Undeniably, the South has produced some of our country’s greatest writers and thinkers.
Sweet tea and sweltering summers aside, one of the biggest factors to Southern creativity may be based in wood and nails, brick and mortar.
Ronald Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation and an architectural historian, likes to consider the social impact of Southern architecture, specifically, the porch.
“I think the porch is a prime source of the literary genius of the South,” he said. “We spent so much time out there waiting for the house to cool down, everyone crowded together, watching the moon rise and telling stories. That’s where we learned to be good story tellers.”
In Natchez, as in most of the southern part of Mississippi, historic houses have porches.
Porches enhance overall designs. But a practical reason exists for these extensions in front, on sides and on backs of older houses in the Deep South.
First, the climate dictated the need. Second, the people who gave birth to that first crop of houses in the Old Southwest found they liked the extra living space.
Perhaps no porch can claim the title of quintessential Natchez porch today, as styles range from the Dunleith porch that once encircled the house to the long, inviting porch styles of Linden and Fair Oaks to more modest but important front porches at The Banker’s House and at Cherokee, for example.
Dunleith tour guide Jeannette Hooton said visitors to the historic house on Homochitto Street are in awe of the wide porches there.
“They get swept up in the whole Southern thing with these galleries,” she said.
The first thing they ask, however, is about the use of the word “gallery” to describe the porches.
Miller said the use of “gallery” is widespread in Canada and the lower Mississippi River Valley.
“You can call any porch a gallery in Natchez,” Miller said.
The well-known historic houses such as Dunleith by no means have the sole claim to useful, beloved porches.
Sharon Browning recently built a small house in an established neighborhood on South Union Street, where most houses have porches.
“I’ve always loved porches,” Browning said. “And I wanted a porch I could enjoy the year around. That’s why I wanted it screened.”
Having moved into the house in May, she has experienced spring, summer, fall and winter.
“One of the best things is that I sit on the porch and meet all the people walking by,” she said. “I just love that.”
The porch described by Joseph Holt Ingraham, who visited Natchez in the 1830s and wrote about the town, is a good example of the archetypical style of the early days.
Ingraham said of this Natchez plantation-style house of the early 19th century: “The dwelling, like most in Mississippi, was a long, wooden, cottage-like edifice, with a long piazza … extending along the front and rear of the building. This gallery is in all country-houses, in the summer, the lounging room, reception room, promenade and dining room.”
Miller said the importance of the porch cannot be underestimated.
“It’s hard for us today to realize how important porches were in this climate.” And, as living space, “the only thing that wouldn’t be out there would be the bed; but that changed later when sleeping porches became the way to go.”
The need for porches produced two things, Miller said.
“One is the way we built buildings. The other is a whole set of social customs.”
Architect Charles Moroney, now retired after a long career, agreed. As a 20th-century architect, he recognized the importance of porches in houses he designed.
“I don’t think I’ve done a house that doesn’t have a porch or a suitable substitute for a porch,” he said. “Think about what the porch does. It shields the interior of the house from being exposed to the sun and the rain. It’s a barrier.”
Unlike porches on houses in Charleston, S.C., another Southern city known for its graceful architecture, Natchez porches generally are not separate sections, Miller said. “You can’t remove the porch from the house. This is unique to Natchez and the Gulf area.”
Natchez porches as vital living spaces in the pre-Civil War era were likely to be constructed with fine details. “It was treated as an important room. It would have fine paneling and moldings, plaster ceiling medallions, tongue-in-groove wooden floors and chandeliers.”
The idea for porches is not a Southern one, however. Moroney spoke of Bedouins whose tents had flaps they could open to provide a sheltered space to catch the breeze; and he referred to mud huts in the jungle with “some sort of little space out front that was like a porch. I think of the porch as a functional part of the house.”
For the architect, the porch also is part of the “processional of entry,” Moroney said. “You have the fence, the garden wall and the gate. Instead of, bang, right into the vestibule or living room, you have the porch instead.”
Realtor Charlotte Copeland said a front porch on a Natchez house is not only a selling point; it is something her clients seek in a home.
“The front porch is a big selling point,” she said. “Whether I’m selling online or over the phone, I always find myself talking about the front porch of a house without even thinking about it.”
With the rising popularity of the ranch-style house, the importance of the porch slipped, even in the South, Miller said. “We lost the front porch then. It may have had something to do with the automobile.”
Picture windows on the front, perhaps a small patio and then later a deck on the back signaled big changes not only in architecture but also in social interaction.
Michael Dolan in his book “The American Porch” says attempts to reclaim the front porch in more recent years often have fallen flat with “perfectly placed rockers and adroitly arranged bibelots, as illustrations of the hospitality folks would extend if only they weren’t so busy …”
Moroney recalled his grandparents’ back porch, saying that a back porch can be just as effective and useful as a front porch. “It was where the boots and brooms were kept, the ironing was done. And they screened a portion of it so they could eat there.”
Architects today do not design a house and then say, “Should we put a porch on,” he said. “First you look at the site. You look at the view shed, but especially you look for good exposure. The south is always my favorite exposure, but you’ve got to have a porch. And a view is nice.”