquishing the front to the automobile. This reversal eventually evolved into what is today referred to as a “snout house”, in which the garage door represents almost the only street facing architectural element of the residence. This evolution changed the nature of the way people interact with their neighborhood while also breaking down the public/private interface.
While the American front porch has been discussed as a both a stylistic and practical element, one of its most important functions is this public/private interface. The porch acts as primary filter in the transition from the public realm of the street and sidewalk to the private realm of the house. This gradual transition typically provides for a logical progression for entering the house both horizontally and vertically, and is lost when the front door is accessed with only a small stoop or when the primary entrance is through the garage.
Today, as more and more people long for a sense of community, the front porch has been revived by many New Urbanist practitioners. It is hoped that this rebirth will again make the front porch the place where families engage their communities while strengthening civic life and mending neighborhood bonds.