Everywhere there has been a view to be seen, a night sky to behold, a painted sunset to mesmerize, the sound of birds celebrating the day, a cool summer breeze or a symphony of night creatures to serenade us— in close proximity to home—the porch has been vantage point for it all.
Throughout the great southern coastal towns of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and the Deep South— the grand porches of centuries past still beckon us to stop and “set a spell”— to take it all in before the moment passes forever!
Whether graceful and grand or humble and cozy— the porch is where real living takes place and where first “welcomes” are extended. Comfort, simplicity, serenity, laughter, conversation, contemplation, meditation and tranquility seem to all take place effortlessly here. The porch is a set apart place and is sacred to the Southerner by birth and by heart.
Some things never change—
As long as mankind has endured, we have understood the benefits of the porch. The earliest cave dwellers in the American west utilized rocky overhangs in their cave dwellings, which deflected excessive rains and protected the interior of their dwelling from oppressive summer sun while at the same time allowing the lower winter sun to enter and warm their dwellings during the cold months of autumn and winter.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians utilized balconies and porches as part of their cultural and architectural heritage. Without question the ancient Greeks elevated the portico to a functional art form. The word “porch” has its root in the ancient Greek word – porticus.
European Classicism and Island Architecture Unite—
During the colonial period in America—when traders from England and its European rivals set sail for their South Sea and Caribbean trading partners—they each took their own interpretation and appreciation of this new Caribbean style back to their respective colonies. This new island style, that they found so intriguing and useful, was born out of necessity and was a way to comfortably and beautifully survive the hot humid climate of the tropics.
Gradually, the British colonists in Virginia and throughout the south began to combine their own classical Palladian elements with the porches they encountered while on their trading ventures. The resulting marriage of classicism and island architecture still persists to this day in the elegant columned porches found throughout Virginia and the south.
Many notable historic estates in our own area still feature porticos from this era. In Charleston, the classic columned Palladian piazza was taken to a whole new level and still remains an iconic form of architecture – unique to Charleston, SC.
The South Sea Company (worth studying for the lessons to be found) may have gone bust, but the idea of porch living was an American cultural phenomenon that caught on during this time and has been an enduring architectural and cultural legacy ever since.
After the Civil War, in Virginia, many of these gracious porches of old were removed from the homes that they graced due to the expense of maintenance. Thankfully, some still remain.
Southern Superstitions and Traditions —it’s all about the Haints—
In Virginia and the greater south, there are several must have decorative traditions that are not open to discussion—for many of us. One is painting the beautifully beaded porch ceiling blue, because it’s all about the Haints and the other is the use of ceiling fans.
If by chance you are not familiar with what Haints are and what they aren’t—they were said to be evil spirits or the restless spirits of the earthbound dead that came into homes to whisk the occupants away by night.
Of course, we know from folklore that Haints absolutely cannot cross over water, which is a good thing! So the idea of fooling the Haints with the suggestion of water on the porch ceiling, doors, lintels, moldings, window sashes and shutters, was borne! It was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius by the traveling house painters of the day! Sort of like using glazed headers or witch balls. In an age of superstition and spiritualism, many homeowners also painted their indoor ceilings blue, just in case a Haint got past the porch ceiling or didn’t see it at all. Silly as it may seem to us, it was serious business in its day.
Many older folks, still in our midst, will declare that blue ceilings will also repel insects and keep the birds away by creating the illusion of an endless sky. I don’t quite get the logic here, but they’ll swear by it. In actuality, the original haint blue was a milk paint concoction, which included lye as one of the main ingredients. It was obviously the lye that repelled the insects and not the color itself.
Like most bricks and plasters of the day, paint was mixed in pits, on site, with whatever local ingredients could be found.
Blue ceilings are a very popular color trend today in outdoor living and interior spaces. Blue ceilings are particularly beautiful on porches that face the water or on the interior ceilings of waterfront properties with wide water views. A blue ceiling can have more decorative impact than any other feature of a crisp white porch.
Haint blue is technically not a single color, but a category of colors, ranging from blue green to light blue violet. Most of the major paint manufacturers today include a series of ceiling blue paints – still known as haint blue or ceiling blue. Everything has its own story to tell. Oh if only these older porches could talk – what stories they could tell.
