Heights Living: On the Porch

The Porch.  English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.

In a time when "sustainability" and "green design" are such big concerns, and architects device many creative and sometimes acrobatic solutions to, among other problems, avoid too much Heat Loss/Heat Gain in a building, (which would ensue in high air conditioning/heating costs or "inefficiency"); those who own one of the Victorian or Craftsman cottages that populate The Heights can thank their lower energy bill to some very simple aspects in their design, that have nothing to do with new technology and everything to do with centuries of tradition.

Houston was a new city back in 1890 and The Heights (the collection of neighborhood we call The Heights, that is) a brand new suburb; it follows then that most of the domestic architecture of The Heights was adopted from architectural types that had been well established in other parts of the country, and later adapted to the hot and humid Houston climate.

Take the California Craftsman bungalow for example, which rose in such popularity that by the 1920's its plan could be purchased from a catalog or a "ladies home & garden" magazine.  The bungalow's efficient plan makes a perfect dwelling for a working family, and it is no surprise to see it also appear in industrial towns like Chicago and Detroit; but while in the northern climate the bungalow's spaces are closed and compact, the Houston version of bungalow is characterized by a front porch and an enfilade of living rooms whose doors align to allow the breeze to circulate throughout the house (the enfilade is known in the South as "the shotgun house"):

Craftsman Bungalow.  Woodland Heights.  Notice that the eaves have been painted in the traditional sky blue which is said to "fool the wasps" into thinking it is sky, and prevents them from making hives.
The first floor of the house is raised which allows water to wash under it and prevent flooding during the rainy season.  The extra height then provides an opportunity for beautiful landscaping.  The trees and shrubs then filter and cool the air around the building.

Queen Anne Victorian.  Houston Heights.
The floor plan of most of these houses (regardless of style: Victorian cottage or Craftsman bungalow) is very simple:  The Front Porch acts as a vestibule (In grander houses like the one above, the front door has a vestibule which opens to the Living Room) the Living Room faces the street, it is followed by the Dining Room, which in turn is followed by the kitchen, then there may be "a sewing room" (now converted into an extension of the kitchen or into a breakfast room) or another porch.  The house is divided by a hallway that directs to the bedrooms and sometimes a stair to the second floor.  When dealing with Heat Gain it is more important to shade from the outside than to do so from the inside with a curtain, because once the heat is in, well it is in...The Front Porch acts a heat retardant to the windows in the Living Room, cooling the air in front of those windows thereby lowering the amount of heat gained by the house.

Queen Anne Victorian.  Houston Heights.  Notice that the bead board ceiling has been painted in the traditional blue to "fool the wasps".  Instead of wasps nests, this porch has a lovely collection of wind chimes and potted plants.

Another feature to note is the wide eaves on the sides of the house.  The eaves project shade on the side windows in a similar way The Front Porch does with the front of the house, but the shadow is not as deep, so the shadows cast by the neighboring houses and trees take care of the rest of the Heat Gain. With all this talk about shade and shadows, I'm afraid you will think these houses are rather dark and gloomy, when in fact the effect is one of openness with lots of pleasant ambient light.  The cool air circulates freely thanks to the enfilade (or should I say "shotgun") arrangement.

English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.

 When the house is (fortunately) located on a bigger corner lot, there arises the problem of sun exposure on two sides.  The problem is easily and beautifully solved by making the porch turn the corner of the building.  The living spaces now benefit from shade on two sides: 

Same house, closer look.
I love the red rocking chairs and the red flowers in the porch above.  Something about its proportion reminds me of the corredores in the Colonial houses in Nicaragua, where I grew up; perhaps it is the rocking chairs.  I'm picturing myself sipping cold cacao under its shade.  Speaking of sipping cacao (or lemonade), you are probably asking where are the people?  It's summer in this part of the American Continent, and while most people in the rest of the United States and Canada are enjoying the warm weather, we Houstonians are hiding inside the cool shade of our homes avoiding the 100 weather. We schedule our festivals and outdoor activities late in the Summer, or in the Fall, and Spring, again avoiding the heat.  I guess I am the only person crazy enough to go for a stroll in this heat.  

