Sunday, February 22, 2015

Pondering Porch Patterns

It has been cold and windy all week, the ground is covered with snow, and I have been limited to working on things indoors.  Couldn't even do stuff in the basement workshop, because it's not heated and the temperature in there dropped to 48 degrees.  I'm not one to sit, so I puttered with things in the warmer parts of the house and I schemed about long-delayed projects that I can work on when spring finally arrives.

One of those things is our front porch.  Long-time readers of this blog are well acquainted with the fact that our front porch is structurally sound, having been mostly rebuilt in 2005.  The posts, railing, and other ornamentation on the porch at that time weren't the originals, and we found absolutely no clue as to what the details might have looked like in the beginning.  It's been stressful for me to try to design something that fits with the house in its current state, and that will be appropriate for what it may have looked like when it was new in 1848.

This photo of our house was taken in the 1950s, before it was stripped of its Gothic gingerbread decoration.  The porch posts you see are not the originals.

This may be the earliest photo I have of our house.  I think it was taken in the 1930s.


1940s or 50s

Our house was extensively remodeled and added onto in 1967.  The dormer and all of the gingerbread trim was removed and replaced with plain trim ... to 'simplify' the house, according to an article in the local paper that was published at the time.  (that article is HERE)  Notice that the porch now has single posts at each front corner, instead of the earlier double posts.




Our porch looks mostly like this right now.

Imagine that the front door and ceiling are painted blue, which they weren't in this photo from 2011.  The utilitarian cedar posts and 'temporary' railing are still exactly as you see.

The first bit of inspiration for its redesign came from the porch on this house in Keyser, West Virginia.  A friend kindly traced the gingerbread corner brackets for me.  The cut outs in the brackets are a lot like an element in the design of the original gable trim on our house.

Inspiration porch in West Virginia.

Cardboard cut outs of pattern for corner brackets.

The brackets are perfect!  It has been a struggle for me to come up with a design for the porch railing.  I have my heart set on Victorian sawn brackets.  I fiddled with a couple of designs at one time, but nothing felt right to me.

photoshop facsimile of our porch with the gingerbread brackets and sawn balusters that I posted in 2011.  The brackets are awesome, but I couldn't get comfortable with that baluster design.

Last week, in a fit of cabin fever from being snowed in, I sorted through my photos and I came across this:

2002 photo of Idlewild porch railing.

It was a photo that I took of the front porch railing at Idlewild, an abandoned Gothic Revival mansion surrounded by a modern subdivision in the city of Fredericksburg.

File photo from Free Lance Star.

photo of Idlewild porch that I took in 2002.


While I was at Idlewild taking photos that first time in 2002, I brought along posterboard and markers, and I traced the porch balusters ... thinking that I might be able to use the design for something at some point.  It's a good thing that I did because, in the succeeding thirteen years, Idlewild has been neglected and abused, set on fire twice by arsonists, vandalized, and shaken almost to the point of ruin by the earthquake in 2011.  What was once a grand, restorable home is now all but lost.

photo taken by a firefighter during the blaze in 2002

2008 photo

2008 photo

December 2014

As you can see from the photo below, it's a good thing that I traced the porch balusters when I did, because they are all gone now.  Whether they were removed for preservation or stolen, I don't know.

December 2014 photo

The Idlewild balusters are only 25 inches high, far too low for a legal, safe railing on our porch.  I decided to use my rough 2002 tracing and see if I liked the design if I stretched them to 30 inches.

Cleaned up posterboard pattern of the original Idlewild baluster, based on my 2002 tracing.

To stretch the pattern, I cut it into one-inch strips, gluing each strip 1/4th of an inch apart onto another piece of posterboard.  

I cut out the new pattern, clamped it into place on the front porch, took a photo, and played with Photoshop again.  The facsimile railing on the left represents three whole balusters in the space between the posts.  The one on the right is arranged like the balusters were at Idlewild, with half balusters attached to the posts and whole ones between.

Un-photoshopped photo of the baluster pattern, cut out of posterboard, taped to a yardstick and weighted with clothespins.

