The pergola, with apologies to the classical gardens of Italy, has become our great suburban equalizer, making even the modest homestead seem sophisticated.
This simple boxy arbor with an open roof transforms nearly any scruffy back yard, sun-bleached deck or woeful garden — on almost any budget.
For those living in small houses, a pergola becomes another elegant room in the summer. It will come to the rescue of the bereft patio. And as always, it’s the coup de grace for the lavish landscaping job.
Best of all, this is no lacy Victorian gazebo that sits in your back yard, unused and rotting. Here instead is an inviting outdoor room anchored by solid beams and columns, where sun and wind and the smells of summer intermingle.
“It is a room without walls, adding vertical interest to the yard while hiding spots that have lack of interest,” said Lawrence Winterburn, a Canadian carpenter who runs a Web site that sells pergola plans and kits. “It is like walking though a gallery with a painted ceiling, with molding and trim and beams. It can be open like a courtyard or with rafters and beams.”
Economical yet classy pergolas can be readily found in kit form at home-improvement stores for just a few hundred dollars or more, depending on size. There are also many versions of pergola plans available online that require only basic carpentry skills, such as the ability to use a drill and power saw.
Originally devised for shade and ornamentation in Italy, the pergola emerged in the late 19th century as a decoration on lavish estates in America and Europe. At its simplest, a pergola consists of four columns with a varying number of crossbeams on top, depending on shade requirements.
From there, depending on materials, imagination and one’s budget, this is an outdoor room that can go in any direction. And at its best, it is a room with living walls of climbing clematis or roses, where wisteria drapes from ceiling rafters, the perfect refuge for an icy evening cocktail.
“They are easy to customize. It accents the house. I’ve seen them made of everything from willow branches to highly ornate wood molding,” said Kevin Joeckel, a landscape designer with Burnett’s Landscaping in Salem, Conn. “It’s that instant room that appeals to people.”
Joeckel and other landscape professionals point out that pergolas are attractive to designers because they are so versatile. A small one can serve as an arbor-like entrance to a garden. Long and narrow pergolas make an inviting opening on the side of a home, a portal to an exotic suburban world of back yard barbecues, chilled beers and sizzling steaks.
A sun-drenched deck can be made more tolerable when covered by a pergola, provided it has enough slats to shield the sun. Next to the back door, it provides a graceful transition from indoor living to the outdoors.
“There has been interest in them for a long time because of their flexibility and use,” Joeckel said. “You can attach them to the house and make it look good, and you can put them out in the middle of the back yard.
“One of the nice things about them is — depending on who they are for — you can create shade instantly,” Joeckel said. “If you orient the slats to reflect the sun, you can let in the amount of light you want.”
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