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LI porches in the pandemic: Social distancing with style

From his porch in Bellmore, Walter Eisenhardt, 59, a "hobby-level architectural historian," talks about the significance of porches and how they serve a purpose in the days of social distancing. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

When Walter Eisenhardt first saw the old Victorian-style home with a wraparound front porch on Martin Avenue in Bellmore, he knew he had to have it.

"I’m a hobby-level architectural historian, antique collector, and lover of old Victorian homes," said the 59-year-old retiree. "Instantly, I recognized it as an original Charles A. Frisch house, potentially a historic landmark for this area which, when the structure was built in 1910, was known as Smithville South."

But the porch’s true value became apparent after pandemic restrictions were imposed in March, offering Eisenhardt a way to interact with friends and neighbors at a safe distance in a world reeling from COVID-19.

Cruise just about any Long Island neighborhood and you are likely to spot a few porches standing proud, looking out toward the street, and providing a gentle buffer between the privacy of the homes and the world outside.

Originally designed to allow escape from hot, humid weather in the days before air conditioning, porches have taken on an increasingly social function in modern times.

"It’s easy to take them for granted," said Nancy Solomon, director of Long Island Traditions, a regional folk arts and preservation organization. "But porches in America have a long history of both serving purposefully and making a statement."

Social space

"They allow people to keep an eye on the neighborhood or say ‘hello’ without getting too close," Solomon explained. "They are perfect for dining, entertaining or relaxing outdoors while enjoying a cool evening breeze. They also serve as a transition space between indoors and out. If, for example, you aren’t acquainted with a visitor, you might hold a conversation on the porch rather than in your home."

Indeed, porches have been a staple on the American homestead for well over a century. Whether designed for status or functionality, or both, they do make a statement while adding an elegant touch to a beautiful home.

Eisenhardt’s porch was one such appendage designed by Frisch, a popular builder on Long Island’s west end back in the early 1900s. In fact, Eisenhardt said, Frisch constructed a number of these builds right on High Hill Beach — now Jones Beach — before it became a state park.

When he bought it in 2007, though, the house was really run down, Eisenhardt said. He had it declared a landmark home in 2016.

"It was a shambles," he said, "but it had so much potential as a restoration project. It’s a classic with high peaks, a stairway inside the front door, a big ball post at the base of the banister — and that wonderful porch. Nothing says American home architecture like a beautiful front or wraparound porch."

Caribbean influence

Although examples date to ancient Greece and Rome, front porches on Long Island trace their roots to trans-Atlantic traders, Solomon notes.

"Many European settlers that came to the New World stopped first in the Caribbean and West Indies where they viewed front porches on typical homes," she said. "By the 1800s, porches had made their way up the Georgia coast, into South Carolina, and over to New Orleans. Following the Civil War, as we entered the Victorian Age, wraparounds grew prevalent throughout the country. Long Island proved to be a particular hot spot."

With Victorian architecture, especially, most front porches wrapped around to the side and connected to the dining room. "People would finish their meals and exit from the dining room to the porch to relax in the cool evening breeze after eating," Eisenhardt explained. "The porch was an extension of the living space of the home. People probably spent more time on the porch than inside when the weather was enjoyable."

Not surprisingly, some of the social importance of porches has faded in recent years with the advent of cellphones and the internet making daily person-to-person communication less vital. Still practicalities and niceties remain.

Eisenhardt waters his front lawn from the porch as he gets a great perspective looking out into the yard. He also enjoys chatting up neighbors and passersby. "You can do that while still social distancing," he noted. "That’s a real plus these days."

Depending on the type of porch, some consider it an attraction. "Nothing says ‘relax’ more than a beautiful front porch," said Scott Bennett of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, Cutchogue. "They make you feel like this is a great place to enjoy watching the time go by."

The size, style and functionality of any porch helps determine how much value it adds to your home, Bennett said. "It’s hard to pin an exact dollar amount on any porch, but if in good shape, most prospective buyers should see it as a plus. Adding recessed lighting or even ceiling fans can be a nice touch if done tastefully," he said.

'Grew up on the porch'

Those who’ve lived in houses with porches are nostalgic about them.

A single parent, Eisenhardt says his 13-year-old son, Harrison, practically grew up on the porch. "He spent time on our porch in his playpen and highchair," Eisenhardt said. "Now he reads, hangs out and shares dinner or lunch here. It’s part of our everyday life, as is my having an occasional espresso on the porch in the morning, or glass of wine in the evening."

