The Origins of the American Front Porch

The porch as an architectural concept has existed since prehistoric times. It developed throughout history, revealing itself at certain points in time through various cultures, disappearing, and then reappearing again. Yet, at no time or in any culture did the porch take on such structural and cultural importance as in the form of the American front porch. In this section, this evolution of the porch will be examined, unveiling the origins and roots of the American front porch.

The word "porch" originally derives from "the latin word porticus, or the greek word portico, both of which signify the columned entry to a Classical temple"(Kahn 1). As history unfolded and the Middle Ages arrived, the porch came to represent a cathedral's vestibule, "where worshippers could gather to socialize before and after the service"(Kahn 2). By Victorian times, the word "porch" became interchangeably used with the words "veranda," "piazza," "loggia," and "portico," each of which could connote individual meanings. From this period until the second half of the nineteenth century, "the word "porch" itself most often described a small, enclosed vestibule or covered rear entrance" (Kahn 1). At this time, at the end of the nineteenth century, the word "porch" began to represent its present meaning. This meaning, in its American sense, generally refers to a "roofed, but incompletely walled living area"(McAlester 52) contiguously attached to the frame of a house. Generally, in America, this area would be found attached to the front of a house, offering a covered and shaded area for an array of uses and would be known as the American front porch.

Historically, "the original concept of a porch can be traced back to the overhanging rock shelters of prehistoric times"(Kahn 2). Yet, the first time that the front porch overtly appeared in the modern world was in Ancient Greece and Rome, whose dwellings often "placed columned verandas as shaded walkways around an interior garden"(Kahn 2). Loggias appeared in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Italy "to provide a shaded outdoor space"(Kahn 2) for public buildings. Piazzas were visible specifically in Venice, Italy, at this time, perhaps deriving their name from the famed Piazza San Marco. Yet, to the north of Europe, porches were rarely found, and thus probably had little influence in the evolution of porches. To the south in Africa, porches were present in the shotgun houses of West Africa. Finally, by the early eighteenth century, porches appeared in the Americas. One century later, porches had become an integral element of American architecture.

Determining the specific origins of the American front porch has presented and will present a difficult challenge for American architectural historians. These historians have debated their findings, revealing no clear synthesis, yet offering many suggestions to work with. The architectural record does clearly reveal that the American front porch evolved form foreign sources into a uniquely American architectural form. This record, as aforementioned, does not reveal what these specific foreign sources may be. Yet, it may be that specific and distinguishable sources do not exist and that rather the American front porch drew from many sources in its creation. Thus the origins of the American front porch will be discussed generally, offering an insight into the roots of this American cultural object.

To understand the origins and roots of the American porch, one must have a developed sense of the origins of America itself. For America was settled by diverse groups of people, hailing from many different locations and backgrounds, each carrying native traditions and integrating them into an American culture. American architecture, an important component of the developing culture, was clearly a product of such forces shaping the land. For American architecture began as a complex hybridization, its roots growing from the seeds of many nationalities and cultural traditions planted in a new and virgin land. Indeed, as American architecture grew and developed through the history of our nation, these outside forces continued to affect it, as our nation became a melting pot of cultural ingredients. From this historical context, the American front porch originated and grew, developing from these exterior elements and forces into a truly American architectural form and cultural object.

The majority of the first immigrants to America came from Europe, bringing with them their European architectural traditions. These traditions did not generally feature a porch, since the porch in Europe was not an element of the architectural form. Hence, porches in the colonies did not exist as commonplace architectural elements until well into the eighteenth century. At this same time, some of the first porches in America were built by the immigrants from Africa. Possible derived from the houses of West Africa, the shotgun house, built by the African slave, appeared as one of the first American houses to universally exhibit a front porch. Perhaps it was this African influence that served as an impetus for all porches in the new world. Professor James Deetz advances this point in his work In Small Things Forgotten. Yet, the porch most likely also grew out of European traditions adapted for a new culture and a new climate in the new world. The influence of climate on the origins of porches may be demonstrated in the fact that porches in America grew first and most quickly in the South. Yet in general, the climate of America was warmer and more tropical than in Europe, lending a new necessity to architectural form throughout the entire country.

Thus it may be seen that the American front porch developed from many sources, African and European, each contributing to its development and growing ubiquity. Such forces created a truly American architectural form: the American front porch. The next section will trace the stylistic devlopment of the front porch from these origins until its end as a popular architectural form in America.