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Porch Song: How Vermonters Take It Outside in the Summertime


Published July 2, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Billy Bratcher on his front porch on North Avenue in Burlington - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Billy Bratcher on his front porch on North Avenue in Burlington

The Green Mountain State is blessed with an abundance of places for cooling off in summer — lakes, rivers, pools, swimming holes. But when it's time to chill, nothing beats a good porch.

Vermont houses haven't always featured porches — they first gained popularity in the late 19th century — but anyone who has one will attest to their enduring appeal. Screened in or covered, facing the street, mountains, water or woods, porches beckon us to slow down, put our feet up and take in the moment.

Warren architect Dave Sellers calls the porch "a handshake with the natural world," a transition zone between the safety of the home and the untamed outdoors. Author Thomas Christopher Greene wrote Notes From the Porch, a collection of vignettes from the pandemic lockdown, while sitting on the porch of his Montpelier Victorian watching humanity go by.

A porch is where we sip coffee in the morning, read a newspaper and dip a toe into the day. It's where we settle in for a good book, greet friends and neighbors, play cards, and drink beer late into the evening. This time of year, many of us do more living on our porches than in our actual living rooms. For insight into that lifestyle, Nest visited four porches across the state.

Sipping and Strumming in Burlington's New North End

"How you doing, sir? Good to see ya!" Billy Bratcher chirped to a man walking by the front porch of his house on Burlington's North Avenue. The blistering heat of summer hadn't arrived yet, but Bratcher, relaxing in a rocking chair in a white linen suit and boater hat, was ready with glasses of lemonade for himself and a guest.

The afternoon provided ideal porch weather: low 80s, sunny, a slight southerly breeze. Jazz music from a Sidney Bechet record wafted through the screen door from a phonograph inside. Overhead, a Havana-style ceiling fan stirred the air, riffling a Bread and Puppet Theater banner on the wall. A bellhop ashtray stood at attention in a corner, an ode to Bratcher's 30-year career in the hospitality industry. On an end table sat a pot with tiny flowers and a book aptly titled Out on the Porch. Cedar wainscoting with tulip cutouts envelops the arts-and-crafts-style porch, which Bratcher added himself.

At 61, Bratcher spends much of his time on the porch of the house he bought 26 years ago. The 1949 cottage, one of many in the New North End built for returning World War II veterans, previously belonged to a meatcutter from Bessery's Butcher Shoppe & Delicatessen, several doors away.

Though modest in size, the porch gets plenty of use. Every evening at six o'clock, Bratcher and his family gather there for cocktails.

"I'm out on the porch more than anyone on North Avenue. No doubt about it," Bratcher boasted as he picked up an acoustic guitar made by a Burlington luthier.

This porch is where Bratcher, the longtime upright bass player for the Starline Rhythm Boys, wrote most of the songs for the rockabilly trio. And in April, when northern Vermont celebrated a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse, Bratcher was strumming on the porch as totality occurred.

"Here's the thing about a porch: It's good for your mental health," he explained. "And it's good for the pleasure of companionship with your friends and family. It's like 'The Andy Griffith Show.' True Americana."

Reuse, Recycle and Relax in Warren

Dave Sellers' back porch in Warren - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Dave Sellers' back porch in Warren

Dave Sellers never planned to add a back porch to his house in Warren. It took a devastating fire in New Hampshire's White Mountains to spark the idea and provide the essential materials.

In 1975, Sellers was driving through Lincoln, N.H., when a blaze at the historic Lincoln Hotel slowed traffic. Among the smoldering ruins of the 70-year-old inn, he noticed four massive white Roman-style pillars — lying on the ground but intact.

"Can I have them?" Sellers asked a firefighter. "He said, 'Yeah, but you've got 10 minutes.'"

Spotting a trailer rental store across the street, Sellers got the largest one available. He borrowed a backhoe and loaded the columns, each weighing 1,000 pounds, onto the trailer, then hauled them back to Vermont.

A pamphlet from the LinColn Hotel in Lincoln, N.H. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A pamphlet from the LinColn Hotel in Lincoln, N.H.

The average passerby most likely wouldn't have recognized the columns' value, let alone had a truck hefty enough to move them. But Sellers, now 85, is a Yale School of Architecture graduate who moved to the Mad River Valley in the 1960s to do unconventional home building. His projects have included the restoration of Warren's historic Pitcher Inn, which abuts Freeman Brook and is visible from Sellers' backyard.

After stripping the paint off the columns, Sellers discovered they were made of Douglas fir, with double tongue-and-groove joints holding the headers and footers.

