The Stylistic Evolution of the American Front Porch

The physical development of the American front porch may be seen through the development of housing styles in our American architectural history. From the Georgian houses with minimal, if any, front porches to the Stick Style houses with their integral front porches, the front porch served different roles in the waves of styles that architecturally swept the country. By examining these roles that front porches played in a general survey of American housing styles, the evolution of the front porch in American architecture may be properly viewed.

Colonial Architecture (1650-1850)

The primary styles of colonial architecture consisted of Georgian, French Colonial, Spanish Colonial, and Dutch Colonial. Georgian houses, a dominant architectural style in the English colonies from 1700-1780, exhibited a distinguishable paneled door. Windows on the Georgian house were aligned vertically in rows. The Georgian house did not usually have any form of porch.

The French Colonial House (1700-1830), most prevalent in southern America in the lands formerly held by the French, was derived from French Norman, Caribbean, and Neo-Classical origins. It featured the gallery, a wide veranda covered by the extension of a 'pavilion' roof that often encircled the house. This porch, perhaps, was mainly a product of the southern gulf states, where climate might have suggested it. Clearly, both climate and architectural traditions combined to create a new architectural form. Clearly the porch of the French Colonial House served mainly a human purpose, offering an outdoor area for people to use comfortably.

The main feature of the Spanish Colonial House (1700-1850) came in the form of its thick masonry walls of adobe brick or stuccoed stone. Found in Florida to the East and California to the West, it existed in the ranges of Spanish settlement. The porch of the Spanish Colonial House usually overhung the ground floor, such as a balcony porch, providing shade and coolness to the house. Again, the climatic effect on the development of the porch is apparent.

A Spanish Colonial House (Kahn 16)

Monterrey, California

Greek Revival Architecture (1830-1855)

Greek Revival architecture grew out of political and archaeological origins in the early 1800's. Its primary feature consisted of a front porch, usually an area covered by a gable resting on enormous columns. This porch was mostly for show and to impress anyone who might approach its pronounced entranceway. Yet, in many Greek Revival houses a sitting porch was added to the second story, with the columns serving as porch posts.

A Greek Revival House (Kahn 21)

New Iberia, Louisiana

Gothic Revival Architecture (1840-1860)

Gothic Revival architecture, inspired by the architectural influences of Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, first introduced American architecture to the importance and necessity of a front porch. Patterned after fifteenth century English architecture, it had been popular in England in the mid 1700's. The primary feature of Gothic Revival architecture consisted of its goal to blend in with the natural landscape. In achieving this goal, the "sitting porch," usually found at the front of the house, became an integral architectural feature. Such porches were usually ornately decorated with gothic framery and displayed new importance to porch posts, lattice, brackets, rails, and aprons. In this period, which Gothic Revival architecture dominated, the front porch became an essential element of American architecture.

Gothic Revival House (Kahn 23)

Stamford, Connecticut

Italianate Architecture (1840-1885)

The Italianate house, found mostly in New England and the Midwest, peaked in popularity between 1850 and 1870. Square shaped, with a low pitched roof and bracketed eaves, it usually exhibited a room on the top of the house as a central viewing spot. The Italianate porch, while smaller in urban centers, usually had full or partial front porches. Decoration to this porch took on new importance, as evidenced by painted porch roofs, elaborate posts and columns, lattice, cast-iron elements, and ornately crafted brackets.

Sketch of an Italianate House (Kahn 30)

Stick Style Architecture

Stick Style houses, influenced greatly by Andrew Jackson Downing, offered the first truly American architectural form. Found mostly in coastal New England and in California, this style featured extensive and purely decorative exterior wood framing. Spacious porches were essential elements, sometimes wrapping around the entire exterior of the house. Porches sometimes were placed on second or third stories, with bedrooms opening to this outside feature. Stick style porches exhibited aprons, intricate balustrades (porch rails) and angled y-shaped brackets.

Sketch of a Stick Style House (Kahn 37)

Second Empire Style Architecture

The Second Empire Style developed out of the attention given to French culture during the reign of Napoleon III. Its primary feature consisted of a French mansard roof, double pitched, constructed in either a straight, concave, or S-curve design. Every house of this style exhibited a porch, including entire front, back, or wrap around porches. Porch posts were usually square, and porch brackets varied. The porches, as did the style itself, drew elements from many other styles, and thus varied greatly.

Sketch of a Second Empire Style House

Fairmount, New Jersey

Romanesque Architecture (1875-1895)

Romanesque houses were built of heavy masonry lending a medieval appearance to this style of architecture. These houses stood like fortresses, exhibiting large semi-circular arches. Found mostly in New England and the Midwest, the expense of such houses limited their ubiquity. Porches were not a major facet of the Romanesque house, and they were usually set off to the side. A porch could form a brief entryway to the house, or might be found as a second story balcony. Generally, though, porches were not a primary element of this style of architecture.

Romanesque House (McAlester 305)

Louisville, Kentucky

Stylistic Evolution Continued