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  This "wrap around" porch not only provides shade to the young couple that owns it, but several sitting and social areas.  Notice the ever preset porch swing.

Another sitting area in the same house.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  Overall View.

Ginger Bread Victorian.  Houston Heights.

The house above sits on a large corner lot, virtually isolated from its neighbors and exposed to the sun on all four sides; even the centenary trees cannot protect it from the inclement 8:00 am sun (yes, it is this bright at 8:00 am!).  Fortunately, its architect thought to give it a continuous porch, thus lessening some of the heat it might gain throughout the day.  Also notice the summer flag the owners have raised on one of the columns.  Porches are a popular place to show not only seasonal decorations, but also:

School Pride
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.

Regional Pride:
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.

 Country Pride:
Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.  Notice, if you can, once again the traditional sky blue ceiling.

 Most of the houses in this neighborhood, were originally built and inhabited by families of modest means, therefore the wood detail in most cases tends to be very simple and humble.  If there were to be any, The Front Porch, being the main entrance to the house, is the place where one would find most of the decorative carpentry details.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Norhill.
English Cottage Victorian.  Houston Heights.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Houston Heights.  The porch of this bungalow was restored and some artistic license has been taken.  While the silhouette appears the same, the execution of the columns was done in heavy timber, rather than in the more refined carpentry grade; which now gives this house a rustic and decidedly more "Texan" country spirit.

Craftsman Bungalow.  Detail.  Houston Heights.

Craftsman House.  Houston Heights

Craftsman House.  Door Detail.  Houston.  Notice the two doors.  With fluctuating economies and wars, some residents converted rooms in their houses that could be rented, and gave them a separate entrance.

The View from the porch.  Houston Heights.

 As you can see from above (and from the other pictures), the porch allows the opportunity for beautiful landscape.  The Heights certainly is a very green neighborhood, luxuriant in plant life, each house is a mini ecosystem!  Houston was originally planned with the principles of the "City Beautiful" movement, which promotes beauty to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.  I'm not sure that the residents of The Heights are aware of the name of this movement (which flourished in the 1890's) but I do believe they unknowingly abide by its principles:

Craftsman Bungalow. Norhill.
 The owners of the house above have managed to create such a lovely, manicured garden.  Where most of us would only think to plant grass, they have layered hedges and topiaries, clearly defining their porch and the path that leads to it.

Garden "Court".  Norhill.  The uppermost hedges are azaleas, they bloom white in March.

William A. Wilson House.  Woodland Heights.
 Woodland Heights was developed in 1907 by William A. Wilson.  His house anchors Bayland Avenue, one of the most beautiful streets in all the neighborhood.  It is interesting to think, with our contemporary perspective, that Wilson would choose to live in his own development, in a house built by his own company.  I wonder how many of today's developers and builders would do the same...In William A. Wilson's own words in 1910: "but not until we acquired Woodland Heights and began its development, have we had an opportunity to demonstrate our idea of what a home and its surrounding should be."

Carter, Cooley, Wilson et al, would be proud to see their enterprise turned out to be not only beautiful, but sustainable.

All images by NPL



Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Nadia:
What an absolutely fascinating and informative post which we have not only enjoyed reading and looking at, but have found hugely interesting. It is wonderful that there are such good examples of this style and period of house still to be found and, very obviously, from your images, well loved, preserved sympathetically, and cared for. We should love to see them for ourselves but this post is more than second best. Thank you.

Dear Polia said...

Jane & Lance:
Thank you for your kind comments! Historic Preservation is a great concern to many of us in these neighborhoods; Houston is a city that has lost much of its history and given way to some questionable new replacements. In the Heights we take pride in our past and try to maintain it and preserve; when that is not possible we look for ways to replace what was once there in a sensible manner (at least in most cases). That's what inspires me to write these monthly posts about the neighborhood.

Martin Hajovsky said...

Very nice post Nadia. Right on the money.

pranogajec said...

A beautiful neighborhood indeed. If more architects went out and looked and learned from existing places as you do, the profession would be very different!

Anonymous said...

Ooh! I recognize the house with the purple flag :). Miss it terribly & its neighboring occupants.

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