When and Why the Front Porch Became Popular in American Architecture

"A taste for rural improvements of every description is advancing silently, but with great rapidity in this country." -Andrew Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1857

While front porches were present in the architecture of colonial times and our early nation's history, the front porch did not truly proliferate until the 1840's and 1850's. At this time, the front porch grew quickly in both popularity and ubiquity. By the "late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they had become an almost universal, and quite distinctive, feature of American domestic architecture"(McAlester 52). The question then must be asked: Why did front porches become so popular at this time? The answer may be found in both the technological and social forces of the time.

By the 1840's technology and industrialization had created a "substantial leisure class, free from the endless survival chores of the Colonial era"(Kahn 2). With this free time and new leisure class came the necessity for an area to enjoy this free time. The front porch was an obvious choice, and further elements of leisure, including rocking chairs and wicker furniture, grew concurrently in popularity. Furthermore, new technological advances made building porches less expensive and easier. Such an advance came in the form of a "balloon frame," "a lightweight network of sticks that replaced the heavy timber frame of colonial times"(Kahn 3). Such techniques made porch ornamentation easier as well; thus, "complicated porch shapes, once expensive and difficult to construct, could be quickly assembled with machine made parts"(Kahn 3). Technology and the social forces it created clearly contributed to the popularity of the American front porch.

At the same time as these technological forces were influencing the development of American architecture, social forces were reacting to these forces. Spurred from the fears of such rapid technological changes, new interests in nature and the American landscape began to form as a countermovement. Such interest may be seen in the Hudson River School, which emerged in the 1820's. The Hudson River School, America's first indigenous school of painting, produced the works of renowned artists such as Cole, Durand, and Church. These artists concentrated on the American landscape, attempting to induce awe in the grandeur and majesty of natural settings. By the 1840's and 1850's the literary works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau would provide a pantheistic vision of nature. In contrast to the debilitating forces of the city and industrialization, nature could provide a divine escape and existence. It may be seen that socially, nature and our nation's landscape were taking on new importance.

Architecture was certainly influenced by the same growing social forces. In the 1830's, movements were beginning within cities to preserve enclaves of nature. One such movement emphasized the preservation of nature in rural cemeteries. These so called rural cemeteries were landscaped to preserve the contours of nature, and they serve as an example of architecture conforming to its natural surroundings. In the same fashion, cities began creating parks to preserve and enhance nature. Central Park was the most notable of such parks, designed in the 1850's by Frederick Olmsted, whose main objective focused on making it as natural as possible. Hence, it may be seen that, even in cities, architecture was favoring nature in its construction.

In the midst of these social and technological forces, the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing contributed the most to the growth in popularity of the American front porch. In his widely read and distributed pattern books, Downing advanced the idea of landscape architecture, which resembled many of the ideas heretofore discussed. Yet, he took the idea further, linking the American house to the American landscape. In these books, Downing became the first to articulate the necessity for and meaning of the front porch. He stated first that "a porch strengthens or conveys expression of purpose, because, instead of leaving the entrance door bare, as in manufactories and buildings of inferior description it serves both as a note of preparation, and an effectual shelter and protection to the entrance."(Downing 375). Clearly, to Downing the porch served as an intermediary between the outside landscape and the house itself. Secondly, he states the uses of the porch, articulating that "the unclouded splendor and fierce heat of our summer sun, render this general appendage a source of real comfort and enjoyment; and the long veranda round many of our country residences stands instead of the paved terraces of the English mansions as the place for promenade; while during the warmer portions of the season, half of the days or evenings are there passed in the enjoyment of cool breezes, secure under the low roofs supported by the open colonnade, from the solar rays, or the dews of night"(Downing 376). Jackson had established the necessity of the front porch and further suggested its use through its connection to nature. Other landscape architects with pattern books would follow Downing, such as the influential H. Hudson Holly, each calling for the presence of a front porch in linking the American house to nature.

Under these technological and social conditions, the front porch grew into an essential element of American architecture. Technologically, the American front porch had become easier to build and provided for the increasing group of people able to use it. Socially, the American movements involving nature and the landscape promoted it, establishing a connection between the American house and its surroundings. By the nineteenth century the American front porch had become both an architectural element and a cultural object. The cultural meaning that the front porch adopted will be discussed in the next section.