FRONT PORCHES
Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board

The Romance of the Porch

The porch — just the word evokes images of

  • Wicker chairs, porch swings, and tall glasses of cold lemonade;
  • Cool breezes on a sultry summer afternoon;
  • Lush ferns and bright flowers.
  • The porch ... is a place to retreat to during a gentle summer rain or engage in lively discussions with family and friends ... a place to relax with a good book or take a nap in the sun. As Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in Crabgrass Frontier, porches "were places for observing the world, for meeting friends, for talking, for knitting, for shelling peas, for courting, and for half a hundred other activities."

    Porches have been called "our window on the world." They are the transition between the confines of the house and the outdoors. "On the porch it's possible to participate in a public sense -- and the public can participate in a homeowner's private world. (Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Architect)

    The porch is often the first element of a home that visitors see. It is a reflection of the people who live there. It can be friendly and inviting, invoke a sense of fun or present a closed and silent front to the street.

    "Porches are an element that contributes to building a community. When we stop sitting on our front porches, we stop interacting with our neighbors" (Pat Burt, President University Neighborhood, Palo Alto, California) and when that happens, we put our sense of community at risk.

    The word porch is derived from the Greek word portico and the Roman word porticus, both meaning the columned entry to a classical temple. Porches proliferated in American residential design from the late 1840's until World War II. With the growth of suburbia, the rise of the automobile, and the invention of air conditioning, porches fell into disfavor; people began to turn inward, focusing their activities in the back yard or in front of the television, and almost imperceptibly losing their sense of community.

    In the last decade, the porch has undergone a newfound popularity. In an attempt to regain the neighborliness and sense of community once found in city neighborhoods, architects and city planners have resurrected the idea of the porch.

    Many planned communities, such as Seaside and Disney's Celebration, both in Florida, either require or strongly suggest that all homes have porches. Thankfully, the idea of the porch is an ideal that Lakewood never lost.

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    Lakewood's Front Porches

    When most of the buildings in Lakewood were constructed, from the 1890's through the 1920's, porches were a common feature. Lakewood has thousands of front porches. Although details can be put together in almost endless variations, here is a summary of the characteristics of many Lakewood front porches.

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    Size

    The size of the front porch can vary considerably. On some houses, the porch is just a small roofed area over the entrance. On other houses, the porch extends across a portion of the front wall. Finally, many houses have porches that are as wide as the front of the house. Some front porches also turn a front corner and extend down one side of the house. Two-family homes have separate up-and-down or side-by-side porches for each unit, while apartments often have a porch or balcony for each unit.

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    Roofs

    On most houses, the front porch is built as an attachment to the front of the house. It has its own roof, such as a gable, hip (a roof that slopes to each side and the front), shed (a roof that slopes straight from the house to the front yard), flat, or rounded. Sometimes, the main roof of the house slopes to form the porch roof. Some roofs have rafter tails cut in decorative shapes that extend beyond the end of the roof. A few roofs are just a series of wood beams that are ideal on which to grow climbing plants. Today, roofs are most often covered in asphalt or fiberglass shingles, although tile, slate, and metal roofs are also seen. Originally, more roofs had tile or slate. There are even a few original wooden shingle roofs that still exist.

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    Ceilings

    The traditional ceiling on Lakewood porches is known as beadboard, narrow boards with a rounded molding detail along one edge. The beadboard would then be stained and coated in a clear finish. Over the years, some ceilings have been painted. Variations to flat ceilings include porches with the beams of the porch roof exposed, and rounded ceilings above the entranceway.

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    Columns

    Most Lakewood porch columns are made of wood, although some are brick, stone, concrete, or a material called "cast stone." The most frequent column shape is round or square. Octagonal columns are less common, and hexagonal and decagonal shapes are very unusual. Most porches have two, three, or four columns, although sometimes columns are grouped together in pairs or triplets at each corner. Some porches have flat versions of the columns, called pilasters, attached to the front house wall. Columns can either be a uniform width top to bottom or taper. Tapered columns can range from being slightly wider to substantially wider at the bottom. Columns are either smooth or have evenly spaced grooves extending from top to bottom, called flutes. Square and octagonal columns sometimes have inset panels outlined in molding.

    Generally, a column includes one or more pieces of trim at the bottom and top. The top of the column, called a capital, often has a design that is one of the classical orders, such as Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.

    Column height can vary. A few houses and apartment buildings have two-story high columns, although most are one-story. Generally, columns extend all the way to the porch floor or are short in height and rest on bases of brick or stone.

    On two-family houses, the second floor sometimes does not have columns. Instead, the upper porch appears to be walls of wood siding or wood shingles with large rectangular openings.

