Editor's note: This overview of neighbourhood porches is part of the Heritage Survey by Ottawa South History Project. Text by Julie Harris; photos Nolan Cipriano, 2009. For more details about the front porches and the Heritage Survey, see the publication Exploring the Built Heritage of Old Ottawa South.
A distinguishing feature of Old Ottawa South is the number of houses that retain their original front porches, also called verandahs. These elegant structures make a positive contribution to the neighbourhood’s appearance, but their social, environmental and architectural benefits should not be forgotten, nor the role they played in expressing popular culture.
First, the social benefits. A sizeable front porch, deep enough to accommodate comfortable chairs, represents an important transition between private and public spaces. People passing time on the porch have “eyes on the street”, which helps us feel safe. From the porch, people can also choose whether to interact with passers-by or not. This adds another space where opportunities for voluntary, social interactions can occur. For the residents of a house, the porch also adds an intimately scaled space for conversations and reading, away from busier rooms.
The origins of the porch, however, are environmental. They shelter us from sun, precipitation and wind. Before air conditioning, we used large shade trees, porches, open windows and masonry walls to provide effective, passive ways to keep a house cool. Porches also play an important role in the historic appearance of our houses. Most of the old homes in Old Ottawa South are variations of Neoclassical architecture, even if they feature Craftsman-style elements, such as exposed rafters and wide over-hanging eaves. Our front porches allowed Classicism to be expressed in a cost-effective way, by having columns, beams along the top of columns (architraves) and other classical elements constructed in wood rather than in brick or stone. One reason why new or newly renovated porches seem less appealing aesthetically is that today’s building code does not allow us to build the low, hiplevel railings that were normally proportioned to be at a specific ratio (33% or 40%) to the height of the porch.
The cultural meaning of generous porches is connected to the increasing emphasis and value that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries placed on separating work from home life. For the middle classes, a front porch created an intimate space that a family could use to show that it had the means for leisure time and a desire to spend time together as a family.
While the importance of such a space may be declining as more people seek to increase indoor space by eliminating open porches, front-porch culture still thrives in Old Ottawa South. We see and talk to each other from the porch, and we use the decorations and furnishings of our porches to express as much about ourselves as we care to reveal.
The single-storey porch on a house with a side-hall plan is the most common porch type in Old Ottawa South. Throughout the neighbourhood there are several different variations on this theme.
In keeping with two prevailing, but closely related, architectural styles in Old Ottawa South – Neoclassical and Craftsman – two basic common elements include an entrance marked by a flight of steps, framed by twinned, tripled or wide single columns that sit on brick supports and carry a beam across the front of the house. Distinguishing features are largely decorative. If a triangular element (pediment) is set directly above the entrance, it expresses a stronger affinity to Neoclassicism. If there is no pediment, the rafter ends are exposed, and the eaves extend further than the columns, the house appears to be following a Craftsman style.
Broad Two-Storey Porch
The broad two-storey porch is often found on larger homes. In addition to functional purposes, the two-storey porch is critical for softening the massing of the house, expressing its residential function, and carrying its decoration. These porches usually cover twothirds of the width of the main elevation. They cover the front door and extend across the vestibule area, leaving the main window of what was often the parlour uncovered. The second storey, because it is only accessible through the house, becomes a more private space than the first level. Some second storey porches were used as sleeping spaces in hot weather.
Narrow Two-Storey Porch
This is a smaller variant of the broad two-storey porch, designed for houses with a side-hall plan.
Covered stoops are also found in Old Ottawa South. The stoop offers a simple entrance, mostly on houses built before 1900. This style of porch provides a smaller cushion of space before entering the home, nothing more. Stoops are normally decorated enough to complement the house and ensure that their domestic function is understood. In this example, the decorative woodwork on the portico mirrors that on the pitch of the roof, creating a harmonious architectural design.