Porches and Porchness - April 2006 - Glenn Uminowicz

Porches and Porchness

   Winter is not the time for porch sitting, but it is by far the best time for porch watching. I intended to write about Eastern Shore porches during the summer. In too many cases, however, the trees that shaded them also blocked the view through my camera lens. By contrast, in January, the true character of a front porch became easily visible through the bare branches.
    Among towns on the Eastern Shore, Oxford porches along South Morris Street appear to offer the greatest potential for interaction between porch sitters and passersby. The diminutive Oxford porch retains a human scale and, in many cases, is located close to the sidewalk. Even in winter, sturdy rocking chairs appear ready to welcome sitters.
    In speaking to several Oxford residents, however, they confessed to never actually seeing anyone sitting on their front porch. The rocking chairs were there simply because rocking chairs belong on a porch. They enhanced the appearance of what journalist Michael Dolan calls “porchness.”
    In The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place (2002), Dolan explores how the front porch became an American icon. If Oxford residents do focus more on the appearance rather than the utility of their porches, they represent a long tradition.
    The origins of the porch stretch back to antiquity with both African and European antecedents. The evolution of the front porch into an American icon, however, is rooted in the efforts of mid-19th century housing reformers to extol the societal benefits of the single-family house. Andrew Jackson Downing was among the best-known authors of pattern books providing local builders and their customers with house plans. For Downing, the appearance of a house, the integrity of its materials and the simplicity of its design reflected the character of its inhabitants. A porch both guarded privacy and protected against the elements. It was a powerful “expression of domestic enjoyment.”
    In terms of architectural style, Downing favored the Gothic Revival. The front porch held sway over Americans, however, right through the myriad styles that marked the Victorian period. Built in the 1840s, for example, “The Villa” near Easton was rendered in the Italianate style. In his pattern books, Downing thought that style to be the most appropriate for a country dwelling. It mirrored the look and feel of the great villas found in the Italian countryside. A main feature of such a house was its grand piazza – a term used interchangeably at the time for the word “porch.”
    Talbot’s Villa sported a piazza stretching across its entire front façade. It served as a mediating space between the house and the land surrounding it. Because of its many rivers and creeks, Talbot County is known as the place where “the land and water intertwine.” On its rural front porches, architecture and nature intermingled. On the porch, it was possible to simultaneously enjoy home comforts, delight in the sounds of songbirds, and take in the view of a garden.
    In town, the view from the front porch, while different, proved every bit as fascinating as in the countryside. The porch was the most public space in a Victorian house. In the era before automobiles, strollers exchanged greetings with porch sitters, and neighbors might walk across the street for some conversation. The formality of the reception room and parlor eased in this informal space.
    At a seaside resort, Stephen Crane once observed that vacationers did not come to the boardwalk to see the ocean. He concluded, “The people come to see the people.” They wanted to both join and observe the human parade, like they did from their front porches back home.
    Admittedly, practical reasons dictated taking your leisure on the front porch. Victorian backyards were workspaces filled with coal or woodpiles, stables and chicken coops. In the era before public sewer systems, they were also where outhouses were located. The front porch served as a family’s public face. The back porch faced out onto harsh domestic reality.
    By the end of the 19th century, the front porch was ubiquitous. A University of Virginia web site links the popularity of the porch to American ideals of family and community. The porch served as an outdoor living room where the family retired after a long day. What the family or television room would become after World War II, existed first on the front porch.
    While no one would just walk into someone’s family room, however, people walked up to a neighbor’s porch at the turn of the 20th century. By serving as a mediating space between the sanctity of the home and the neighborhood outside, the front porch fostered a sense of community.
    Because Americans liked their front porches, advertisers, filmmakers and literary types traded in porch imagery reinforcing the trend toward developing an icon. The front porch remained popular well into the 20th century. Thousands of inexpensive Bungalow-style homes with their broad porches, for example, were constructed right through the 1920s.
    The place of the front porch in the hearts of Americans seemed secure, but the forces leading to its demise were already gathering. After World War II, this American icon tumbled. Some of the reasons for the decline in the porch’s popularity were technological – principally the impact of the automobile. The postwar housing boom centered on the suburbs. Ranch, Colonial or Cape Cod houses often featured a garage or carport rather than a porch on their front façades. Air-conditioning offered an indoor substitute for cool porch breezes and the glow of the television tube lured Americans like insects to a porch light.
    Technology also made backyards pleasant places to be. Oil heat meant no more woodpiles or ash heaps. The car long ago eliminated the need for a stable and the outhouse was hardly even a memory. Finally, the front of the house likely faced a street designed to accommodate the automobile more than pedestrians.
    Over a period of thirty years, the front porch completed a forced migration. First, side porches became increasingly popular, sometimes completely screened. Beginning in the 1950s, with welcome changes in the backyard, porches ended up at the rear of homes. Here they fell victim to an enemy spawned by the caustic technology used to pressure treat lumber – the outdoor deck.
    Through the 1980s and ‘90s, homebuyers exhibited a clear preference for decks. Michael Dolan finds encouragement in recent preference surveys that indicate the porch is making a comeback. The porch’s revival is often traced to the planned community of Seaside, Florida. Built in the 1980s, Seaside was built along principles found in a “garden variety small town.” Building codes mandated front porches.
    Seaside’s success spawned imitators. Dolan observed, “So after decades of flat-fronted, shadeless entries, developers began building suburban houses that sprouted something like a porch – not a genuine porch, more of a porch-like substance, composed of bits and pieces of roof and column and railing and stoop organized like a trompe l’oeil painting to give the maximum appearance of porchness with a minimum of structure.”
    Despite his qualms, Dolan insists that the porch is back. On a quiet residential street in Easton, evidence exists supporting that assertion. A small brick house sports a screened side porch. A satellite television dish is attached to the wall right next to it with a TV antenna lashed to the chimney above. This porch apparently coexists with the modern entertainment technology seemingly destined to kill it. The lion has lain down with the lamb.
    Attitudes and perceptions shape technology as much as the other way around. If Americans want porches, they will get them. Whether they use them or continue to place a higher value on their privacy remains to be seen. Come summer, will anyone be sitting in those Oxford porch rockers?