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Sleeping Porches: Rest in Peace

Outdoor slumber makes a quiet comeback with a resurgence in popularity for traditional sleeping porches.

By Erin McKay


Sleeping porch
Photo courtesy Myrick Howard
Sleeping porches, though they went out of vogue for much of the 20th century, now are big selling points on houses.

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Making Medicine

Built in response to a nationwide tuberculosis epidemic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sleeping porches were typically on the second floor, where air quality was considered optimum and sleepers were afforded more privacy.
Tuberculosis sufferer and prominent physician Dr. Edwin Solly was a staunch supporter and advocate of the positive effects of open-air exposure on TB patients.

According to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, “Solly's vision involved a dynamic relationship between the function of the place and its design. He was thoroughly committed to the philosophy that open-air convalescence was the key to successful remediation of tuberculosis. His comprehension of the long duration of the disease and its treatment led him to include a family and home atmosphere for the patients. The sleeping porches were to be clustered, the rooms spacious and allow for frequent visits from friends and relatives The atmosphere of Solly's sanitorium was to be expansive, elegant and the most powerful therapeutic tubercular sanitorium for affluent consumptives in the country.”

Bob Cox writes about sanitariums in his “Yesteryear” column for the Johnson City Press (March 17, 2008).

“These special hospitals provided patients with a regimented treatment of fresh air, cold-water bathing, nourishing food, proper exercise and rest. … Sleeping porches consisted of open porches, tents in the yard or indoor rooms with the windows fully open. This was enforced in both the sweltering heat of summer and the chilly air of winter. ” However, by 1910, the country had more than a half million people with TB and fewer than 200 sanitariums in which to treat them, forcing patients to seek treatment at home.

In the book, In Other Words: Oral Histories of the Colorado Frontier (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995), edited by Maria M. Rogers, Elizabeth Graham Demmon reminisced about outdoor slumber.

“Dad was really an early health nut, I guess, because he built sleeping porches on so every bedroom had a sleeping porch. [We slept in the fresh air] and it was cold, but none of us had tuberculosis. …”

Open-minded Again
With the arrival of antibiotics and vaccines for treating and preventing tuberculosis, as well as air conditioning, many sleeping porches went by the wayside.  But some survived. Recalling the sleeping porches of her youth, Elizabeth Razzi, a realtor in the Washington, D.C., area, observed that they often doubled as laundry rooms in the winter and as “auxiliary refrigerators” during the holidays.

Kit Pollard, a market research analyst in Baltimore, remembers sleeping on a porch at a friend’s lake house in upstate New York.

“A lot of screened-in porches were turned into sunrooms,” she says. “Now the reverse is happening. A lot of cabins and rental properties have them—it’s a selling point.”

Pollard, who writes for Houzz.com, says that she’s been seeing more discussion about sleeping porches than she saw in the past.

“I didn’t know how good I had it as a kid,” she. “I grew up in a tiny cottage on a sandy beach where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Half of our home’s square footage was porch, as it wrapped around three sides and was 16 feet deep,” says Ruthie Mundell, a marketing director in Edmonston, Md., on a blog called ApartmentTherapy.com. “My parents would move our beds out there from May to October. For sleepovers, they strung up hammocks for the extra kids.
Thunderstorms didn’t matter because the porch was so deep, the rain wouldn’t hit unless it was raining practically sideways. … When I went off to college in landlocked Pennsylvania, it took me forever to fall asleep without the sound of the waves. When I finally stop renting and buy a place, it will have a screened porch.”

Mundell, whose father was a teacher and whose mother was a community activist, always knew she would grow up to be a “tree hugger,” as she put it. She got a degree in Environmental Policy and began her career as an environmental educator. Then she landed her dream job with Community Forklift, a nonprofit thrift store that salvages and sells affordable building materials.

Mundell’s parents chose work that offered more than big salaries, including a modest rented home and the simple pleasure of a sleeping porch. When that house was demolished to make way for another family’s “McMansion,” Mundell and her sister retrieved some bricks from it, which Mundell intends to use in the house that she’ll build someday. “I think there’s a lot of wisdom and ways of living that we’ve abandoned along the way,” she says. “We need to get back to them.” 

Making Room for Desert Sleeping
The floor of Perkins’ sleeping porch consists of very fine, compacted gravel. “It was a temporary fix. We planned to go back and pump colored concrete (the floors in the house are colored and scored concrete). But, I decided I liked it. Since I’m a plant person, I often put plants there until it’s warm enough to plant, or I overwinter herbs, or I bring a tomato inside. No worry about water.” Perkins says they probably won’t change the floor.

Because she wanted waterproof durability, she went “all the way to Phoenix to get a metal bed.” The chairs are also made of metal.

At first, Perkins used clear plastic curtains to keep out the dust and rain. They worked fine until the wind blew. “After the first year, we bought some Plexiglass panels. When the wind blows, I make sure I put those things up.” Perkins also got dark bedding that would signal when it was time to clean. “It’s the proverbial canary in the mine,” she says. Furnishings are sparse because “I wanted the porch to be a pleasure, not a chore.

“I do spray the inside of the porch pretty regularly; we have centipedes and scorpions, which I don’t like.” However, insects have not been a problem because the screens are very tightly woven. Also, “I caulked everything to a fare-thee-well.” Bedding does not extend to the floor—“I want to see what’s under there!”

About the Author: Erin McKay, her husband, a dog and two cats live in a stone and strawbale house in McElmo Canyon, Colo., near the Four Corners. (Two horses live outside.)

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Sleeping Porches: Rest in Peace

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Reader Comments
I love my screened porch...will have to consider sleeping out there after reading this article!
Amy, Sophia, NC
Posted: 11/7/2010 5:46:49 PM
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