Like so many Midwestern stories, this one begins with the weather.
Long before the advent of air conditioning, Kansas City still housed the kind ofsummer heat that could melt the rubber off your shoes. And sleeping in air that feels like a greenhouse by mid-July? No, thank you.
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So began the popularity of outdoor “sleeper” porches, in Kansas City and across large swaths of the country. Houses in the early 18th century often had outdoor porticos or verandas. But by the mid-19th century, according to local architectural historian Cydney Millstein, the construction of outdoor porches became more deliberate.
“A lot of Kansas City outdoor porches function not only as a day porch, but also as a sleeping porch,” Millstein says. “This is prior to homes having any kind ofair conditioning. They were also used year-round, not just in warm weather, but for when it got hot, some were equipped with special bedding. And a lot of the sleeping porches were attached to bedrooms, because if you’re sleeping outside, you can have easy access to your wardrobe.”
You still see relics of this time in some Kansas City neighborhoods, especially in Midtown and Westport. That area was especially popular for apartment and house designs where there were actually porches on the front and back of the building, according to Millstein. When the city eventually started heating up in late spring, it was easy for people to open the doors to both porches and have a nice breeze flow through the entire living space.
Now, of course, life is easier. Flip a switch, and your house is 68 degrees if you want. Even in buildings without central air conditioning, things are made bearable with window units.
“That (sleeper porches) really went away when air conditioning units or eventually central air conditioning came about,” Millstein says. “We kind of lost the idea of the porch as integral to the design of the home. A lot of the porches were on the front part of the house, and so we sat outside on these porches and got to know our neighborhoods. You don’t see that incorporated into house design as much now, especially in the suburbs.”
Still, some enjoy the prospect of a porch that makes the outside world more accessible.
Butch and Christy Cubbage Rigby are two of these people: Their century-old home within walking distance of the Plaza has expansive porches on the first and second floor, both the entire width of the house.
And it’s upstairs where the Rigbys’ home really does flash back to the way things used to be 100 years ago: Afullsized bed takes up the corner, and Butch sleeps there fairly often. There’s also a flat-screen TV, a large table for dinners or entertaining, and cozy wicker furniture.
“Butch had rebuilt the porches, and then we saw a picture of our house back in probably 1915 where we saw there was actually a roof over the upstairs porch back then,” Cubbage says. “Once we put that back on, it really made it into a whole living space.”
The Rigbys may live much of their lives on the upstairs porch. But it’s the downstairs one where their life together really began. The two married on the top step of the porch in 2015. The wedding was complete with a bar in the corner of the porch and a giant tent in the front yard.
Since then, the Rigbys’ purposes for their porches have been a little simpler: “The wind would have to be blowing pretty darn hard for rain to get to us, so we just sit on the couch out here and just watch it rain,” Cubbage says. “We watch the birds land on the fountain (in the front yard) and take baths in there. We even had a hawk land in there once and we watched it the whole time.”
More than anything, the Rigbys love their porches for the same reasons the structures started popping up hundreds of years ago: It gives them a chance to interact with the outside world, get to know their neighbors, and experience those much-anticipated good-weather days in Kansas City.
“When it feels like this,” Cubbage says on a recent 80-degree day, “why would you want to stay inside?”
Outfitting the space
Several pieces make the Rigbys’ upstairs and downstairs porches particularly homey. A few of the most important:
When a lightning storm knocked the power out at the Rigbys’ home, the sweltering, summertime heat of Kansas City could have been smothering. But thanks to the full-size bed outside on their porch, they were able to sleep comfortably in the summer air.
The “man-cave” label for the upstairs porch wouldn’t be complete without a huge, flat-screen TV. Butch often plants himself in one of the cushioned chairs to watch whatever sporting event or movie is on that day.
Part of the charm of the Rigbys’ upstairs porch is its seclusion. The roof comes down low, and the railing comes up high, making it feel like you’re almost inside the house. On either side of the porch, red curtains hang, ready to be pulled for even more privacy.
A couple of the Rigbys’ neighbors had a welcome mat made for the couple to put on their upstairs porch. The mat read “Butch and Christy’s treehouse,” a label that makes sense when you look at the towering trees surrounding the area. The porch certainly has all the elements for supreme outdoor comfort. But the mat also represents the same thing porches have always been a symbol of: a place where neighbors congregate and spend time together.