The Victorian’s and the Porch—
The naturalist movement of the Victorian era highlighted the appreciation and health benefits of outdoor living. Many of the great American landscapes, parks and great estates that we enjoy today, all had their origins during the Victorian era. Maymont and Bryan Parks, in Richmond, are good examples of this era, as is the Lewis Ginter House and Botanical Garden. Resort areas became immensely popular and were found wherever the railroad would go.
More than any other age, the Victorians elevated life on the porch to an absolute art form. The influence of this era is still felt in every part of our collective conscience, whether we realize it or not. Classic wicker porch furniture, rocking chairs and the porch swing are all products of the Victorian era, when industrialization made them widely available for everyone who had a porch. The more affluent Victorians graciously entertained in newly fashionable and equally lovely conservatories and turreted wrap around porches. Cast iron embellishments and furniture were also widely available but required intense maintenance.
The Italianate and Gothic Revival styles also became quite popular during this time, however fewer of these homes, with their gingerbread porches and Italianate embellishments have survived to tell their stories.
The newly affluent middle and upper classes built many of the beautiful homes that still grace the main streets and side streets of our cities and small towns. The classic bungalow style, an offshoot of the arts and crafts movement, with its inviting front porch and functional design, began popping up all over small town America. It is one of the most endearing forms of American residential architecture to this very day. It’s most prominent feature is its wide front and back porches.
Sadly, the decline of the porch set in during the post-World War II era, as track housing, television and indoor activities took the place of the porch. The center of the home shifted to an indoor environment with the widespread availability of air conditioning.
The porch today—
In recent years, the high cost of fuel, diminished budgets and a longing to reclaim our roots, has caused us to re-discover the pleasures of family, friends and the porch, patio or balcony. There is nothing quite like listening to a symphony of nighttime creatures, set against a moonlit sky, or the sound of waves as they gently caress the shore.
Outdoor entertaining and living spaces, including the porch, have once again become the preferred place for enjoying family and friends. No other room in the house, other than the kitchen, can claim this distinction. We have been awakened and found that nothing tastes better than freshly grilled vegetables from our garden, sumptuous cheeses or fine wine, enjoyed alfresco.
Without exception, the simplest of porches can be transformed into an elegant oasis or outdoor living area with many of the outdoor furnishings, area rugs, pillows and embellishments, available from businesses right here in our area. These outdoor fabrics are designed to withstand the elements while providing years of enjoyment and ease of care.
Teatime, Butterbeans and Lemonade—
Here in our neck of the woods, porch sitting includes the creak of a favorite rocking chair, the sublime pleasure of a good read, hum of an ice-cream machine, a tall glass of sweet tea, the shelling of butter beans or sipping on a tall glass of lemonade. The porch is where friends and neighbors gather as we leisurely pass the time away in casual conversation while picking crabs. It is a slice of heaven on earth in an over-stressed and overly complicated world— that has forgotten that face to face communication and relationships still matter.
Keeping it simple—
Throughout the ages, the classic southern porch has been an irreplaceable part of our cultural and architectural history. The art of living well doesn’t have to cost a great deal. In fact, simplicity is always the foundation of understated elegance.
The addition of a long runner or outdoor carpet, a pair of rocking chairs, billowing outdoor drapes, a wicker settee or a few well-placed and colorful pillows can make all the difference. Finishing touches can include outdoor sculptures, coffee tables, lamps or other flea market finds.
As always, the Virginia and American flag is a most welcomed addition to the porch, as is a well-placed arrangement of fresh flowers on a bistro or dining table.
In the coastal regions of Tidewater Virginia and the South, porches can bring the outdoors in and provide a comforting backdrop to leisurely brunches, alfresco evening meals and a place to re-charge and connect with those we hold most dear.
Everyone has a memory tied to someone’s porch and every porch has a story to tell about the people who live life there. If you haven’t lived life on a porch, you haven’t really lived!
As people, we generally put off those small things that can do the most good for another day. If you are among those, blessed with any kind of porch, make the most of it today. You’ll be so glad you did. Go ahead and give yourself permission to take in the view from the porch!