One of my fondest recollections from my childhood is sitting on our old farmhouse porch swing. The creaking from rusty old chains, and red-winged-blackbird songs warbling from the banks of the creek which meandered through the separation of greening grass and freshly harrowed fields, was simply music to a 7-year-old’s ears. The snow was a distant memory and the buds were bursting on the willow trees which enveloped our little patch of paradise in the summer. I knew that soon it would be warm enough to catch tadpoles in the creek and marvel at the delicate wings of dragon flies. But for now it was sheer bliss to sit on that old swing and keep tempo with my winged friends.
Our porch was a dining room in the heat of the summer, a gathering place for relatives to visit, cool resting place for Pal, our dog, to announce his presence to traveling salesmen. I honestly can say that old porch was, without a doubt, the most utilized space in the house – simple practicality mixed with style and beauty.
The period between 1840 and 1870 was truly the golden age of the verandah. The Gothic Revival style gave way to fanciful millwork and fretwork which truly gave expression, form, and function to the houses they adorned. Many smaller workers’ cottages and houses embraced the American Carpenters’ Gothic which was a way of rendering their carved stone cousins in wood. Millwork and fretwork simply began life as a way to create stone embellishments and details out of wood, thus allowing this type of domestic architecture to become obtainable to the working class. The wealthier, however, began to take notice and to adorn their ashlar cut-stone homes with whimsical verandahs and porches as well. One can plainly see earlier homes which still have their wooden and very hearty millwork intact which resemble stone more than the frail web-like millwork found on late 19th century houses.
When rail service became more and more dependable and less expensive, millwork companies all around North America produced catalogs of off-the-shelf verandah components including a myriad of turned spindles, balusters and columns.
During this mass-production era of the grand Queen Anne Revival homes, any possible combination of fretwork and columns could be had for mere pennies – from a resurgence of the classical capitals, bases and columns to the free expressions of the wood turners’ imagination.
Most verandahs that are still intact date usually from the late 19th century, even if the house is of an earlier construction date, since wood rots from lack of maintenance and earlier designs become outdated. Certainly with the small cost of millwork at that time a facelift could be had for a house, with the addition of fresh millwork. Your best resource in researching your era of millwork and even design of verandah is to purchase reprinted pattern books and catalogs of the time. You will also find that most heritage sites in North America have kept very close to the period of construction of the house, and may well be a valuable resource by providing photographic documentation.
And now I leave you with these thoughts… there is nothing which better creates curb appeal, character and makes a house a home than a beautifully maintained and loved wooden verandah.