Friday, October 30, 2009

haint blue and the porch

The front porch is an American architectural element with origins in western Africa, brought to the colonies by slaves. The porch as we know it today, and as popularized in "pattern books" in the age of Victoria was added to the southern colonial vernacular plantation house by African craftsmen. Although the "stoa" of ancient Greece and the "portico" of Rome were formal elements used in some European classical traditions, the vernacular buildings of the American colonies - based on vernacular forms of England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and others - did not have a "porch" as we know it today.

According to Michael Dolan, Author of "The American Porch", in answer to the question, "What was the most surprising thing that you learned about the American porch?"

A: That the porch as we know it – a social institution -- came from Africa. Pre-colonial Africans built roofed platforms at the fronts of their houses, raised off the ground to keep out insects. Families lived out there, greeted their neighbors, conducted business. One early European visitor likened these structures to stages – he had no other word to use, which suggests how remote the idea of the porch was to Europeans. When Europeans began enslaving Africans and brought them to the New World,the first thing their captives had to do was build their housing. Africans built what they knew; their vernacular architecture traveled with slavery,gradually absorbed by the dominant cultures of the New World. Folklorists Jay Edwards, who’s at Louisiana State University, and John Vlach,who teaches at George Washington University, have shown how the porch came from Africa to Brazil to the Caribbean to North America.

Here's a Queen Anne porch designed by Luther M. Turton in Napa, California in 1892:

Note the sky blue ceiling of the porch. The house had been encased in stucco in about 1930 - and when the stucco was removed in 1991, the original ceiling color was exposed:

Now, having grown up in the south, attending architecture school there, and living amongst the remnants of colonial and plantation era buildings - I never thought twice about a sky blue porch ceiling. Porch ceilings seemed to almost always be blue. In college was the first time I heard the expression "haint blue" describing a porch ceiling. A friend's mother had grown up in Charleston, SC and referred to a ceiling as "haint blue". The African American language spoken in the "low country" of coastal South Carolina is called "gullah". "Haint" was explained as "haunt" or spirit -- and the story went that porch ceilings and wide overhangs on the exteriors of homes were painted a sky blue so that "haints", "haunts" or spirits would think they were the sky and pass right on through. This kept spirits from haunting or lingering around the home. There is no official "haint blue" color. The intent was to fool the spirits.

Obviously in 1892, in Napa, California, the African tradition was honored even though the basis of the tradition was never known.

Happy Halloween!

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