What would you call the portion of your house in which you might find one of these?
Yes, it’s a swing, the site of lazy Sunday afternoon reading, of lovers’ first kisses in 1950s films, and (if you’re me, my sister or mother), the site of a three person pile-up on the floor as one side of the thing falls down out of the ceiling where it had been (apparently only) temporarily attached. And in what space did this near-disaster occur?
And why might three reasonable human beings be lolling around on a piece of wood suspended (precariously) from the ceiling of a room that is not quite in (but not quite out) of the house?
Because that’s what you do on the porch.
Like a lot of things architecture-related, the physical history of the American porch begins in Greece, with the stoa. Stoa is the name given to a colonnade surrounding a temple or lecture hall.
Following a more-or-less stoic Medieval period, the idea of columned entryways for public buildings is revived in Renaissance Italy with the loggia (ultimately from the Latin lobia “covered walk”, which is also the ultimate origin of the word lobby).
The loggia is adopted into the architecture of aristocratic homes, which finally brings the ‘porch’ home.
Skipping ahead a few hundred years in time, we come to the American porch, which develops along two paths. The practical path has the porch starting as a lean-to type structure, built to protect the front entryway of the home. This type of porch was often formed by the continuation of the roofline in order to shield the front door.
The other path I’m calling the ‘aesthetic’ path, not because practical porches weren’t beautiful (see above), but because this type of columned porch is purposefully neoclassical in its design. This type of porch becomes popular during the Classically-inspired Federal Period (just after the Revolutionary War) with the same, colonnaded type of façade we saw on Greek temples being applied, not only to government buildings, but to residential structures as well.
The two paths meet to form the modern porch, which is both practical and design-centered, so that it can function as a shelter over the front door and as a potential gathering place.
The word porch is itself a testament to its neoclassical inspiration. Borrowed from French, ultimately from the Latin porticus, porch originally refers to a covered entryway, but by the early 1900s, the term refers to any platform that lies before a door.
From the Latin porticus, American English gets portico as well (this time borrowed from Italian). Portico flaunts its classical Greek roots, as its presence in English begins as a formal architectural term used to refer to “columns at regular intervals supporting a roof” or “a covered colonnade in this style”.
Americans in the mid-1800s saw their front porches as a gateway between public and private. The porch came alive at nightfall. The porch was a place to sit and relax and visit with family and neighbors. Porches created community and they stood as symbols of American neighborliness up until the end of World War II.
What chased away the front porch?
It could have been the traffic. More cars passing through the neighborhood meant more noise. It could have been the lure of air conditioning or the beckoning of the family television. For whatever reason, after WW II, the American porch recedes. Or, in the least, the porch retreats to the side or back of the house.
Some say the porch is being resurrected, as a desirable architectural feature and as an American symbol of community and family.
I think that, in some cases, you could argue that the porch never left. Take the city stoop as an example. A gift to American architecture from the Dutch, the stoep (“step”) has long served as an entryway and a gathering place in front of urban row houses.
With the types of porches and the variety of names we have for them, we see another example of the wide range of influences that have combines to create American architecture and American English.
Let’s start with the veranda, which is “an open portico or light roofed gallery” along the front of a building, frequently enclosed by lattice-work to offer protection from sun or rain. This term, brought back from India by British colonials, is found in several Indian languages (such as Hindi varanda and Bengali baranda), but according to the OED, the Indian languages probably borrowed the term from Portuguese or Spanish (from varanda “railing, baulustrade, balcony”) as a result of the spice trade that had been in place since ancient times.
In the US, veranda is most likely heard in the south, including places under the sway of New Orleans (the epicenter of Spanish and French influence in southern America).
In Australian and New Zealand Englishes, a veranda is a “roof-like structure built along the side of a building, especially one built over the pavement outside business premises”. Which means that, in these varieties of English, a veranda is what Americans would call an awning.
We also have the ramada.
Originally used for a structure or shelter made of branches, ramada is from Spanish (derived from rama “branch”). In American English, we hear ramada in the southwest, as a designation for an “open structure designed to provide shade, and typically roofed with brush or branches”. A ramada is an open porch, kind of like a pergola. Or an arbor.
Piazza, the Italian name for a market-place or square, is one also applied to uncovered porches throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. According to the OED, the move from ‘market-place’ to ‘porch’ occurs because of the Italian custom of “constructing colonnades round open squares”, something that is later echoed in the construction of English (and American) balcony-style porches.
As time goes on, the colonnade is substituted by a balustrade, which is basically a much shorter structure, with stubby little columns. Here is a traditional Italian piazza, outlined by a balustrade.
Here is a modern interpretation of the same idea, now in a more porch-like form.
As a porch-term, piazza can be heard in the eastern US states, from New England on down the eastern seaboard, in these cases applied to non-balustraded areas.
Another word for ‘porch’ found among the Linguistic Atlas data was terrace, which originally refers to “a mound of earth or rubbish” (borrowed into English from the French, but ultimately from the Italian terrazza “filthy earth”) and eventually becomes the term for “a raised level place for walking” that has sloping sides. Terrace also comes to be applied to “a gallery, open on one or both sides, a colonnade, a portico, a balcony on the outside of a building” and even “the flat roof of a house”.
The OED says that these senses of terrace are obsolete, or at least that they were obsolete, as the use of terrace for a porch-like structure is “now revived”.
Gallery is another term that has porch-like uses. Several people (in South Carolina especially) gave gallery as an answer when the Atlas interviewers asked about what they called an entryway to a house. The OED lists, as one definition of gallery, “a covered space for walking in” and a narrow “balcony, constructed on the outside of a building”. This is how gallery comes to be applied (by different people) to both a ‘porch’ and an ‘attic‘.
Patio comes from Spanish for “courtyard” which comes from the Old Occitan pati “uncultivated land” and originally referred to the roofless inner courtyard for a Spanish or Mexican house, later extended to a “paved [in the sense that it has bricks or stone laid down] roofless area adjoining a house”.
In addition to the French terrace, Italian loggia and piazza, Latin portico, porch, and gallery, Spanish patio and ramada, Spanish via Indian veranda, and Dutch stoop, English also houses the Hawaiian lanai, the South Asian pial, and the Javanese pendopo.
A lot of cultures have a place that’s kinda inside ~ kinda outside and, apparently, English has borrowed a word for “porch” from each of them. Perhaps this is another way that the porch is a symbol of our neighborliness.