Sleeping Porches

The revival of the sleeping porch is a breath of fresh air for folks tired of stuffy rooms without a view.

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Laurie McFarlin sleeps outside. She wakes up in a bed hanging by chains on her front porch and tells time by the stars that light Santa Fe. She smells the opening gardenias and jasmine, hears the night rustle of raccoons and coyotes. She's addicted to the sight of fiery eyes stalking prey. "I found by sleeping outside I became complete," she says. "When I wake up, I feel rested and satisfied. Living that close to natural surroundings really brings me peace."

Laurie is not a health nut, eccentric or environmental zealot. Like many Americans, she is simply reclaiming a prize blasted away in the 1940s by air conditioning and a growing distrust of neighbors: the sleeping porch. From Florida to New England, Oklahoma to California, Americans are opening up long shuttered second-story porches, adding sleeping porches to new houses or converting first-floor porches into places to snuggle down and snooze. It's a phenomenon fed by sealed-in working quarters and smothering technologies. By the time we end our asphalt commutes, many of us see fresh air as the new gold, something to spend on ourselves, a nighttime extravagance minus the camping trip.

A Piece of Pioneer Spirit

Of course, sleeping under the stars has always been a part of American experience. But it wasn't until the late 1800s that physicians began to understand that fresh air didn't breed such diseases as tuberculosis and influenza and, in fact, was safer than the contagion bred in cramped spaces. "Industrialization brought up the question of health," says architectural historian Robert Schweitzer. "People were living in close quarters in an urban environment, working in factories. You began to see suburban developments, bigger lots, bigger homes, a larger middle class. All these things came together to produce the ability to have a sleeping porch outside. And those changes were coupled with the idea that fresh air was good."

Sleeping porches cropped up on the second floors of Victorian houses in the late 1800s and continued showing up on Arts and Crafts bungalows through the 1920s and even in to the 1930s. But Americans weren't the first to have this bright idea. Sleeping porches go back to ancient Rome, where citizens had open-ceiling atriums, and ancient Greece, where the hammock was invented. Indians and Pakistanis had sleeping porches from the 18th century on. In fact, one theory holds that the British, accustomed to bungalows with wide front porches and second-floor sleeping areas in India, brought their prototype to the United States via Vancouver.

Charleston, S.C., copied the shuttered sleeping porches of her trading partner, Barbados. And bungalow designers Charles and Henry Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright borrowed from traditional Japanese homes built in a square around open courtyards. "The Japanese had covered porches," says Sharon Hanby-Robie, author of the home decorating book series My Name Isn't Martha. "When the Japanese got too warm indoors, they went outside to sleep. The futon mattresses accommodated that."

Even wealthy American Indians — including humorist Will Rogers' parents, forced to leave their ancestral homes for Oklahoma — added sleeping porches to their new houses. One Choctaw woman recalls how her grandmother dragged iron beds out on a covered second-floor porch, where she and her siblings slept each summer. "Indians had sleeping porches for the same reason we do," says Susan Smith, an instructor and producer of the documentary Porches of Indian Territory. "It was cooler. Oklahoma nights may not get below 90 degrees. It was a matter of survival."

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