by Mark Blackwell
“The sun was gone but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road.”
—Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
How many people still know that time? You don’t see many folks moving out to the porch in the evening. In fact, you don’t see all that many porches any more.
Right up into the 1950s it was one of the most important parts of the house. It was not only for resting in the evening but for socializing, doing laundry, shelling peas, stringing beans, getting milk deliveries and, for me and a gazillion other kids, exercising the imagination. Grown-ups had their uses for it, but it was still just a porch. For kids it was a fort to defend, a riverboat to pilot and a low altitude Tarzan treehouse.
So, what happened to the custom of sitting out on the porch to rest from the day and watch the evening arrive? This is a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I got the chance to design my own house.
When my wife and I considered what kind of house to build we started looking at architecture books, house plan magazines, and other peoples’ houses. The one thing that jumped out at me was how many places didn’t have porches. There were houses with stoops, decks, patios, and sun rooms (that seems to be an up-and-coming thing) but darned few houses with porches.
The porch was probably invented by an anonymous Neanderthal architect about 40 or 50 thousand years ago. It most likely came out of a desire to create a little more living space for the cave. All it took was four posts in the ground, a couple of cross pieces and some tree fronds to roof it over and the family had a nice place to spend warm summer evenings.
From that humble beginning folks of all historical epochs and cultural persuasions have been reconfiguring, altering, enlarging, reducing and modifying the humble porch into stoops, porticos, verandas, galleries, and piazzas.
In the warmer climates porches keep a home cooler by shading it and directing breezes. In the cooler climates it provides shelter from bad weather and transition between the snow and sleet and whatnot and gives you a place to put on your overshoes and store the snow shovel. Since it serves all kinds of purposes for all kinds of people in all kinds of climates, what happened to the porch?
When I was a kid, just a few years ago, everybody in the neighborhood had at least a front porch, some had a front and a back porch and some had big ol’ wrap-around jobs.
Something, or rather some things, happened in the 1950s that changed our whole society. Television, air-conditioning, and planned housing communities together made the porch irrelevant.
Television changed our notions of entertainment. It’s designed for passive viewing and not for interaction. I expect that people wouldn’t want to watch TV on the porch because somebody might come along and disturb their concentration.
Next, air-conditioning came right on the heels of television and allowed folks to control the climate right down to the degree of temperature that suited them. Good weather was no longer considered a gift and bad weather was no longer something to tolerate.
For thousands of years the human race was bound up in a love/hate affair with the natural world. We were dependent on the vagaries of the weather for our food, recreation and general comfort. We enjoyed, remarked on and gave thanks for timely rain and moderate sunny days. We cursed and worried and worked and fought against nature when it did not provide for us.
Right after World War II ideas were already being hatched for the housing boom that would be generated by the returning GIs. Acres of land, rural but close to the city, were turned in to sprawling communities of mass produced, no frills, efficiently designed one story houses with tiny yards. One hallmark of this efficient design was the introduction of the attached garage allowing the homeowner to go from house to car to destination without having to endure inclement conditions. Who needed, wanted, or even thought about porches anymore?
In the days before the middle of the last century, neighborhoods evolved into communities of folks who knew and relied on each other for most of their needs. But the new housing projects made each home self-contained. Today most of us, in this country at least, can afford to ignore our neighbors and all but the very worst of weather conditions. We go from climate-controlled houses to climate-controlled automobiles to climate-controlled workplaces to climate-controlled shopping centers and on and on.
Well, we don’t have to stay caught in this comfortable trap of our own making. If you’ve got a porch, go out and spend some quality time on it. You can read a book, entertain your friends, make music, listen to the birds, note the weather, watch a thunderstorm, or maybe even pilot a make believe riverboat. If you don’t have a porch, build one. I expect to see you wave when I come by.