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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."

Merging the Past and Present

Although many homeowners are restoring the original sleeping porches on their Victorians or bungalows, the true sleeping porch aficionado is after more than historical accuracy. Architect Jack Diamond of Fort George Island, Fla., drew up seven different designs for his house, and every version had sleeping porches. "What we were really trying to do is to bring the outside inside."

Jabe Beyer, a songwriter and singer in Boston, rented his apartment in part because of its porch. "It's facing due west so the sunsets are incredible," he says. "I grew up in a rural place near Niagara falls, where I could sleep outside. When I moved to the city I felt closed in and couldn't see very far. The porch is a place where I don't feel so cramped." Jabe immortalized his porch in a song that won the Abe Olman Songwriting Award given by the National Academy of Popular Music in New York City.

Interior designer Jennifer Garrigues, owner of Jennifer Garrigues Interior Design in Palm Beach, Fla., simply loves sleeping outside — so much that, in fact, she has two sleeping porches. The first, outside her bedroom, is open to the skies except for the canopy of an avocado tree. Beneath it she's placed an iron double bed covered with a fluffy mattress, bolsters and pillows brightened by a flowered print. "I've hung wind chimes that sound like Himalayan bells, and after work I take my phone out there to make calls," she says. "The porch faces east so I can see the moon rising. I love that connection." Her second porch by the pool is all-purpose with a table and chairs for meals and a seashell hammock that rattles as Jennifer swings and snoozes. At night she climbs into the hammock with comforter, pillow and cats.

"Sleeping porches are making a comeback because people are staying at home more and also want to be outside," she says. "We're al in cities so much running around that when we get in a wide open space, we want fresh air in our lungs."

Interior designer Jane Smith thinks the sleeping porch trend is a keeper. "That's why people move to places like Santa Fe. They really want to be outside. I can't even name people who have air conditioning here. They just want to be in nature."

How to Sleep Tight

Rule number one for any sleeping porch is comfort. "A sleeping porch should be very inviting," says Jennifer. "It should have one big comfy piece of furniture — a hammock or daybed, preferably one that's waterproof." The options include beds of durable wrought iron, rattan, metal, teak or aluminum, ranging from $700 to $2,000. Check out the tag sales, sometimes home to great bargains in wrought iron. Or make your own bed: nail together a frame of plywood, add an inexpensive mattress and box spring, and you're done.

As Jennifer discovered, a fast and easy way to rig up a sleeping porch is to use a hammock. And plenty of Americans take that route, judging from the 3,000 hammocks sold each year in the United States. Such companies a Hatteras Hammocks in Greenville, N.C., offer hand-woven rope hammocks made of cotton or weather-resistant polyester, or quilted fabric hammocks, also made of polyester, or fabric mixes of polyester and acrylic.

These days, hammocks even come with pillows, drink holders, caddies (to hold books, tissues or an alarm clock), tables and canopies. And of course the finishing details are part of the fun. Jennifer adds lots of plants and covered candles (for safety). "Lighting's very important — and music," she says. "They're good for atmosphere."

Designer Sharon Hanby-Robie suggests finishing a sleeping porch with plantation-style shutters or natural roll-up grass or bamboo shades that provide privacy and allow air to circulate. Add rugs of oilcloth, grass or even an old oriental, and hang a set of wind chimes on the door so you can hear someone coming. Try furniture that you can both sit and sleep on — a French three-sided bed, a day bed or a chaise lounge — covering it with waterproof, mildew-resistant material like awning fabric. "Sleeping porches are an opportunity for more drama and whimsy," says Sharon. "Make-believe a little bit."

The point, of course, is that for a night or series of nights, you get to sleep on the lip of the universe, the threshold of home, the curve of history. "Americans are cottoning to their heritage," says Jennifer. "They're saying, 'Let's do this again. It was a good idea to start with.'"

The Perfect Porch

  • Think location. A porch that faces East or West lets you watch the sun come up or go down. If you're building, plan other porches, windows or doorways on the opposite side of the house for cross-ventilation.
  • Add fans. Sleeping porches bring cooler air but to help comfort along, add fans to the porch ceiling.
  • Screen it in. That will keep the insects out and add more security to your snooze.
  • Hang canvas or reed blinds. Blinds will protect you and the furniture from driving rain or blinding sun.
  • Focus on beauty and ease. Cover the bed in strong colors, or try white with bright pillows. Or, like interior designer Jennifer Garrigues, upholster your mattress and pillows, including the zippers for easy washing. "I don't want to make up a bed," she says. "I want instant naptime."

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