"I bet these columns would cost $25,000 to make today," he said. "I found a treasure."

It took five years, but Sellers eventually used them to build a porch on the back of his house, a 19th-century former horse carriage barn that he bought, abandoned, in 1970 for $1,000. Using two of the pillars as its main supports, he styled the addition after a Montpelier courthouse and included a screened-in sleeping porch above it. Inside it are triangular skylights and cutout windows to provide a nice cross-breeze, with a foam mattress on the floor.

Much of the porch was constructed from salvaged materials, such as two decorative gas pump globes from the 1930s.

"People come into the backyard [of the Pitcher Inn] and think [the porch] is the Parthenon," Sellers said with a chuckle. "I love finding all these cool old things and giving new life to them."

Lakeside Living in Burlington

Bill Bosley's duplex on Lakeside Avenue in Burlington - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Bill Bosley's duplex on Lakeside Avenue in Burlington

When Bill Bosley bought an old mill house at the corner of Lakeside and Central avenues, he knew something essential was missing. Burlington's Lakeside neighborhood has scores of porches, including one across the street at the Saint John's Club. But his duplex lacked one — or any suitable spot for sitting outdoors. So Bosley swapped his carport for a front porch, which gave him and his family a front-row seat for the sunsets on Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains.

Bosley is a builder who splits his time between Burlington and Nyack, N.Y. As he explained, many zoning ordinances in Vermont and New York count covered porches toward a house's floor-area ratio, the total living space allowed for its lot size. Bosley considers such restrictions unfair, especially in Vermont, where porches don't get "lived in" for much of the year.

The view of Lake Champlain from Bill Bosley's porch - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • The view of Lake Champlain from Bill Bosley's porch

In fact, when Bosley built a subdivision in Clarkstown, N.Y., the town penalized him for including porches on all the houses. After complaining to the building department, he brought town officials on a field trip to see the new neighborhood. Ultimately, he convinced them to change the ordinance to encourage porches. Why?

"It's an inviting face on a house, and it's good for neighborhoods," Bosley said.

Provided, that is, the porch is big enough for people to congregate and not just serve as a decorative flourish or storage space for skis and bicycles.

A livable porch needs to be at least six to eight feet deep, he explained; anything smaller and everyone sits in a row, which is less conducive to conversation. Bosley built his deep enough to put four chairs around a table, where everyone can gather for meals and take in the sunsets.

"When you sit on the porch, people walk by all day and say hi to each other," he added. "When I retire, I don't want to be in the woods. I want to be in a community."

A Peak Experience in Waterbury Center

Belva Hayden's porch with mountain views in Waterbury Center - COURTESY OF BELVA HAYDEN
  • Courtesy of Belva Hayden
  • Belva Hayden's porch with mountain views in Waterbury Center

Belva Hayden didn't have a porch on her house growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. But as a child, she often visited her grandparents' house in Orlando, Fla., which did have one. At night, all the kids would pile onto a couch on the porch and watch the movies playing at the drive-in theater next door. The theater's owner even gave them portable speakers so they could hear the movie.

When Hayden moved to Waterbury Center with her husband two years ago, she knew a screened-in porch would be an essential part of their new build. While there's no drive-in nearby, there's plenty to see, including wildlife, foliage, and spectacular views of Lincoln Peak, Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield. "You have to be able to come outside and enjoy all this," Hayden said.

Belva Hayden's porch with mountain views in Waterbury Center - COURTESY OF BELVA HAYDEN
  • Courtesy of Belva Hayden
  • Belva Hayden's porch with mountain views in Waterbury Center

Designed by Milford Cushman of Cushman Design Group and built by Steel Construction in Stowe, Hayden's house sits on about a dozen acres at an elevation of 1,500 feet. The porch is fully screened in from floor to ceiling, including beneath the floorboards, to keep out the insects. Alongside the porch, at the back of the house, sits an expansive open deck with lounge chairs, a gas grill and about a dozen potted plants, including a small lemon tree that actually bears fruit.

This time of year, the 58-year-old retired aerospace engineer is on her porch as much as possible, often eating meals at the round tile-mosaic table she brought back from Italy 20 years ago.

"This is the perfect weather for it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, naps," she said. "Plus, our whole family is pretty fair, so we like to stay out of the sun."

From the porch, Hayden can also keep an eye on her garden below and find out which of the local critters — coyotes, foxes, bears — are raiding her compost pile.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Porch Song | How Vermonters take it outside in the summertime"

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