Friday, April 4, 2014

The Veranda: Clermont's Spectacular Porch (that's now gone)

 Is there anything that epitomizes summer relaxation more than having the whole family gathered out on the porch?  The front porch, the back porch--whatever.  Preferably you should have a cool drink in your hand and a cool breeze drifting by.

Although large porches and verandas may seem to be inseparable from our idea of historic American houses, they didn't start out as part of our architectural landscape.  Instead, grand American houses started out with imposing faces that found various ways to focus your attention on the front door.  Take Walter Livingston's Teviodale at right for instance, this late 18th century house featured a grand white pediment and arched transom window right above the door.  These features, combined with that big Palladian window above it, created a formal visual impression that gave the viewer a a sense of the importance of the house and its owner.  Clermont, like its Georgian and Federal contemporaries followed this model.

But by the 1830s, porches and piazzas were showing up on the most up-to-date houses, and Edward Philip Livingston added these details to his wife's historic family home--first the porch, then the piazzas.  In the summers this space hosted three or four wooden rocking chairs and was apparently ornamented with long flower boxes, as seen here.

By far the biggest impression to be made on Clermont's fair facade was the great big veranda that John Henry put on 1893-95.  He actually did this in tandem with changing the driveway to treat the east face as Clermont's front door (seen below) so the giant outdoor structure was actually Clermont's back porch.

I've always been fascinated with this space--perhaps it goes along with my fascination for anything that's gone.  It permitted a mix of shade and sun, as a wide wing extended out from under the porch roof and off to the sunny south side of the house, where another roofed-over section shaded the windows in library and drawing room.

How did this porch figure into daily life?  I have found several pictures of Honoria and Janet playing on the sunny portion of the porch.  I love this one of them with a scooter--which gives you an idea just what a large open space this was for them to be rolling around there.  it also seems to have been one of Alice's default photo studios, which makes sense given the improved lighting (over any indoor spaces) and wide open space.

I also just recently found this photo of Alice in 1908, posing with John Henry's dog Punchy on the veranda.  There are too many things to love about this image.


For one, you get an excellent sense of the interior space.  The rounded shape (stead of just a linear porch along the face of the house) really gave a sense of this being a room.  You can also see its furnishings: rounded wicker chairs in at least two groupings and a few matching tables.  You can also see one of these tables in this photo of Honoria and Janet with Punchy again and a crop of baby bunnies.  Alice's photo above also gives you a great view of the striped awnings that ornamented the front.  Extending these would have created a space of deep shade that cooled no only the porch, but also the mansion itself, by preventing the entry of sun.

So what happened to our porch?  John Henry Livingston removed it in 1926 shortly before his death.  While he and the rest of the family were away in Italy, John Henry made a number of changes to the house to reinvent it in a Colonial Revival image (seen at left, 1936).  He removed almost the entire porch, changed the shutters to solid white, and added the stairs and lions at the west door.  At the same time, she changed the driveway to again treat the west side (facing the river) as the front door.

Honoring Chancellor Livingston by attempting to recreate the house as he had known it (sort of--that chateauesque roof and the north and south wings were added later) may have been the most lofty of his goals, but the remaining section of porch in the southwest corner provides another possible reason.

This deeply-shaded portion of the mansion is also at an inside corner, getting rain poured down from several roofs each storm and never quite getting enough sun to dry it out all the way.  If the rest of the porch was a shady, especially with all those trees around it, it probably suffered the same rot problems that we deal with each year.  Perhaps John Henry simply tired of maintenance drain it created. 

Along with other portions of Clermont's past, this grand veranda is a piece of the history that helps us to really look at the importance and difficulty of picking a date of interpretation for any historic house that was occupied for such a long period of time.  As much as I love that porch, would I bring it back?  What else would have to change if we suddenly chose to make it 1920 around here?  Would I really be willing to give up the lions that are there now?

Whatever the reason, John Henry tore down his own creation and left us Clermont as we know it now, and I love it just the way it is.