Recently, a couple that I have been working for left the country for a month-long sojourn through Europe. Just before they left I stopped by their house on a Saturday afternoon to review the renovation work that we were planning to do while they were away.
After we had checked the molding profiles, the location of light switches, the paint colors and all the items on my list of issues that might come up in their absence, the wife took me downstairs to the screened porch off the living room. "We’re ready to have you come up with a plan for the porch," she said.
"My pleasure," I said as a big grin spread across my face! This was going to be fun! We had discussed this project before. It is a large screened-in porch which my clients wanted to use for dining, for relaxing, for entertaining and most unusually – for sleeping. Yes, they are one of a rare breed who live in a charming old house which has never been air conditioned and they prefer to keep that way. However, even they admit there are some days in the summer that are just too hot – especially too hot for sleeping in the upstairs masterbedroom. So, for those days, we are going to revive a version of the old fashioned sleeping porch.
The Spark of Inspiration
The idea immediately appealed to me for two reasons: first, isn’t this a wonderful energy efficient alternative to relying on air conditioning: maybe we can start a trend! And secondly, nostalgia kicked in; my grandparents had a sleeping porch in their Victorian-era farmhouse – the upstairs was composed of 4 adjoining bedrooms (without the benefit of a hallway to separate them), one shared bathroom, and a sleeping porch. As children, my sisters and I spent many hours exploring that house and the sleeping porch was always a favorite spot; it was especially magical in spring when the large wisteria vine that had been allowed to snake it’s way across the south and east sides of the porch broke out in magnificent hanging purple blossoms. That would be a space worth re-creating.
One of the features that made my grandparents’ sleeping porch so appealing was that it was located on the second floor; the twining wisteria gave it the air of a romantic treehouse hideaway and then, being way above ground with a commanding view of the yard, it gave one a sense of security – an important consideration since one is most vulnerable when sleeping.
How to achieve the same sense of romance and security on my first floor sleeping porch? Well, the romance part is easy; my clients’ favorite spot in the world is the south of France – we can use choose our furnishings and finishes accordingly. The bigger challenge is the sense of security. The exterior wall of the house forms one wall of the room and the remaining three screen walls are totally unobstructed which is nice for sitting and encouraging cool breezes but maybe too vulnerable feeling for restful sleeping. The road is some distance away and although it is not a busy road, I wondered if the occasional noise and headlights from a passing car might be a problem as well.
There are many approaches we can take to create a sense of safety and security. First I decided to place the bed in one of the corners next to the house – that will feel solid – and to further enhance the sense of a protected nook, we will plant some large bushes on the outside of the corner. In addition, a large fabric covered screen behind the bed could look fabulous and reinforce that sense of solidity. The bed itself will have a canopy – even if it consists only of an open iron frame it will give the illusion of being in an enclosure – if we drape some fabric over the frame, even more so. Fortunately there’s plenty of room to position the bed at an angle so that my clients will have that commanding view of the property as well. Since outdoor curtains are all the rage now, we could also hang curtains to create an enclosure – the good news is there are many beautiful weather-resistant fabrics designed just for such a use.
Cocktail Hour and Dining
The porch also stands in as a summer living room. What better place to unwind and enjoy a glass of wine before dinner – we will position a seating area to reveal a view of the backyard garden and the seasonal stream. My clients enjoy puttering in the garden and love to mull over ideas about landscaping their property; for them and for all avid gardeners, just contemplating the garden – the work that has been accomplished, the work to be done and the naturally occurring growth and change – is an endlessly rewarding form of entertainment. No TV needed here.
Outdoor furniture has leapt lightyears beyond the folding aluminum chairs with plastic webbing and the front porch wicker that were popular in my youth. Stylish outdoor furniture is available in varieties to suit anyone’s fancy and every fabric house now touts a line of unique outdoor fabrics – chenilles, wovens, animal prints, floral chintzes – whether whimsical or serious, muted or bright, you can find just about anything you could dream of, and it’s all designed to tolerate sun and moisture!
A 48" round dining table will tuck neatly into the screened corner nearest the back garden. I’m thinking an iron table with a whimsical picassette top (picassette is a made of ceramics, mostly plates, which are broken and set into mortar – the effect is like an irregular tile mosaic). Four cushioned dining chairs and that pretty much completes our picture for the porch except for one major factor: the lighting.
Lighting can truly make this space into a spectacular nighttime experience. My first thought is candles. Some handsome hurricane lamps and candle-powered torchieres placed appropriately may be all that’s really needed for the porch – this space is about romance after all. But let’s supplement with electric fixtures as well. A rustic chandelier over the dining table and some ferns or dracaena with light cans strategically placed beneath the leaves can create wonderfully intricate shadows as well as provide enough ambient light to navigate the space. The real drama, however, will be in lighting the landscape. One way to create major drama is to simply uplight the trees but why stop there? Highlighting rock formations can create striking effects of light and shadow; the same goes for plants with interesting foliage. Light up moving water and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s worth installing a water feature just to light it at night.
Well, this is definitely not my grandmother’s sleeping porch! But she was a great spirit and I thank her for the original inspiration. Sweet dreams to all.
Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at
37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY