A place for shade and socializing, porches are prized on the Texas coast
The upper Texas coast is known for its prized porches — places to people watch, welcome neighbors or just relax. Coast Monthly visits porches from the seaport city of Galveston to the League City Historic District.
‘FAVORITE SPOT TO PEOPLE-WATCH’
Take a stroll through the tree-lined streets of Galveston’s historic East End neighborhoods and you’ll find no shortage of fabulous front porches. Some are purposefully posh, some pay tribute to the city’s historic architecture, while others have a more casual vibe.
The names may vary — portico, veranda or lanai — but the purpose is the same. The porch is a respite from the scorching sun or household chores. It’s a cozy spot to read a book or a favorite place for morning coffee and afternoon tea.
Often, a porch is a direct reflection of its owner and creator. Ronna Stults, a Winnie Street resident, is as charming and whimsical as her own front porch. Hand-crafted decorations change with the seasons on this cozy porch nestled behind a larger front lawn. Surrounded by lush gardens, fountains and bird feeders made from tea cups, plates and pots, the porch and its view have an “Alice in Wonderland” feel to it.
The lush garden between the porch and city street features cascading vines and hanging and potted plants.
Flamingo figures of all shapes and sizes can be seen from any spot on the porch and a constant flow of butterflies add to the charm.
Stults recycles household items to create her hand-made, custom yard art.
“Since our home didn’t have the same architectural features as some of our neighbors, we felt the need to create the ‘pretty,’” Stults said.
Ronna and her husband, Bob Stults, moved to Galveston from Cypress, Texas, after their children were grown and they’d both retired. Their home was built in 1882, is a 1900 Storm survivor and has been on the East End Historical District Christmas Tour twice.
“The porch is our favorite spot to people-watch,” Stults said.
– Esther Davis McKenna
PERFECT FOR PARTIES
Kim and Tammy Norman have tried seaside living on Tiki Island and a high-rise on East Beach, but finally settled into a historic house on Galveston’s famous parade route — 25th Street.
“We loved living on the water but wanted to try in-town,” Kim Norman said. “We always liked St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, and this house reminded me of that.”
Their home, an 1899 two-story house designed by Dallas architect Charles W. Bulger, meets all their needs: three bedrooms, large kitchen and dining rooms, comfortable living room and accessible butler’s pantry. It’s on the Mardi Gras parade route, which makes their home headquarters for parties. But it’s the back porch that most appealed to them.
When the Normans bought the house, overgrown oleanders, weeds and rocks filled the yard. Mosquitoes swarmed a koi pond.
“It was a mess,” Kim Norman said.
The Normans spent months cleaning the area and transforming it into a relaxing outdoor space.
The focal point of the yard is the covered, L-shaped porch that wraps around the back of the house, creating an outdoor area where the Normans can dine, chat and take it easy after a long work week. Shutters line the walls, creating an open-air room and giving the couple more privacy. They transformed an old, large work bench, left behind by previous owners, into a tiled table big enough to seat eight people for dinner.
Across the porch are additional bistro tables and comfortable chairs, all under the porch ceiling and cooled by ceiling fans and breezes. The Normans have set aside a corner for electronics and a large TV screen to watch Astros games and other sporting events. The porch is accessible through several double-doors from the kitchen, making it convenient for dinners and drinks al fresco.
“We spend our time on the porch around the table with friends, enjoying our wonderful island,” Tammy Norman said.
– Barbara Canetti
MADE FOR A ‘VICTORIAN LADY’
J’Nean Henderson’s 1907 home in League City was built with upper and lower wraparound porches. But previous owners had removed the porches by the time she bought the house in 1979.
“I had a picture of the house the way it looked when it was first built, and I knew right away that I wanted to take the house back to how it looked originally,” Henderson said.
The house was built for Galveston County Judge Charles Dibrell. Henderson and her husband, Dr. Doug Henderson, bought the home and began renovations. By 1983, the porches were back in all their glory.
For the past 40 years, J’Nean Henderson has spent many hours on her porches where she sees beauty in many directions and reflects on history, she said.
“I think about the people who lived here before me and sat on the porches, especially the judge and his family,” she said. “When this house was built, the majestic oaks were not on the property. So, I’ve had the joy of watching the trees grow. I also enjoy when the breezes are cool and the birds are singing.”
Porches also are for people-watching, which was a pastime when houses didn’t have air-conditioning.
“Phones were also a luxury, so neighbors would walk by in the afternoon and greet you as they passed, often stopping to talk and be neighborly,” she said. “People would promenade, say hello, show off their latest fashions and just enjoy each other’s company.”
Although the tradition of porch sitting died out for awhile, the interest has grown in the past several years as younger people buy older homes, she said.
“Young families walk by a lot with their children,” she said. “They’ll stop to chat, take pictures of my house, and the younger kids are fascinated by my big, painted wooden cow that one little boy calls ‘Moo.’ I decorate my porches each season, so everyone likes to see my displays.”
Henderson uses the lower porch more often, but still enjoys the one upstairs, she said.
“Upstairs, I watch the birds, squirrels, and can see the moonrise,” she said. “It’s like I’m in a treehouse. Downstairs is sentimental because my late husband built the wooden benches, plus my grandchildren love to play on both porches. When it’s stormy, I enjoy hearing the rain.”
Known as the “Victorian Lady,” Henderson has organized themed fashion shows, demonstrations, dances and teas. She has held many a tea party on both porches, and also has fond memories of her own childhood porch, she said.
“I grew up in Pasadena and we had a porch,” she said. “We’d sit out there and make homemade ice cream, turning the crank over and over. All our neighbors had porches.”
– Sue Mayfield Geiger
‘DEFINITELY FEEL THE CALM’
Kalie Trahan, 27, might be one of the youngest porch dwellers in her League City Historic District neighborhood.
But not for long. A younger generation is taking interest in historic homes, though such houses are rarely for sale in the market.
“My friends ask me all the time if I know of something about to go on the market, and I seldom do,” Trahan said.
Four years ago, when Trahan and her husband, Mark, heard the previous owners were going to sell, they didn’t hesitate to make an offer.
“The porch was the selling point,” Trahan said. “I grew up down the street and always admired this house because of the porch, which is my favorite part of the home.”
The house, built in 1910 by T. M. Snell, was later sold to the T. A. Kilgore family. One of the few bungalow-style homes remaining in League City, it’s believed to be a Sears craftsman house constructed from a kit.
Cross a wooden bridge, walk through a picket-fence gate, and a path of brick pavers lead you up the steps and onto the cement porch.
Four tapered, wooden columns atop red brick piers and railings painted white are inviting elements — all trademarks of the bungalow style.
“The house was painted yellow, so we just repainted it the same color to spruce it up,” Trahan said. “The screen doors and windows are original.”
This porch, unlike the double-gallery porches most common in the area, is tucked under a low-pitched roofline, yet is open and airy.
This time of year, Trahan likes to have a trail of pumpkins down both sides of the steps, maybe some hay bales, a pitcher of lemonade and fall-decorated cookies for friends.
“This is my favorite time of the year when the weather gets cooler and the leaves change,” she said. “I am surrounded by the big oak trees and all my animals that love being on the porch with me.”
Trahan owns the bakery Craved Creations, so the porch is a good spot to contemplate over a cup of coffee what she might make next, she said.
“I draw up some ideas, so my porch influences me,” she said. “It’s relaxing and really helps clear my mind.”
Trahan also believes the porch surroundings are good for her animals, she said. Her pets include several chickens and two young turkeys that occupy the coop just a few yards away. Two dogs also are part of the family.
“They all like lying on the porch next to me,” she said. “The turkeys like to perch on the railing, and they actually make a peaceful noise, like a cat purring, so they definitely feel the calm that surrounds us here. The porch affects their mentality and emotions when they are outdoors with nature. Who knows? Maybe the chickens are even meditating.”
– Sue Mayfield Geiger
STOP BY AND SAY HI
When she was growing up, Dee Peterson’s family lived on the corner of Fourth Street and Illinois in League City. Peterson moved away and lived in other places. But she returned to League City’s Historic District in 2006 when she and her husband, Michael, bought the T.J. Dick House, built in 1904, with its double-gallery porches still intact.
While completing restorations, the Petersons moved Dee’s great-grandfather’s farmhouse from its site several blocks away onto the back of their property. The farmhouse porches still remain.
The Petersons decided to restore that home, move into it and are turning the T.J. Dick House into a bed and breakfast, named after T.J. Dick’s wife, Lelia.
The pink granite in the steps leading up to the front porch is the same granite used to build the Galveston seawall. The posts are original, and the spandrels mostly are original. Handrails and a few of the spindles have been replaced. The screen doors and shutters are original to both lower and upper porches, but the porch flooring was reconstructed by previous owners.
Faux wicker furniture, benches, a vintage highchair, hanging ferns and fall décor add a homey touch. As winter approaches, all that will change.
“Most of us who are blessed to have porches, decorate according to the season,” Peterson said. “That encourages people to stop and say hi.”
Lower and upper porches have distinctive personalities and with different views.
“The upper porch made it possible for the homeowner to go to the top floor and look south to see what kind of inclement weather might be approaching because there were no trees after The Great Storm of 1900,” Peterson said. “Today, however, the view of the tall magnolias and oak trees are not only beautiful, but add privacy.”
Peterson is passing her love for porches onto her own children, she said.
“A porch is a good introduction from the street for the house,” she said. “If you make it warm and inviting, then it shows the warmth of the house.”
With the proliferation of suburban houses, porches fell out of fashion. But Peterson sees them falling into favor again. New homes in Friends-wood and Evia in Galveston are good examples of the revival.
“The importance of a front porch is that it connects us to nature,” she said. “It’s our outdoor room and just as important to us as any interior room. Yes, it’s exposed to the elements, but it offers way more than anything else in a house. It’s therapeutic, simple, meditative, and you don’t have to do much to it, other than give it a bath every now and then, and keep it painted.”
– Sue Mayfield Geiger