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  • Writer's pictureCRAIKER

​Front Porches: A Uniquely American Invention: Part 1

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

We tend to take front porches for granted. All across the country, from Maine to Hawaii, they should be appreciated as a distinctively American interpretation of how to complete our home designs while creating a greeting station for visitors and friends. While ancient Egyptian and many Mediterranean civilizations embraced the front portico, it was more of a architectural visual element than an integral part of the structures use. Southern colonial architecture, such as exhibited at Mount Vernon, set an example for elegant front Grecian porticos but not what we recognize today as an integral part of the home.

American porches emerged in the mid-19th century, as cities grew and middle-class families begin living in individual homes, also a uniquely American urban concept. Individual urban residence on separate lots was not really a European import. While most Old-World homes were typically attached, they enjoyed a courtyard or a rear garden to view. The American concept of creating an outside front facing sitting area looking onto the street became all the rage at the turn of the 20 th century. In Napa, because of the unpredictable river flooding, raised porches became common.

From 1880 to the 1930s, the porch reigned supreme no matter how humble the residence. The front porch became essential to a residence design. Before movies, radio, television and indoor air-conditioning, the porch was where family entertainment occurred. Architectural styles ranged from Queen Anne to Bungalow, probably the last design to embrace the porch.

From Greek revival columns to fanciful Queen Anne gingerbread posts, the porch has remained an architectural feature important to the formation of the American identity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As the Depression took its toll on the economy, porches became less economically practical, but the image, like the white picket fence, was a supremely American inspiration.

At the same time the front porch is a private outdoor space that connects us with community and neighborliness, where face-to-face interaction forms the core of communities. Just as importantly, porches add beauty to any streetscape.

Porches are a gift to the Street.

In recent decades porch-building has seen a resurgence. Even the recent Contemporary design resurgence has included front porches with the image of family and friends on a hot summer night gathering, perhaps for a glass of Napa wine. If anything can bring our divided Country together, it’s the All-American porch as a symbol of good ol’ American values, much needed today.

A Celebration of the Porch is Born

In 2007, Ithaca New York, an impromptu outdoor music festival erupted where 20 bands and musicians set up shop on various outdoor stoops and porches to perform for free. The legend is the impetus was a “discussion” between some neighbors and local outdoor ukulele players. Eventually, the event became an nationwide movement with events across the United States and Canada where musicians, singers and bands can jam-out, now there are as many as 130 Porch Fests across the continent, with more evolving every year.

Napa was the first Porch Fest Festival west of the Mississippi started in 2014. This one- day event, always on the last Sunday of July, showcases not only the players and their music but the finest historic porches in Napa Old Town. We’ll get more into the weeds and details next week.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB helped write Napa’s City Ordinance allowing porches to encroach into front yards.

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