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    Railings

    Railings create much of the design character of Lakewood porches. Traditional railings are made up of a top rail, bottom rail, and balusters, which are the vertical pieces in between. The most common railings are made of wood. In terms of construction, balusters are spaced and nailed to a thin strip of wood. The thin strip of wood is then nailed into the top and bottom rails. Wooden balusters are usually one of several main shapes, such as square, round pieces turned on a lathe, or flat boards with cutouts, all with many variations in detail. For spacing, usually the gap between two balusters is about equal to the width of one baluster. Another railing design is brick balusters, often in the shape of an "I" with a stone top rail. Sometimes railings are solid, using the same wooden siding as the house, such as clapboards or wooden shingles. Other solid railing materials include brick or stone, which often extend from the top rail down to the ground. To let water drain off the porch floor, the masonry might be pierced with one or more small spaces or with a small decorative spout. Some railings also have built in wooden or masonry flower box brackets.

    Apartment balconies typically have ornate metal railings, often in a curving design. The edge or underside of balconies often have interesting molding profiles or brackets.

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    Floors

    The traditional floor on Lakewood porches is narrow tongue and groove boards that have been painted. The boards are laid from the front wall of the house toward the front yard, which is the direction the porch floor slopes. Other porch floor materials include terra cotta tiles or concrete.

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    Lattice and Foundations

    Lattices are the decorative wooden panels that fill the space from the porch floor to the ground. Lattice is important, because the openings in the panels reduce moisture build-up by allowing air to circulate under the porch. The panels consist of narrow wooden strips attached to a frame. The most common design is a criss-cross pattern set on a diagonal, although many other variations and creative designs exist. If this area is filled with brick or stone, there are usually slots or gaps in the masonry to allow for ventilation. Masonry sometimes has colored mortar or one of many popular mortar joint profiles.

    One common early 20th century foundation material that adds a lot of architectural character to Lakewood porches is cast stone, which was often used for the piers, the vertical supports at porch corners. Cast stone is actually fancy concrete blocks meant to imitate the look of stone. Look carefully, and notice that the pattern of the rough-faced blocks is often identical, because these blocks were made in a mold.

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    Steps

    Lakewood front porches have two types of steps: wood and masonry. Masonry steps have a number of interesting variations. The simplest form is slabs of sandstone laid on top of each other to form steps. Sometimes sandstone was used only for the treads, with bricks filling in the vertical sections (called risers). Most masonry steps use bricks as a wall on each side to anchor the treads in place. These low walls sometimes have stone caps and/or flat areas for placing decorations such as large flower pots or urns. Occasionally, front steps with only a few steps were made from concrete.

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    Trellises

    Trellises, common on many Lakewood front porches, link together the landscaping and porch. Trellises are usually located on the side of a porch, extending from the floor to the roof. The time-tested basic design for a trellis is a criss-cross pattern of narrow wooden strips that form a network of squares, which help provide support to climbing vines and shrubs. Some trellises have the pattern of squares overlaid with additional wooden strips to form a design, or are combined with a fancy emblem in the center. Trellises are usually located on a sunny section of the porch, which encourages plants to bloom and creates shade on the porch.

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    Maintaining Lakewood's Front Porches

    Older porches are rarely problem-free, but the beauty and character they add to a house and street make their maintenance a good investment. A porch will retain its beauty and character by following a few simple steps. Inspect all elements of a porch seasonally (Spring and Fall) to catch deterioration early and keep repair costs at a minimum. This includes close inspection of the roof and gutters, as well as the underside of the porch. Always try to repair elements of a porch rather than replace them. Replacement materials often don't match the original in design, and new materials are often of inferior quality. For example, new wood, even if treated, may not last as long as well-maintained old-growth wood originally used to construct a porch if it is kept in good condition. Keep a fresh coat of paint on all old and new wooden elements to prevent damage from rain and sunlight. Keep masonry joints properly tuckpointed to minimize moisture damage. Mortar used to tuckpoint porch elements should contain lime and should match the color and joint tooling of the original mortar.

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    Porch Enclosures

    Permanent enclosure of porches is not recommended. A porch permanently closed up with siding and windows becomes a room of the house, not a link to the outdoors. To enjoy a porch without insects or extend the season of use, install removable screen or glass panels. There are many examples in Lakewood. To help preserve the character of a porch, make the removable glass or screen panels the same size as the porch openings; set the panels behind the porch railing; and set the panels behind the columns or against the sides of the columns.

    For a better appearance on houses with solid porch sides, don't set the removable glass or screen panels flush with the outside edge of the porch sides. Instead, recess the panels from the edge.

