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Changing Architecture: From the Front Porch to the Back Patio

Adapted for web from Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Summer 1997, Vol.78, No.2, From the Porch to Patio: The Desire for Privacy and the Need for Community by Richard H. Thomas

Just like clothing styles, house styles come and go — and then they come back again! When you walk around your town, have a look at the houses in one specific area of town. Do they tend to look similar? Think about a new development near you; are they of the same style or do they share features in common? New houses go up in an area with other new homes. It has always been that way.

Homes of the same style are built near each other because they were usually built in the same time period. So just like your clothes, various styles and features of houses were popular during certain historical periods of time.

If we travel back in time to the later 1800s we would see how the people of the time built houses to reflect not only their economic status in the community, but also the ability to engage with other like-minded people socially. In the 19th century the architecture of the houses of more well to do community members were the models for others with less money to follow. As an example of one aspect of how architecture affects social contacts, we can look at front porches.

In the 19th century the front porch was an important way for community members to communicate and visit. It was the social media of the time. A brief wave or greeting might become an opportunity for the passerby to come onto the porch for an extended visit. A large porch also allowed the family to entertain in a more relaxed way. It might even be the site of a social gathering with friends rather than in the formal parlor inside the house. In a time of no television, the porch gave pleasure to people who might just watch the world go by as they sat comfortably on a porch swing. A well-shaded porch provided a cool place to escape the heat of the day.

However, not all porches were on the front of the house. At a time with no air-conditioning, small upper story porches were sometimes used for allowing a cool breeze to enter the main house, while sleeping porches could offer some relief from hot summers. Along with the front porch, back porches provided a service entrance and also some private space. In a time when Americans valued knowing their neighbors, the porch remained an important architectural feature of houses large and small, expensive and humble.  Styles changed but the porch remained.

By the beginning of the 20th century new building materials and technology allowed people to choose a wide variety of porch styles. In addition, the house began to show changes in both size and style. As a middle class grew in the United States, there was a need for small, comfortable houses. Sometimes modest bungalows or a house design chosen from a book was constructed. Yet the front porch in some form remained.

After World War II, there was a greater demand for houses than ever before. The increase in population along with veterans returning home created a housing boom. To provide houses quickly, builders needed to create moderately priced houses that could be mass-produced. Builders kept the houses small and planned communities sprang up in which many of the houses looked alike. The housing developments were usually located outside of the city purchased by residents who were seeking a life with more privacy. One way of achieving privacy was to build a patio in the back of the house rather than a porch in front. The patio would be an extension of the house but it was far less public.

In the change from front porch to back patio the sense of community changed too. The social interaction that the porch provided gave way to more privacy and less sense of community.

As you look around your neighborhood, try to look at the houses carefully. Today, many houses have a mixture of styles and features. Is there a large front porch or a private back patio? What shape is the house? What does the roof look like? How are the windows shaped? Maybe some houses have gone through lots of changes over time. What can you discover?