A Vermont Historic Preservationist Gives the Porch Its Due
State of the Arts
Thomas Visser had at least two motivations for writing his unexpectedly absorbing book Porches of North America.? One was scholarly, as befits the director of the historic preservation program at the University of Vermont. “There are coffee-table books with delightful pictures of porches, but relatively few real studies of porches,” Visser explains. Seeking historical information on this architectural feature that graces millions of American homes, his graduate students found little of relevance, either online or in library stacks, Visser relates.
The other source of inspiration was his childhood home in Moultonborough, N.H. Visser, 61, recalls its southeast-facing porch as “a magical place,” perfectly oriented for sunny breakfasts and shaded dinners.
Despite their nostalgic associations and unique status as hybrid indoor-outdoor spaces, porches often go unappreciated or, worse, are renovated beyond recognition. Visser’s 304-page, richly illustrated book aims to rally respect for the porch by examining its long history and paradoxical roles as a stage, a retreat and an observation post.
Many of the examples Visser offers can be found right here in Vermont. Cases in point range from the grand — the porches of the Statehouse in Montpelier and the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury — to the modest, such as those of Danville’s general store and a trio of duplexes in Burlington’s South End.
“Burlington,” Visser says during an interview conducted — where else? — on his back porch, “is one of the best places in North America to discover a variety of porches.”
Northern Vermont’s long winters have clearly not discouraged locals from including a porch in a home’s original design or adding one at a later point. Many of these porches, however, have been enclosed — an alteration that “fundamentally changes the character of the space,” Visser says with obvious disapproval. “On a hot day, it’s an oven. And what do enclosed porches wind up becoming? Mud rooms or catchalls.”
Visser’s own home of 16 years is one of the many on Charlotte Street with a front porch. And though the houses were all built around the 1930s, they do present a riot of architectual styles. Porches that differ sharply in appearance from the rest of a home’s exterior can be perplexing to preservationists, Visser notes. When renovation becomes an option, should a porch out of sync with a home’s historical look be kept as is? Should an attempt be made to reproduce, say, a Queen Anne-style porch on a home built during that era?
There are no pat answers, but Visser is certain of one thing: “Porches have a story to tell. And it may be separate from the story of the rest of a house.”
In addition to forming part of the narrative of individual homes or families, porches can help elucidate the history of a state or region while reflecting broad social and cultural trends, past and present. Visser’s book identifies the 1920s and ’30s as the Golden Age of porches in the United States. Homeowners of that period sought to convey “the symbolic social message of openness, leisure and welcome,” he writes. Before and after that time, Visser adds, house designs have tended to express “defensive, protective and exclusionary warnings.”
By the 1950s, porches were seen as something only grandma or grandpa could appreciate, Visser comments with a characteristically professorial flurry of hand gestures and arched eyebrows. The rampant suburbanization and attendant atomization of that decade help explain the popularity of backyard patios.
Today, porches appear to be resurging, Visser suggests. This turnaround reflects in part the “new urbanism” ethic that values neighborliness. But when it appears on the baroque suburban villas of the nouveaux riches, “a front porch often seems to be designed for appearance rather than for use,” Visser observes.
Readers of Visser’s book may interpret the porch’s return to popularity as a historical inevitability. In addition to noting that indigenous peoples of North America were building “porch-like structures” long before the arrival of the Europeans, the book calls attention to “the open sheds on primitive houses recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics … the grand porticos of ancient Greece, the ornamented colonnades and arcades of Rome, and the elaborate recessed porches of Renaissance cathedrals.” The porch, Visser attests, “is deeply embedded in the vocabulary and memory of human culture.”
"Porches of North America" by Thomas Durant Visser, University Press of New England, 304 pages. $39.95.