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    Roofs, Ceilings and Gutters

    Moisture infiltration into the structure of porch roofs and ceilings can cause significant, costly damage if not caught early. Deterioration of the roof sheathing (slate, clay tiles, asphalt shingles, etc.), flashing, or fascia boards behind the gutters can allow moisture into the roof structure and cause rot from the inside out. By the time the deterioration can be seen on the porch ceiling, significant damage may have already occurred. Unless the roof sheathing is visibly deteriorating, focus attention on deteriorated flashing, rotted fascia boards, rafter tails that need paint, and clogged gutters and downspouts. Old flashing can have pin-size holes that allow water in under the roof sheathing. Clogged gutters and downspouts can force water behind the gutters, rotting the fascia boards and the adjacent roof structure. Remember that the goal is to get water to flow off of and away from the porch quickly. Anything that impedes this flow should be repaired.

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    Columns and Railings

    Original porch railings and columns help define the character of a porch and the style of a house, and should be retained and repaired whenever possible. In many projects, repair is often more cost effective than replacement given that new balusters, railings, and columns are often manufactured using materials that have a shorter service life. In addition, many products available in stores today are too generic for Lakewood porches. The products don't have enough detail or come in the right proportions and dimensions to look visually correct when installed.

    On some porches, the original columns or railings have been covered over with replacement siding such as vinyl or aluminum. Check an older photo, then remove this "box" and watch the original porch reappear. When made of wood, columns and railings often appear somewhat deteriorated due to dirt and the build-up of old layers of paint. Often, just stripping the wood, priming it with a high-quality oil-based primer, and repainting will complete the repair. If there are areas of deterioration after the wood has been stripped, there are several techniques that can be used to make the needed repairs. Epoxy consolidants, which can be sanded and painted, will strengthen and repair rotted wood. If the deterioration is more extensive, such as at the base of a column, the base can be replaced while the original column is retained. If original elements are missing or are too deteriorated to be repaired, consider having those pieces milled to match. This is usually more cost effective and produces better results than replacing everything with new materials.

    On two-family houses, the effects of the sun and rain are very harsh on the section of wall between the first and second floor porches, especially if it curves outward. The wooden clapboard or shingles need regular painting. If the siding needs to be replaced, matching materials are still available.

    Total replacement of railings and balusters should be avoided. The Lakewood building code requires that if a new porch railing is built, or more than half of the material in an existing porch railing is replaced, the new rail must meet the current code height requirement of 36 inches at the first story and 42 inches at the second story. Repairing a railing permits the retention of the original railing height, which is typically 26 to 32 inches. Anything taller than the original will be noticeably out of proportion to the rest of porch and may create the look of a "playpen." When repairing or replacing balusters, match the original spacing between them. Depending on the size and style of the balusters, the space between two balusters is usually equal to the width of one baluster. Flat boards with cutouts typically touch each other.

    If the distance from the porch floor to the ground is less than 24 inches, the Lakewood building code does not require a railing.

    Maintenance of masonry columns and railings involves inspecting surfaces for open joints, which can cause deterioration and shifting of the bricks or stones. Open joints should be tuckpointed with a lime mortar. The use of caulking or pure Portland cement mortar can cause further deterioration. Original apartment balconies need regular painting of the railing and flooring, along with inspection for water infiltration into the structural members. The metal railings, often curving, are more ornate than railings available today and should be retained.

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    Floors

    The wooden board flooring on most porches is tongue and groove style, but occasionally 5/4 straight edge boards were used. When replacing deteriorated sections, it is important to get boards that are the same width and thickness. If replacement of the entire floor is required, consider using a tongue and groove board that is completely pre-primed. The primer on the bottom of the boards protects against moisture and will extend the life of the porch floor. The primer will get dirty and scratched on the porch deck during installation, so another coat of quality primer should be applied prior to painting. A fresh coat of deck enamel will help preserve and protect a porch floor for years. Masonry floors, such as terra cotta and concrete, should be maintained with proper mortars and sealants to protect from water infiltration.

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    Lattice and Foundations

    Unlike the ready-made, pressure treated lattice sold in stores today, lattice on older houses typically has a tighter criss-cross design, while other designs are thin strips of wood laid in a pattern. Maintaining wooden lattice is one of the simplest tasks because it is easily removed for repair and painting. This may require a little handy work with a hammer and nails, but the result will be worth it. When repairing lattice, match the original spacing or pattern of the slats. When replacement of the lattice framing is required, treated wood should be used for the bottom framing piece that will rest on the soil. To help keep leaves out from under a porch, black fiberglass window screen mesh can be stretched and stapled to the back side of the lattice frame. If the entire area below the porch floor is brick or stone, ventilation slots should be maintained and joints tuckpointed.

    The masonry piers at the porch corners should also be inspected for open joints and tuckpointed as needed. Many Lakewood porches were constructed without footers under the piers. Over time, some porches settle enough that they need to be reconstructed with new concrete footers installed under the piers. This can be a more expensive repair, but if the porch has shifted and the columns or piers are leaning, it needs to be done.

