Historical accuracy of railings on our porch?

autumngalJuly 2, 2010

As we gear up to paint and repair the porch, we are thinking about taking the railings off our porch. My husband prefers the look of it, for me, it's hard to take away any historically accurate elements. He thinks they were a later add-on, which might be the case. All of the homes on our block are different, some have railings some don't. Our house is in the northeast and was built in 1898.

Some of the pro-taking out railing arguments: We will probably need to replace quite a bit of the railing, it's not all in good shape. Also, I'd like a porch swing and if we have no railings it can be positioned in a better way.

Pro-keeping the railing arguments: The practical ideas of keeping people from falling of the porch and a bit more privacy. Even if it's not authentic, it's quite old.

I like the looks of both.

Any ideas if the railing is authentic? A quick note- we're going out of town for the 4th so I'll check back in after the weekend. Thank you!

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What a coincidence for me that you wrote! We too are about to start a porch renovation, beginning this weekend with redoing the steps. Our house is an 1892 Colonial Revival-ish beauty, with NO railing on the porch, at least not when we bought it. My husband and I have had the same pro-railing, anti-railing debate since we purchased it five years ago!

I can't tell you if your railing is authentic (impossible to tell from the photo), but here are some things to consider:

1. Legal - Shortly after we moved in, our homeowners insurance wrote to tell us they would not insure our home without a porch railing. My husband, who is anti-railing, called our town, and found out that railing was required if the porch was so many inches above the ground -- I believe it was 36 inches, but I'm not sure. Turns out we were just below the legal limit, so the insurance company said they would let us slide without the railing. Too bad for my side, the pro-railing side! Make sure your town will allow you not to have one before you tear it down.

2. Phyisical Evidence -- Our porch columns are notched where a railing must have once been attached, and you can see some drill holes on them too. A neighbor of ours who grew up on our street says he recalls our porch having a railing. He is in his 50s, so of course he wouldn't know if the railing he remembers was authentic to the house when it was built. Do you have any old photographs or neighbors who might remember your house without a railing?

3. Twins in the neighborhood -- While houses in our town are all old and pretty unique, there are often twins, the same house styles throughout. I've been searching and searching, but have never run across a house exactly like ours, just some that are kind of similar. Those houses without railings seem set closer to the ground. Most houses in our town with big front porches have railings.

If we do decide to get a railing, then we have to decide what style. That's another reason I drive around starting at other people's homes, to see what would best fit our home.

To me your house looks right with a railing, but it's obviously such a personal decision. I want a railing because I think the house would look better.My husband feels exactly the opposite. We're where you and your husband are at.

I've consulted all kinds of architectural books, and most porches on old houses seem to have railings, but I'm not sure if that's because people added them on later for legal or safety reasons, or because they liked the look. We have a porch swing now, but no railing, but the porch is wide enough that I don't think it would get in the way. I also think it would create more privacy, and lastly I think our house was designed to have one. But he disagrees. Sigh.

By the way, what kind of wood is your porch made of? Mahogany? That's what I am trying to research because some of our tongue and groove needs to be replaced.

Good luck. Happy Fourth!

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 1:08PM
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I don't know what building code applies to your home but the 2003 IRC and the current MA code requires any surface 30" or more above the adjacent grade to have a "guard" 36" high.

Houses built in that era were higher off of the ground than modern houses so they always had porch guards although they sometimes did not have handrails on the stairs.

If historic preservation and the building code do not convince you to keep the guards common sense should.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 9:29PM
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Where I build, any deck above 600 mm (23 5/8") requires minimum 900 mm high guards; at 1800 mm, an even higher guard is required.

The first time someone--like a small child, senior or someone you love, such as yourself--falls backwards off your unguarded deck, it might seem to have been a better idea to have had guards.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 10:55AM
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From an architectural history standpoint, the railings are appropriate and match the classical revival/late Victorian theme of your house. They're nicer than any new stock porch railings. If after removing them, someone later wished to restore them, code would mandate that they be probably 6 or 8 inches higher, which would really be out of scale for the house. Stay with the original, IMO.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 3:01PM
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Our home is similar to yours and has original railing around porch. Question for you about the stained glass window, what is behind it? Ours is just stuck into the side of the house, with no access from inside. No light can shine through to show the beautiful colors. Can you access yours from the interior? Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 11:03PM
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Thank you so much for all of your advice and knowledge. We hadn't talked about building code, but to avoid the whole thing, we'll probably just keep the railing. It's really lovely so it's an easy choice to keep it. Thank you again so much for your help!

hmsweethm: I'm not sure of the wood on our porch, unfortunately, it's all painted.

maggielouise: The stained glass in the front of our home actually opens into this small closet/room between our two front bedrooms. I'm not sure the purpose of it, my architectural historian friend said it might have been built to be a nursery, but it would have been a very small one. We have another large stained glass window around the side of our house on the stairway.

Thank you!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2010 at 12:20PM
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hi, my 2 cents worth - my neighborhood has a good number of these circa 1900 colonial revival four square kinda of houses and all of them have what I would call craftsman-ish square section railings. Most here are identical to yours and are known to be original since most of these homes have not undergone any restoration/renovation/upkeep.

if they can be salvaged and made usable, do not change them - they are lovely.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2010 at 4:16PM
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Would you mind posting a close-up of your oval stained glass window? In my 1898 house, the original window is missing, and just has a piece of clear glass. I would like to replace it, but would like to have something accurate for the period. Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2010 at 5:56PM
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Catperson, here's a close up of my stained glass windows. The oval one in the front we are going to have repaired soon:

Not sure the shape of the window you want to replace, but here's our other stained glass. It's a regular window that could be opened and closed(but has been painted shut and although I'd love the breeze it's not worth the risk to the window).

Thanks again for all of the advice! I'm fully on the keeping them side now, so I'm sure they will stay.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2010 at 9:11AM
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Thanks, autumngal! The oval window is what I have with plain glass instead of the original leaded or stained glass that was there. All your windows are beautiful and look great!!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2010 at 11:47PM
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As others have said, your railings look original, to me mostly because of the height. Old porches were built so that the railings didn't cover up the windows.
We restored our downstairs front porch railings on our 1920s home so they are like those on the upstairs front porch. Lucky for us, the porch deck is just 29" above the ground so we didn't have to put too high railings that meet the modern code. I will say that the period railings feel a bit too low on the upstairs porch from which a fall could be fatal. We are thinking of putting a cable (from a modern rail system) that wouldn't be very noticeable from the street 5 or 6 inches above the tops of those.
You have a lovely home, and the stained glass is beautiful.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 4:37PM
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