Through the magic of Photoshop, I can see what the railing would look like with these balusters in two different arrangements.

I like the one on the right best.  It looks like my long search for a final design for our porch may finally be over.  I love the way the balusters look in the Idlewild configuration.  It reminds me of the lacy appearance of the original trim on our house.

As far as I'm concerned, I consider the hardest part of this project to be complete.  Design is finished, materials are sourced but not yet ordered.  In this world of composite and vinyl, it took a while for me to find reasonably priced true one-inch thick boards that I can order when I'm ready to sit down at the band saw to start cutting the brackets and balusters.  (not gonna happen any time soon, and I'm okay with that.)


  1. I really like the lacy design you chose. I am in awe of the efforts you go to in researching and restoring your home... amazing with such good results!

    Odd, as harsh as the winter has been in the eastern half of the US, it has been exceedingly mild in the West. That sounds good on paper, but it is very abnormal. The lack of moisture is killing trees and the 70 plus degree weather is confusing crops and animal mating cycles. Very strange year for sure!
    I hope you get a break from the cold, and maybe the West can get a bit of rain!

  2. Just call me obsessed. :)

    My California gardening friends are very worried about what the future will bring for them, with the recent shift in weather patterns bringing such out of season warmth and the continued drought.

  3. what a history! and what a good idea for creating that template.

  4. I liked watching the history of the place and of course your design, very fitting to the spirit of the house, I thought.

  5. Love all the shots of your house over the years! I know whatever you do will look great, it always does.

    Crying shame about the Idlewild house. Crying shame.

  6. Wow! I love this post.
    I like how you traced those out and stretched them. Very cool!
    The photos of Idlewood made me a bit sad.
    There are quite a few homes around here that make me feel that way too.
    Beautiful and once very Grand and now slowly going to ruin.

  7. I am so happy that you were able to trace those when you did and have kept them safe. I think they are the perfect finish to the porch. I like either side you are showing. How perfect.
    I agree- finding the perfect design is often the hardest part. xo Diana

  8. I'm a bit torn about the decorative roofline fascia (or whatever you call them) in the older photos of your home. They are beautiful, but they do seem to mask the lines of all the gorgeous window trim. Do you have plans to install replacements someday? It's good that the porch design is finally coming together. It will be beautiful!

  9. What a process! You must love PS for imagining and designing projects such as this. I look forward to seeing it due time :-)

  10. So neat seeing those old houses. I just love old houses. I can't help but think of the memories they hold.. How wonderful that you have pictures of your home that old!! How cool is that!? I love the character the gingerbread gave to your house. Everything today is always so streamlined, no craftsmanship... Your plan for the porch is awesome!! Hugs! deb

  11. Isn't this the most interesting post I have read in ages. Thank you for taking the time to lay this out for us. Fascinating.

    And I love your ideas. It's going to look beautiful.

    Xo J

  12. What an interesting post about your home and the Idlewild place. How awful that it is just a ruin now. I love the lacy pattern you worked out from your photos, and the pattern on the right definitely looks great! I love the gingerbread arches you are making too.

    You have inspired me once again Connie. Thank you.


  13. Thank you Connie for sharing in such detail the Thought Process. I find it so interesting.

  14. I absolutely LOVE that photo of your house from 1933. It's so cool you have all this documentation.

    This is a really, really tough decision that would keep me awake for many, many nights. It sounds like you've put a lot of thought and research into it so you're the best judge.

    I do love the casing treatment around your upstairs windows.

  15. Connie, you continue to amaze me. I love your chosen design for the baluster. Excellent work. What a treasure you have with the photo archives of your home. The world needs more people like you to help preserve the past. Thank you for sharing your project with us. I look forward to seeing the progress in person. Best to you.

  16. SO cOOl Connie! It's going to look incredible--whenever you get to it!
    How about cutting them from your milled fallen tree? Or are you saving that wood for moi?!? ; D

  17. I think your choice is lovely. You have to install what will make you smile every time you see it!


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