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In D.C.’s urban center, porches transport to halcyon days

By Elizabeth Festa,

As other parts of the home have become super-sized, computerized or granite-topped, the simple porch— especially the mosquito-defeating screened variety — has endured as a homeowner favorite.

Porches, in general, have been increasing in popularity. According to census data, the presence of some type of porch rose from 42 percent of newly built homes in 1992 to 62 percent in 2009, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders. During that time, the more modern alternative to a porch — the roofless deck — declined to appearing in 27 percent of new homes, compared with 37 percent years earlier. And a recent NAHB survey of builders showed that porches are likely to be components of the homes they plan to build in 2015.

Natural to the District

The District and its environs, in particular, are ripe for screened porches, said Stephen Vanze, a principal and co-founder of Georgetown-based Barnes Vanze Architects. “Much of early American architecture, especially in the South, relied on the models of Greek revival architecture. We see it all over Washington — the White House, the Capitol, and most early 19th-century homes. One salient feature of the Greek revival is open, covered porticos,” Vanze said. “These open porches are ubiquitous in Washington, and with our hot, buggy climate, they naturally became screened and often moved to the side of center-hall Colonial homes.”

Before air conditioning became common, the porch offered what little respite could be found from Washington’s hot, humid summers. The sleeping porch — and an electric fan— got many people through the night.

Sally and Stephen Kern are among the few lucky homeowners in Takoma Park who still have original sleeping porches off their bedrooms. The Kern family still uses theirs for its intended purpose — and then some.

For their sons, Larkin, 10, and Garret, 13, the second-floor screened porch off the family’s circa-1910 Victorian is a combination camping site and aerie. Often accompanied by Juno, the family Labrador/bull terrier mix, the boys sleep there from early spring through Thanksgiving — even, sometimes, when the weather turns downright cold.

“When they slept on the sleeping porch when [the temperature] was in the 30s, the boys would burrow far down in their sleeping bags like foxes, so that all you would see peeking out of the tops of the bags would be a shock of red hair and some strands of long blond hair. . . .They’d sleep out there all winter if we didn’t need to close off the porch doors for the deep winter to conserve heat loss,” said Sally Kern.

Thunderstorms and hailstorms are other favorite occasions for the Kern family’s porch time. “I will occasionally sleep out there with them if it is just a beautiful night or a thunderstorm, but it has really become their room — and a fun place to have a sleepover,” said Stephen Kern, executive producer of Engine Pictures, a D.C.-based film production company.

Retro remodels

For its size and cost, at just a fraction of a home renovation’s bill and footprint, the little screened porch packs a huge practical and mood-enhancing wallop.

“We did the whole-house expansion because I wanted the porches,” said Anne Phelps, counsel for the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Works and Transportation. “I guess I’d always romanticized them growing up because I’ve always wanted one, particularly an upstairs ‘sleeping porch.’ ”

For Phelps and her husband, Alan, a trial attorney for the Department of Justice, the 10-foot-by-141 / 2-foot porches are “well used all summer, of course, as a refuge from mosquitoes, and a great place to have a beer,” she said. The porch “gets a lot of love the rest of the year too, though. It’s great for cozying up on the love seat and having a glass of wine on cool nights in spring and fall,” Phelps said.

While some porch additions eschew traditional styles for custom lighting, chic ceiling fans, audio speakers and customized lighting, homeowners living in the area’s many historic districts must take extra care to keep their additions in conformity with historic guidelines.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and his wife, Barbara, live within the Capitol Hill Historic District and must adhere to historic preservation guidelines. They had an old, unsheltered, two-story deck on the back of their brick rowhouse and left it that way — too hot or cold for use — for the more than 30 years.

“My husband always wanted to use it more,” Barbara Levin said, “so I thought, why not do it right?”

A detail-oriented lawyer, she first consulted with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office to make sure she got the correct look and materials. She selected period-appropriate flat-sawn sage-hued balusters to be the railing pickets, and she had a seasoned home renovator, Jennifer Fowler, principal of the Capitol Hill firm Fowler Architects, design the modest 5-by-8 porch. Barbara Levin said she wanted it to be pretty, with decorative brackets, “but not too gingerbready.”

“Because of the visibility from the street, Historic Preservation Office staff were much more particular about the design and materials than on most rear screened porches,” Fowler noted.

Privacy was also a concern. The flat railing pickets have an added benefit of providing some privacy over the more typical open pickets that are spaced several inches apart. Small details add to historic accuracy. “The posts she selected have a slight chamfer [or bevel] at the edge, which is a minor period detail but one that really contributes to the overall design,” said Amanda Molson, a specialist with the Historic Preservation Office.

On a practical note, they installed screen mesh under the plank flooring to keep out mosquitoes while allowing water drainage.

The porch was completed this spring, and the Levins now enjoy reading and relaxing at the small table they set outside.

Elizabeth Festa is a freelance writer.

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