Porches, Pavilions, and Pergolas: Picking a perfect summer spot
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
James Agee, in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “A Death in the Family,” wrote, “We are talking now about summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised as a child.”
Like my fellow Tennessean, I remember many summer evenings spent on my front porch in Knoxville, and the primary reason I bought my home in Talbot County was its porch. After one summer fending off mosquitoes, I added screens, and the space became my outdoor living/dining room. At twilight, the screens disappear into the landscape as the muted sounds of my neighbors’ irrigation systems begin, or as Joni Mitchell eloquently sang about them, “the hissing of summer lawns.”
In his seminal book on house design, “A Place of Houses,” Charles Moore defines porches as “in between realms” of indoor and outdoor spaces. Front porches were an important component of the New Urbanism movement in the early 1990s. One of the tenets was “walkability” that stressed pedestrian-friendly street design and houses with porches, or “eyes on the street,” for interaction with neighbors.
Porches can be as small as a stoop and two chairs or large as this one on a home in St Michaels’ Historic District. The wraparound porch offers panoramic views of the street and allows cross breezes to cool the space. Because it is elevated, it offers “eyes on the street” while allowing the family privacy. The porch is deep to accommodate furnishings for visiting with family and friends.
A summer house traditionally referred to a building or pavilion used for relaxation in warm weather before the advent of air conditioning. One summer pavilion by architect Peter Newlin sits high above the Chester River. The client asked for an unusual space but what she received from this gifted architect was much more. Newlin began by attaching the pavilion to the main house by a screened breezeway and the rest of his design is a masterful play of geometry and light. The square shape of the screened summer house has a curved ceiling that creates a row of clerestory windows at the river side and triangular shaped dormer windows on the other three sides filter light into the space. Full height screened panels on all four sides filter light within as well as cooling breezes. The roof decking is painted light cream to reflect the light from the clerestory windows in contrast to the bark-brown roof joists. The framing for the screened walls is also bark-brown so the building recedes into the wooded landscape. One could easily imagine spending a lazy summer afternoon dozing in a hammock in this marvelous space.
The architect Merle Thorpe and landscape designer Jan Kirsh took the summer house concept further and collaborated on an outdoor room with a kitchen, dining area and living area for a waterfront residence in Talbot County. This addition was carefully sited to maintain views of the water from the main house. A covered and screened walkway from the parking area passes by a courtyard that separates the addition from the main house.
We are fortunate in our temperate climate to be able to enjoy many months of outdoor living and the design of our landscape and outdoor rooms can enhance this experience. Even the smallest of gardens has a place for an arbor with a swing for contemplating the fruits of one’s labors after a laborious weeding session. Pergolas are another wonderful way to enjoy being outdoors in the comfort of shade.
This pergola is part of a sunny outdoor space in the heart of St. Michaels’ Historic District. Since many of the town lots are narrow, privacy is important. The south-facing outdoor space is surrounded by a tall fence for seated privacy, and landscaped beds soften the border between the hardscape and the fence. In the winter, sun filters through the roof joists and casts delightful shadows onto the paving. In spring, the fragrant cover of wisteria blooms provides shade and once again, the pergola and the adjacent sunroom create a dual indoor-outdoor space.
As summer begins this month, it is a good time to refresh outdoor rooms to prepare them for many relaxing summer days.