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    Steps

    Because they are nearly always exposed to the weather, maintenance of steps can be an ongoing project. Deteriorated wood should be replaced immediately, followed by coats of high quality primer and paint. If steps require total replacement, match the size, layout, and detailing of the original steps. For a hand rail on the steps, look at the shape, size, and spacing of the balusters, top rail, and bottom rail of the porch railing and try to match it or find similar pieces. Plumbing pipes and aluminum railings are not appropriate for old house porches. A slightly pitched, four inch thick concrete pad will extend the service life of a set of wooden steps by keeping it off the damp ground.

    Steps constructed of stone, brick, and concrete don't require as much attention but can be costlier to repair if not properly maintained. All mortar joints should be tuckpointed as needed and the use of salt in the winter should be avoided. Like porch piers, there are often no footers under masonry steps, so enough settling may occur to require reconstruction. Hand railings are often not found on masonry steps, in part because of the possibility of damage to the steps during installation or in later years. Using a skilled person can minimize the risk of chiped or broken stone steps during hand railing installation.

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    Paint Colors

    Generally, porches should be painted to compliment the colors used on the house. Slight variations can be appropriate, given the style of the house or the construction materials, but using the body, trim, and sash colors of the house in some combination on the porch are usually a good bet. Try to avoid painting every molding detail or every turn on a baluster a different color. In most cases, less is more. Deck enamel for porch floors comes in a small variety of colors. Dark gray is a standard color that tends to hide dirt well, but other colors may be considered based on the overall color scheme of the house. Porch ceilings were originally stained and varnished, and if the porch has not been painted over, maintain the clear finish. In addition, brick and stone are not meant to be painted. Once painted, it will be an ongoing maintenance chore.

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    Landscaping

    On the porch, foliage and flowering plants are always at home. A shady porch can also be a good place for houseplants to spend the summer. Be sure to check for insect pests before returning them indoors.

    Landscaping around a porch should be selected to complement and enhance the experience of the porch. For example, trellises and small trees can create shade. Mixed borders--meaning combinations of shrubs, evergreens, perennials, annuals, and bulbs--create year-round beauty. Plants can also be selected specifically for fragrance or to attract butterflies or birds. Trellises are perfect for growing roses, clematis, and other flowering vines. Note that the fast-growing habit and substantial weight of a wisteria can damage a trellis or porch if a regular pruning program is not followed. In general, care should be taken to avoid planting large trees and bushes near the porch that could cause damage. Plants should be selected and maintained to allow the porch and front of the house to be seen from the street, both for beauty and safety.

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    Finding photos

    The Cuyahoga County Archives has photos of buildings from the 1950's. The records are filed by Permanent Parcel Number, which is shown on property tax bills. The Archives is located at 2905 Franklin Avenue (216/443-7250). Permanent Parcel Numbers can be obtained from the Cuyahoga County Auditor's Office (216/443 7100).

    The Lakewood Historical Society has photos of some Lakewood houses (216/221-7343).

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    Sources

    - Books

  • Old House Journal Restoration Directory, issued annually. (mail order sources)
  • Preserving Porches, Renee Kahn and Ellen Meagher, 1990 [MAIN ADULT Book 728.0288 522].
  • - Magazines

  • Country Journal Magazine, "Saving an Heirloom," October, 1996.
  • Old House Journal:
    • "The Story of Porches," "How to Build Porch Piers from Fiber Tube Forms," Restoring a Period Porch," and "Reviving Old Railings," July/August, 1990.
    • "Beaded Boards," March/April, 1993.
    • "Hitting on Porch Decks," July/August, 1993.
    • "Reading the Old House: Porches and Mr. Base Man" (building column bases), July/August, 1995.
    • "A Century of Awnings," July/August, 1996.
    • "Beyond Decks: Using Pressure Treated Wood on a Historic House," September/October, 1996.
    • "Heavenly Kissers: A Color Design Guide for Bungalows and their Porches," August, 1997.
  • Popular Mechanics, "How to Rebuild Wooden Porch Steps," May, 1995.
  • - The Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board reading list.
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    NOTE: THIS  GUIDE IS NOT A CODE BOOK, but rather an aid to you in your home improvement endeavors. All improvements must conform to Lakewood's zoning and building code requirements. If you have any questions or problems, please consult the City of Lakewood Building Department for assistance.

    Building Permits

    Porch projects that involve structural repairs or structural changes require a building permit. In addition, some porch projects require approval by the City of Lakewood Architectural Board of Review. The City of Lakewood Building Department - Residential Division can provide details (216/529-6285).

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    The Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board was established to serve in an advisory capacity for the purpose of educating, informint and making recommendations to City officials, departments, boards and commissions, and the community on matters relating to historic preservation.

    The Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board may be contacted through the City of Lakewood Department of Planning and Development (216/529-6630). Information in this publication may be reprinted. Please credit the Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board, Lakewood, Ohio.

    © Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board, May, 1998

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