My front porch has emerged as the hero of our house this year. Previously it received very little love, serving primarily as a place for packages to land. With our driveway behind the house, we enter through the back door and we encourage those who know us best to do the same. Occasionally we would throw a porch party, but most days the stately porch was empty, wisteria untamed and alone.
Then COVID-19 social distancing rules hit. Restaurants and bars closed. No one was allowed inside the house. Extrovert that I am, I craved the opportunity to see people in real-life. So four Adirondack chairs went up on the front porch, set up in pairs ten feet apart. I texted a friend and she came over. Bundled in winter jackets, we sat across from each other sipping hot tea. It was a revelation! A few weeks later, my fabulous head of customer success visited and we turned the porch into an outdoor office for half the day. I now sit out often with various visitors or wave at neighbors out for a walk, chatting from a safe distance. We even had family portraits done on the porch as part of a charity effort.
While porch-like concepts have existed since prehistoric times, American-style porches are relatively unique architecturally and, like America itself, sprung from a melting pot of styles from all over the world. A student from the University of Virginia said it perfectly: “To understand the origins and roots of the American porch, one must have a developed sense of the origins of America itself…diverse groups of people, hailing from many different locations and backgrounds, each carrying native traditions and integrating them into an American culture.”
Colonist traders, particularly in the southern United States, mixed island architecture with classical Greek and Roman architecture to build porches to combat heat and humidity. Spanish settlers brought the idea of balconies and second floor porches. Shotgun houses, with their ubiquitous front porches, were brought first to New Orleans by enslaved and free immigrants from Haiti and the West Indies, but trace their roots to homes in West Africa.
As the porch grew in popularity, so did the role of the porch. Between 1880 and 1920, it became a catalyst for community and family in growing American communities. The porch became the comfortable summer evening spot where the whole family could relax after dinner. Neighbors taking an evening stroll could engage in conversation or be invited up. Parents could watch kids play on the front lawn, as the backyard contained the undesirable trash heap and outhouse.
So, what killed the porch? Certainly the invention of radios and television drew us inside after dinner. Air conditioning made going outside less necessary on hot days. Cars whisked us away to meet friends elsewhere.
It is tempting to think of porches as just for suburban and rural areas. But as I walked around Boston’s South End neighborhood this past weekend, urban dwellers are creatively invoking porch-like spaces anywhere they can. Dozens of people were hanging out on their front stoops, sitting in tiny garden nooks, or placing lawn chairs in front of their building. People are clearly craving fresh air and connection with neighbors and strangers alike.
This pandemic has illustrated quite dramatically for me the power of a porch. They are architecturally a symbol of what truly makes America great, which is our diversity. They showcase our innovative ability to unify the best of many cultures and ideas into something distinctly useful and valuable. Most importantly, they enable what matters to us when much else is stripped from our lives: connection and community.
Porches were already making somewhat of a comeback. Porch-building is on the rise across the country, up 23% on new homes over the last twenty years. I now consider myself incredibly lucky to have one and look forward to many more summer afternoons and evenings on it. If you have one, or any way to improvise on a patch of space, I encourage you this week to set up a couple chairs (6 feet apart), a little table for a beverage, and see what happens. I hope you experience joy in the company of friends and the delight of a new or rekindled connection. If we have to be locked down for longer, at least we have each other.
Quote of the Week: “The good ol’ American front porch seems to stand for positivity and openness; a platform from which to welcome or wave farewell; a place where things of significance could happen.” — Dan Stevens