The Porch at Beverly Hall, 2009
I can’t speak for other parts of the country. But I can tell you that front porches are one of the most civilizing elements of Southern vernacular architecture.
If you’re from the South you probably had a grandparent or Great Aunt Bessie and Uncle Bill from Whaleyville who had a front porch. And it probably had either a swing bench or a pastel-colored aluminum glider on it.
Porches date from that great divider of Southern eras—no, not the Civil War, I’m talking about the invention of air conditioning. Before air conditioning you didn’t want to stay in your house on a hot summer evening. You definitely didn’t want to be anywhere near the back of the house where the kitchen was.
Porches were where you hung out after dinner. Kids played in the yard or eavesdropped on the adult conversation from under the porch or behind the hydrangeas. You invited neighbors up for a sit and some iced tea. When it got dark you called the kids in for baths and bed. After that, grown-ups sat on the porch long into the night waiting for the heat of the day to dissipate from the upstairs.
All this disappeared when air conditioning came along, not to mention radio and, especially, television. They formed a trifecta of social isolation. And with them came the demise of front porches. Builders started eliminating them to save money. Modern houses didn’t want the fuddy duddy look of porch gliders. People didn’t want the views from their newfangled bay windows to be blocked by columns or screens.
I hear front porches are making a comeback, though. The movement probably started with people like my father, who moved in the early 1970s to a suburban house that had no front porch. He quickly built screen panels for his garage door opening so that during the summer months he and his wife and could sit out there, smoke cigarettes, say hi to the neighbors as they came and went and keep an eye on the street.
The New Urbanism movement formalized a return to front porches. It turns out front porches served both valuable social and sociological purposes that it took going without for a few decades for us to notice. Porches encourage the kind of social interaction that keeps some people from getting all squirrelly. Crime goes down in front porch neighborhoods because front porch people keep an eye on things. Sitting out and talking or playing games with your family or friends creates greater satisfaction than staying inside behind closed doors watching re-runs on the television.
The house I live in now has a wonderful back porch. But tucked away from the street, it lacks the social element of a front porch. So I sometimes find myself making excuses to putter around in the front yard waiting for neighbors to walk by so I can wave to them.