Syracuse, NY. 421 Westcott St. A late Victorian porch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
by Samuel D. Gruber
The best residential streets include a variety of houses, and these houses consist of a variety of parts. The balance of consistency and variety is what makes a walk down any block visually interesting, and makes one want to do it again and again. There should always be - even in the most familiar settings - something new to see, or some relationship of parts, or revelation in changing light or foliage - that has never been seen before, or at least not seen for a long time. We need - even crave - visual stimulation even more than we know. Dullness breed dullness.
This Sunday I'll begin my spring walking tours in Syracuse's Westcott neighborhood (click here for the schedule). In the grand scheme of things, these few dozen blocks are really pretty much all of a piece. Built mostly between 1880 and 1930, they comprise a fairly typical American "streetcar suburb" - an early type of segregated (by function) residential development. Yes, despite the commonality of it all - there is ceaseless variety street to street, from house to house, and upon each facade and in each yard and on each porch.
Syracuse, NY. Westcott and South Beech area mapped in 1892. This the area of Sunday's (April 27th) walk.
Sunday, we'll stroll down the 400 and 300 blocks of Westcott Street between Dell and East Genesee. The first block - until Hawthorne - contains some of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. Most already show up on our first map of the area published in 1892 (above). These houses are mostly narrow wood frame late Victorian structures, simple in form and easy to build, but often more ornate in their applied decoration - some of which can still be found where house hasn't been stripped and vinylized. Most decorative in these types of houses were the porches, which were also essential functional features in an era when street crime here was not an issue, and air conditioning was unknown.
Syracuse, NY. 417 Westcott St. An early example of a Colonial Revival porch, common from from the 1890s on. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
I like to anthropomorphize houses. If the windows are the eyes, gables the brow, and the roof the hair, then a house's front porch is its mouth - and smile. Some porches/smiles are more radiant and open than others. Some have recently had a cleaning and maybe some orthodontia, others present crooked smiles of quirky beauty, and distinctive personality, and suggesting deep secrets, too (yes, twenty years ago, my first year in the neighborhood, body parts were found under a porch on South Beech - but that is not what I'm talking about). Sadly, not a few porches look like they've had their teeth kicked out.
Westcott Street still has some fine and old porches - though some have been recently painted in more modern (garish?) colors, and few have been stolen - walled up to create more rentable interior space. A walk on Westcott presents a primer of local porch types. Here are a few samples, and we'll look at these and others on our upcoming walks....
Syracuse NY. 456 Westcoot St. Parts of a double-decker stick style porch remain, include the valence between the turned wood columns of the lower level. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
Syracuse, NY. 400 Westcostt St. A distinctive porch of paired bulging columns, supported on cast stone blocks. The porch was probably added after 1900. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
Syracuse, NY. 430 Westcott St. Triple-deckers are more common in Boston, but we have several on Westcott St. Big houses maximized the potential on these lots, and today are filled with apartments. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
The New Urbanism movement touts the value of porches - and has championed their construction in planned and suburban developments as a way for residents to show themselves to their neighbors and create community. In the Westcott neighborhood the Old Urbanism works fine - though sometimes it needs a tune-up. I'd like to see all of Syracuse devote itself to porches - fixing them up, spending time on them, and letting houses reconnect with their streets through these essential transitional spaces. The porch is public and private - the best model of an urban life. What kind of porch do you like?