There is something wonderful about opening what appears to be the front door of an early 19th century row house in Charleston, South Carolina — and finding yourself not inside, but outside on a gracious porch running the length of
the home. The real front door is halfway down the porch. You have entered an historic Charleston “single house” — so called because these buildings are usually only a single room wide as they follow the porch back from the street.
The house type developed in the late 18th century: a version of the French plantation house adapted to the street grid of long narrow lots and as a way to mitigate a humid climate — a form of “green building” more than two hundred years before the term was invented. It’s a very urbane approach: the porch doorway preserves privacy for the outdoor space while maintaining the street front. I toured several of these gems recently, while attending a symposium of the Custom Residential Architects Network, known as CRAN, where the presentations were about the influence of history on contemporary residential architecture.
The tour and the talks made me realize anew how richly suggestive the single house is for today. And Skip Gates’ current and very entertaining PBS program about genealogy called “Finding Your Roots” got me thinking about design DNA, so I started looking around and found some direct descendants — no saliva test required.
Genetics and Other Codes
It turns out that the Charleston single house forms the basis for part of the planning code at the iconic New Urbanist community of Seaside on the Florida Panhandle — written thirty years ago by influential planners and architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. In some Seaside neighborhoods this code permits a zero setback on one of the side yards, which allows part of the other yard to be developed as a covered outdoor space. “Natchez House” by Robert Orr Architects and shown here (photo courtesy VRBO — you can rent it!)is an especially fine example, with the front door opening to a stately columned porch, and a window over the front door preserving the facade across the upstairs porch as well. The so-called “Charleston Cottage” by architect
Scott Merrill, also shown here, is another (photo courtesy The Seaside Research Portal). Nearby, in Rosemary Beach, another community planned by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, are more Charleston-style houses.
Designer Eric Moser even offers an updated version of the Charleston single house as a three bedroom, three and a half bath floor plan on his website. Both the living area and the master suite, which are on the second floor, open to the side porch, as do the two bedrooms and gallery on the ground floor (Eric also has two plans in our Katrina Cottage Collection).
Other Cousins, Other Outdoor Rooms
In Plan 900-6 by architect Greg Huddy of C3 Studio, LLC the porch is open to the street but runs along the side of the house. The layout shows how the porch is truncated to let the house widen, which makes for greater interiorflexibility and a connection to the rear garage.
Historic one-story variations on the side porch entry idea have appeared in other areas of the country — the Alvarado adobe at Monterey, California of the early
1830s is one example. You can just see the door to the porch at the right edge of this photo (courtesy mtycounty.com). California adobes were also usually only one room wide with every room opening to the porch. Twentieth century ranch
house popularizers like Cliff May adapted this idea for courtyard houses, where the front door opens to a covered walkway or gallery that connects the interior rooms, as shown in this vintage plan from the early 1930s by May.
San Francisco architect William Turnbull often found inspiration in vernacular traditions like the single house and one of the employee cottages he designed for the Sea Ranch on the Northern California coast in the early 1980s is a muchsimplified version — it’s Plan 447-2, shown here. The side porch is shortened but still acts as the entry and the house itself is stretched out while remainingone room wide. The side porch-as-entry is also a strong feature in architect Nick Lee’s design for a ranch house in Sonoma, California. In this house, Plan 888-2,
where we started, except it’s a one story house and the porch is open at the front. Yet another interpretation of the side porch is this modern design byJensen Architects, which puts both the porch and the adjacent interior on display as a seamless indoor-outdoor unit. Now Skip Gates would probably ask his celebrity guest to “Turn the page.” But all I can says is that though resemblance to the Charleston single house may not be obvious, the roots are there — or maybe it’s just a great great grandchild on a sideways branch.