Richard and Mary Clark, of Rockville Centre, like to entertain on their front porch.

"We have a big wraparound and we serve a lot of meals on it," Mary said. "We hosted 40 friends and family for Thanksgiving last year. We put out drinks and adults enjoyed each other’s company while the kids played in the front yard where we all kept an eye on them. We have a couple of small tables where my son, Owen, age 22, enjoys having breakfast. We also have a big hydrangea bush growing along one side of the front railing. If I just need some quiet and want to be outside without being disturbed, I can enjoy a few peaceful minutes there."

While porches made of composite materials tend to be nearly maintenance-free, it can be a labor of love to maintain a wooden porch. Still, when everything comes together, both homes and owners shine with pride.

"I had an elderly woman walk past my house a few days ago," Eisenhardt said. "I was on the porch when she looked up: ‘This is one of the nicest homes I’ve ever seen in this neighborhood,’ she said."

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my porch restoration had just been completed."

For sale: Homes with porches

Here’s a listing of homes with porches on Long Island:

SEA CLIFF, $1,649,000

Size: 4 bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, 3,000 square feet

Style: Victorian

Built: 1887

Annual taxes: $17,101

Description: This house with a wraparound porch sits on a half-acre of flat, private, manicured grounds in the heart of historic Sea Cliff and comes with a chef's kitchen and a renovated one-bedroom cottage and beach rights.

Listing agents: Eileen Heimer and Robert Cullen, Daniel Gale Real Estate, 516-674-2000.

SOUTHAMPTON, $1,495,000

Size: 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, about 1,700 square feet

Style: Cottage

Built: 1931

Annual taxes: $3,657

Description: This home with a front porch is close to Main Street shopping and dining, the LIRR station and famous beaches. The back and side gardens are beautifully landscaped with evergreens for privacy and feature a brick patio and an outdoor shower.

Listing agent: Pat Garrity, The Corcoran Group, 631-903-5900

CUTCHOGUE, $997,000

Size: 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 2,700 square feet

Style: Cape

Built: 1998

Annual taxes: $10,488

Description: This spacious house with a porch comes with landscaped grounds, an in-ground pool, lots of privacy and is close to downtown Cutchogue, wineries and markets, and access to kayaking at the end of the lane.

Listing agent: Scott Bennett, Douglas Elliman Real Estate, 631-354-8100

WADING RIVER, $335,000

Size: 2 bedrooms, one bathroom, 1,560 square feet

Style: Ranch

Built: 2006

Annual taxes: $9,352

Description: Off the beaten path but close to the beach, stores and restaurants, this house with a porch has a great room with dual fireplaces and is in move-in condition.

Listing agent: Jolene DeCecco, Landmark Realty of L I Inc., 631-929-3600

Types of porches

Porches can be in the front or back of the home and sometimes wrap around the side of the house. When located in the rear of the house, they are typically raised to the first or second level of the home. Front porches and side porches are generally covered. Many confuse them with decks, which are an extension of the home, usually uncovered and at the back of the house.

Materials and maintenance

“Materials matter when it comes to porch maintenance,” says Lou Pagnotti of Decks Unique in Commack, who performed most of the restoration for Eisenhardt’s Bellmore home and wraparound porch.

“Pressure-treated wood is least expensive," Pagnotti said. "Special woods like mahogany cost more, look terrific but hold up about the same in the long run. Both should last 20 to 30 years — neither is likely to look new toward the end. Composite boards and spindles are more expensive than pressure treated but are very low maintenance and generally come with a significant warranty, often 25 years.”

For maintenance, experts suggest sweeping your porch clean as needed and waterproofing wood porches yearly. Avoid using a hose to clean unless overly dirty as moisture promotes rot. A full porch restoration is a big job that often entails bringing construction up to code. If you need to replace more than a few boards, it might be a good idea to consult a professional.

Porches by the numbers

2,597

Number of homes with porches that were sold in Suffolk County in the first nine months of this year, compared with 4,245 in all of 2019, and 4,127 in all of 2018.

1,079

Number of homes with porches that were sold in Nassau County in the first nine months of this year, compared with 3,643 in all of 2019 and 4.625 in all of 2018.

Source: OneKey MLS

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