October 18, 2018
Image © Sweenor Builders
The Importance of a Front Porch
I’ve been writing in this series about the ways a single home can extend beyond its lot to contribute to the whole neighborhood. On that theme, I wanted to share some thoughts about porches and how a house “speaks” to the street and can help make a community.
A street, at its best, is not just a way to move around. In most American towns, the street is the primary public place. It’s where we conduct our commerce in stores, shops, and restaurants. It’s where we exercise by running, walking, and biking. It’s where we celebrate with parades and block parties. And it’s where, particularly in neighborhoods that are walkable, we socialize as we run into each other coming and going in our daily lives. In European cities and villages formed before the introduction of the automobile, streets serve as social, civic, and retail places and were supplemented considerably by gathering places such as squares, piazzas, market halls, and plazas where most interaction took place. Not so much in America. Here, instead of streets all converging on a plaza or square, the grid of streets itself became the gathering place. How inviting the street is as a gathering place is aided (or hindered) greatly by the way the house addresses the street. If the homes don’t “cooperate” to some extent in the way they engage with the right of way – being positioned consistently close to the street with front doors accessed directly from sidewalks – it is very hard to have a street that becomes a social and civic place.
One truly American invention that has been important in forming our streets and neighborhoods is the front porch: a quasi-public space between the private, inner world of the home and the fully public nature of the street. In many historic (and new) neighborhoods, the porch acts as a physical invitation to sit in the public realm and elevates the otherwise utilitarian network of asphalt to a civic space. When the porch is within a conversational distance to the street or sidewalk where you can say hello or chat with passers-by from the porch, interaction between porch-sitters and passing friends, neighbors, and even strangers becomes possible in a way hard to imagine in any other setting.
The porch used to be ubiquitous on American homes. Before the advent of air conditioning, it was more or less functionally required in many climates. But it also quickly established itself as an iconic element of American houses, looming large in our sense of ourselves. Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, writing and designing in the mid-1800s, first identified it as a unique feature of the American landscape. Ever since, from William Faulkner’s southern novels to Edward Hopper’s moody paintings, such as Summer Evening, to the Andy Griffith Show, the porch is where our American lives played out – if not always in fact, then at least in our imagination.
When we found the Jamestown house, the front porch had essentially been decommissioned. Hidden behind 8-foot-tall hedges, the door that led onto it had been nailed shut, and the home could only be entered through the back door. The house, in every way physically possible, had turned its back on the street.
One of our first decisions was to re-civilize this house: to return it to its rightful place in society and the street by removing the hedges, restoring the front door, and rebuilding the front porch. We added a low picket fence and a formal entry arbor, metaphorically “dressing up” for a reintroduction to the neighbors after its long absence. As lofty as it sounds, by doing so we hope we and the house are contributing to the civic life of our town, or at the very least, making a nicer street.
If you’d like to discuss this further you can find me at home, sitting on the porch.