Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast – the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology & Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Thomas Visser, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont. In this podcast they talk about Thomas’ new book “Porches of North America.”
Jason Church: I’m here at the National Trust Conference talking to Thomas Visser, the director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont. Tom, tell is a little bit about the program that you guys do in Vermont.
Thomas Visser: We have a graduate program in historic preservation that was founded in the mid-1970s and our real goal is to provide our students with a generalist broad-based background for developing careers in historic preservation. The students are coming from all over the country and they’re going out to fill career opportunities also across the country. It’s a three semester program. Everyone starts in the fall and ends up the following fall. We also focus quite a bit on a range of preservation related topics, everything from the conservation of materials to preservation law, to planning and policy and again, it’s really intended to provide a preparation for what we might call a general practitioner type professional approach to historic preservation.
Jason Church: Now most of your students coming in, what are their backgrounds?
Thomas Visser:The majority of our students have a background in history. However, we certainly get students with other backgrounds, everywhere from engineering and architecture to political science, and English. It really is multidisciplinary in that aspect. We have alumni who are working for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We have alumni who are working for statewide nonprofit organizations. We also have alumni who are working in government service at the federal level. Quite a few of our alumni are working in state historic preservation offices. The state historic preservation officer for the state of Texas is one of our alumni Mark Wolfe.
The other area where we’re certainly seeing a fair amount of career opportunity in recent years is in the cultural resource management area. Of course, for that aspect of regulatory review, much of the consulting work is being done by companies that are specializing in this. There are really three main areas: it’s the government service, it’s working with nonprofits, local, state, and federal level, as well as working in the private sector, either as a consultant in the CRM context or also in historic preservation redevelopment of properties. That’s another area where a number of our graduates are working. Either the physical aspects of it on a contracting basis or working in the development and real estate field.
Thomas Visser: Well you know Jason it was one of these projects that started a number of years ago when I was doing surveys looking at the historic areas and evaluating their significance. What I realized during that process was that often when other researchers had looked at the historic significance of properties, especially in older villages, there seemed to be a certain number of cases where older homes that had porches on them, where the porches had been replaced, and the style of the current porch did not match the style of the rest of the historic house, there was a certain tendency to downgrade the significance of the property and quite literally in a few cases I found that wonderful old homes were not being included as being considered eligible for a listing in the national register because of the alterations.
As I looked into this more it became clear that on one hand because porches are open to the weather, they certainly may have a shorter lifespan, shall we say, then the rest of the house and so it’s not unusual for them to have been rebuilt or replaced, but on the other hand with further research it became clear that particularly during the mid to second half of the 1800s it was not all that unusual for the style of the porch to be a bit different from the style of the rest of the house. Anyway, one thing led to another and it really sort of prompted an interest in doing more research on porches as an entity unto themselves, rather than sort of as an attachment to a historic building with the expectation that that attachment is going to match the style and character of the rest of the building. I really tried to look at porches as something separate and then look at them in a very broad context.
Jason Church: As your book looks at all of North America, are porches interpreted differently in different regions of the country?
Thomas Visser: One thing that really came out of the review, looking at porches in the United States and Canada, was that I think there’s a certain anticipation that porches in the American South, especially in the American Southeast would be somehow different or special than those that we would find in other parts of the country. While it certainly is true when we’re looking at the comparison between the Southeast and the Southwest, what came out of the research was that the Northeast and in the Midwest areas where summers are shorter, they still, there is an amazing legacy of porch design that is not all that dissimilar to the porch designs that we see in the American Southeast.
One of the key factors here that came out of the research was that air-conditioning, of course, has had a major impact on how people live during the summer months. As soon as air-conditioning became economically viable for many, many people in those areas where the summer weather was most challenging, put it that way, it was certainly more common to have air-conditioning installed and to move a lot of the day-to-day social life off of the porch and inside of the home.
Obviously, if that’s happening, there was a tendency to not maintain part of a building like a porch much as perhaps it had been in the past. Almost ironically when doing the survey across North America it became apparent that many of the best surviving examples of 19th-century porches and early 20th century porches are in the cooler areas because they continue to be used and in many areas, either thinking about coastal Maine or Prince Edward Island or other areas in Minnesota, Ontario, even there, there are many homes that still do not have air-conditioning and yet the porches become a vital part of summer life.
Jason Church: How do you think our driving culture now, how do you think that has affected porch design on newer construction and the way we use them now?
Thomas Visser: Looking at the history of porches through the 20th century has revealed a few things on that and certainly with the advent of the automobile and by the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in suburban areas where a generation before that, of course, everyone would be out on the front porch in the evenings, communicating with their neighbors, and it really was the social network hub in many, many ways. By the 1930s with the automobiles and truck traffic zooming by many, many homes, there was also a tendency to not use the porch, especially the front porch as much as before. That trend continued in the 1950s and during that area there was almost a complete abandonment in many areas of the use of the front porch.
Family social life tended to move to the backyard, to the barbecue, the deck, the privacy area and the front yard tended to be much more formal, almost sterile when you’re looking at some of the landscaping and so on. The neatly mowed lawn, maybe a clipped hedge, and as you say, a big garage door so that there was very little interaction between the home and the street at that point. What we have seen, however, it really started a trend in the 70s and it has certainly continued, is the rediscovery of the joys of the porch and this has been widely celebrated across the country. I know of some wonderful examples in the southeast where the American porch culture is certainly undergoing somewhat of a revival, so anyway it’s this dimension between the social spheres. I think that’s one way to look at it. It all sort of surrounds what’s happening on the porch, is something else that also came out of the research.
We can think of porches as what are sometimes referred to liminal spaces and what I mean by that is these are spaces that are in between. They are betwixt and between in a certain sense. They’re not completely indoors, they’re not completely outdoors, they’re not completely private, they’re not completely public, but they form this extended threshold, a space that acts as a connecting realm, if you will, between the private home and the public space. When we start to look at porches in that sense from a historical point of view we can see the incredible importance that they have played on encouraging social dynamics within communities.
In the eras before the telephone, before the Internet and so on, we really have to think about how did people connect with each other, especially socially? Not only the formal connections, but also those many informal connections that form part of day-to-day social life. When we look at the 19th century and even continuing into the 20th century and up to the present in some areas, where the porches have been a common feature, we do see that they are being used as this threshold space where people can be available for connecting with other people in typically an informal setting.
I think overall one of the main goals of this project was to provide perhaps somewhat of a clearer definition of some of the various types of porches that are surviving across the U.S. and Canada and in particular to try to address for historic preservationists, for homeowners, for anyone in general who’s interested in this topic to provide them with a better understanding, not only how these various types of porches have evolved, but also looking specifically at the various uses associated with various types.
One area, of course, is to look at porches broadly so that were also including portico, colonnade, porte-cochère, and so on, these very similar kind of liminal spaces that might not be the typical veranda or the old piazza but they have also provided that in-between semi-sheltered space that acts very much in the same way that the old porch has for many generations.
Jason Church: Where is your book available at?
Thomas Visser: My book is available online, of course. The publisher is University Press of New England and that’s probably the easiest way to find it.
Jason Church: Well, I look forward to reading it and thank you so much for talking to us today, Tom, about not only the program there at the University of Vermont but also your new project with the porches of North America. We appreciate it.
Thomas Visser: Well thank you Jason it’s been my pleasure.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.