Thursday, August 03, 2006

In Praise of Porches

The heat wave has finally broken, and because we have a good sized front porch, we can keep the front windows wide open with the curtains billowing in, even with a real downpour coming from that direction. This is much better than yesterday's hermetically sealed situation, though everything feels a little damp. Earlier, we had fun sitting on the porch swing watching the streets and sidewalks flood.

NPR had a couple of good stories on front porches and their come back this week: Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind and Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities.

I love porches in all their variety. My parents (who still live in the house that I grew up in, which my grandfather built in the late 1920's) have three porches: a front porch, with chairs and ferns, where my father used to smoke cigars and watch the neighbors; a screened-in back porch, where we used to eat dinner on hot summer evenings; and above the back porch, the sleeping porch, a wonderful room with knee-to-ceiling windows on three sides, surrounded by trees. I remember being excited when my brother went to college, because then I got the sleeping porch all to myself. Waking up on the sleeping porch as a storm blew in was particularly exciting - cranking twelve old casement windows closed as lightning flashed and rain blew at you really got the adrenaline going.

John Richard Lindermuth
blames the loss of porches on the advent of tv and air conditioning. I think that a preference for decks (mostly in the back of the house) might also have something to do with it. Anyway, here's a neat photo essay: The Evolution of the American Front Porch.

Edited on 4 Aug 2006 to add another cool link: The Rise and Decline of the American Front Porch, from the Montana Heritage Project. This author ties the rise to transcendentalism and increased interaction with nature (along with architectural pattern books), and the decline to a loss of community and car exhaust. Maybe.


portuguesa nova said...

I never thought about it, but it seems like such a foreign concept to sit in the front of your house...where everyone can you see you, and you have to interact.

Sandy said...

In your neighborhood, a. nomad, it's probably good you don't have porches. Your wacko neighbors would be sitting out there watching for subdivision rule infractions. Those nostalgic articles don't mention the down side of porchsitting neighbors, but I remember it well from my hometown.

DH & I had a discussion about porch behavior the other night. There are certain things you don't do on a front porch that are acceptable in the back: serving complete meals (snacking ok, drinking encouraged) and sleeping come to mind right off the bat.

Interestingly, I read on some architecture forum that although front porches are now popular again, they are still mostly empty, and some argue that such a sham shouldn't be indulged. I would answer that if you build them, people will come, and anyway the shade and cooling effect on the room behind it is worth it even if it is just a place for suburbanites to put a couple of extra status symbols.

Sitting on the porch is kinda like dogwalking, or pushing a baby in a do have to engage in a certain amount of interaction.

Anjali said...

I've always loved our covered front porch. It's the soul of our house.

Great post!

Emily said...

I didn't realize it was gauche to eat a complete meal on one's front porch. We don't do it very often, but we don't have a deck in the back, so when the weather is just right, we do eat in front of the neighbors! I never had a porch growing up, so it is great fun for me to be able to just sit there and watch the world go by.

S. Lynne Fremont said...

I have a nice front porch. I dont sit on it too often because I have to leash the dogs if they are to sit out there with me. But sometimes I like to sit out there. I have a bench and it is fun to watch the trains go by.

Sandy said...

I didn't realize it was gauche to eat a complete meal on one's front porch.

Actually, if you live in a fairly cosmopolitan city, or one with a college campus, I don't think anyone would look twice at this. Small towns, though, have much more stringent unwritten social rules. I think nowadays some of this inflexibility is manifested in the CCR's (covenants, conditions & restrictions) by a hoa (homeowner's association) in subdivisions like portuguesa nova's. Check this out:

What's worse, many of the hoa rules interfere with neighborliness. For example, our hoa mandates 6' tall "privacy fences" in backyards; as a consequence, it is rare to see a neighbor. Due to front-porch-less architecture, some neighbors spend their evenings sitting in lawn chairs in their garages, but it's not uncommon for hoas to forbid this practice (claiming that it's "unsightly"). from: Go visit Life in Privatopia

wendy v said...

This reminded me of last year's August blackout. For one day my neighborhood, which has many many front porches, was transformed as people, unable to watch TV, moved outside and grilled out or just hung out on their porches. It was like a completely different neighborhood. The next day the power was back and the A/C on with the blue flicker of the TV seen in the windows. Ah, well. The time travel was neat while it lasted.

rebel said...

I never see any neigbors out on the front porches. I do miss that from my old neighborhood.

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