In Praise of Porches

With the arrival of summer weather each year I think back to the joys of what I call “front porch living.” Unfortunately, it is an experience that has become more and more rare for a variety of reasons.

Architecturally, front porches have largely disappeared from American houses, particularly in the post-WWII era when housing developments featured ranch- and cape-style dwellings, neither of which lent themselves particularly well to such appendages. To many of us boomers a front porch is associated with memories of grandma’s house, or maybe that vaguely scary (to a kid) house down the street where that old codger used to rock for hours on end.

I grew up in a house, built in 1924, that featured a full width front porch (and a small back porch to boot!). Its wide steps afforded seating like ballpark bleachers, and many family photos were taken here. From infancy through my early teens the porch was a portal to the outside world, to neighbors and passers-by. Its shaded environs provided the perfect viewing spot on a hot summer day, and a semi-safe refuge in the midst of a thunderstorm (or even a hurricane, but that’s another story). Screens provided relief from mosquitoes on sultry evenings, with the sound of a Red Sox game drifting from my dad’s AM radio.

As excited as I was to move into a brand new house in 1966, I knew right away I had lost something—the fun of having a front porch. Somehow the “breezeway” sandwiched between house and garage didn’t afford the same access to the neighborhood as that porch had. And come to think of it there wasn’t much of a breeze that made its way through that narrow space.

So what else has contributed to the decline of the front porch? Why haven’t people been clamoring for them? What has lured them away from the porch? Well, for one thing, the advent of air conditioning has drawn people inside, forsaking the breezes that a porch affords. And then there is television. In the postwar decades television (and now its successor the computer) have seemingly redirected our attention to the interior of our houses; ironic when such electronic media is viewed as a way to connect ourselves to the world at large. But what about connecting–or reconnecting–with our neighbors?

Maybe it’s just me, but I have also noticed that people have redirected their outdoor time to the back of the house, a space frequently dominated by wooden deck or stone patio. Sure, we entertain here, but it is distinctly different than having a beer with a neighbor sitting on the front porch, interacting with other friends and neighbors. I suppose the fact that many houses no longer have sidewalks in front of them, or have been built further back from the street has contributed to this state of affairs.

OK, true confession time. I live in a 1950s housing development, in a vinyl-sided split level with concrete “front steps” that look like everyone else’s in the neighborhood. Yes, I have a patio in the back of the house, a TV and computer in the family room, and a few window AC units (to keep the dog comfortable…). And yet I still find myself sitting on the hard concrete steps some evenings (when it is not raining) quietly lamenting the absence of that front porch.

 

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About Rich

Richard C. Malley is the Head of Collections & Research at CHS. A maritime historian by background he previously served on the curatorial staffs of Mystic Seaport and The Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. He oversees research and collections functions at CHS.

One thought on “In Praise of Porches

  1. This is a lovely post. I had a front porch when I was in high school and I literally sat on it every single night and watched the sunset. Now I have a deck (porch in the back?) and I try to get out there as much as I can, but it’s just not the same as a front porch.

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