The Evolution of the American Front Porch
May 29, 2005 4:00 AM   Subscribe

The Evolution of the American Front Porch.
posted by plep (27 comments total)
Thanks plep,

Perfect for coaxing me awake.

Me and my barber got to talkin' about air-conditioning. He said as a boy, in the summer time, they would often carry their mattresses outside on the porch or even in the yard.
posted by drakepool at 4:38 AM on May 29, 2005

Great post plep! Coincidentally while many are out enjoying their holiday weekend, I'm remaining home stripping and refinishing our porch (which I'm enjoying actually, it's coming out su-weet).

I live in a rather old river town (Lambertville, NJ) that time has seemingly forgotten (or at least homogenization, thank God). I've noticed many of the homes removed their porches, mostly around the time of the second world war.

Most of the houses have retained their porches here, though one house in particular (across the street from mine), the outline of the old porch in the brickwork/facade can be noted, inspiring one to think, "why would they have done such a thing?"

'Something about porches. Last year I assembled a little ditty regarding porches, which is more a by-product of the content, but appropriate none-the-less.
posted by bluedaniel at 5:12 AM on May 29, 2005

Check out bluedaniel's flash presentation.
posted by drakepool at 5:25 AM on May 29, 2005

inspiring one to think, "why would they have done such a thing?"

Probably because it got so rotted over the years that it would have cost more than the owners had to fix it. I love porches and wish that I now lived in a neighborhood with them but they are pretty much the most rot and termite vulnerable part of an old house. Speaking as someone who spent many weeks during the nineties rebuilding the box gutters on of the porch roof of his old 1905 foursquare in Pittsburgh, somedays I was tempted to just rip the whole thing off and put in a concrete stoop. Cool post though.
posted by octothorpe at 6:23 AM on May 29, 2005

Although I most always end up having a balcony instead of a porch, I experienced a golden age in the New Orleans French Quarter, in which you could still find regular people sitting out on their "stoops" (in a crowded city, these were/are much less spacious versions of porches, or verandahs), and fabulous, spontaneous block parties would still occur, sometimes, out of nothing - but mostly based on some interaction that would happen on the street, having to do, most often, with the stoopsitters. "Stoop sitting" is a hallowed and revered tradition, and society/your-neighborhood loses a lot when this custom dies.
posted by taz at 6:30 AM on May 29, 2005

Great site (as usual for plep).

I have to register a quibble, though:

The word "porch" originally derives from "the latin word porticus, or the greek word portico, both of which signify the columned entry to a Classical temple"

The quoted part is from Renee Kahn and Ellen Meagher, who may know a lot about porches but know nothing about etymology (and thus shouldn't be blathering about it). There is no "Greek word portico"; the Latin word porticus is from entirely Latin roots. The Greeks called it stoa or prothyron. You may now resume your regularly scheduled porch-worship; I wish I had one!

posted by languagehat at 6:38 AM on May 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

"why would they have done such a thing?"

Probably because it got so rotted over the years that it would have cost more than the owners had to fix it.

Cost isn't a real factor. If they have back yards, people often build back decks that can't be any cheaper than front porches.

If porches were capable of offering what they used to offer -- peaceful places to sit and talk to family and neighbors -- people would gladly pay for them. But front porches become unpleasant as traffic increases, roads are widened at the expense of front lawns, and neighborhoods change from families you have known for years and seen on the walks every day to anonymous people who waddle straight from their front doors to their cars and back.

Cars (and the roads and driveways to handle them) kill porches, front lawns, sidewalks, neighborhoods, downtowns, ...
posted by pracowity at 7:14 AM on May 29, 2005 [1 favorite]


Is there a name for this field -- the intersection of cultural studies and architecture -- or is it just subsumed under history or cultural studies or something?
posted by climalene at 7:17 AM on May 29, 2005

uuuhhhhhBrooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol / Alan Trachtenberg.
posted by drakepool at 7:18 AM on May 29, 2005

"One purpose of this study is to establish the importance of Brooklyn Bridge as a cultural symbol in America. Another is to examine the process whereby the bridge, an artifact, became a symbol. By distinguishing between "fact" and "symbol" I mean to designate two separate modes of existence: one has a specific location in time and space; the other, its place in the mind, or in the collective imagination of Americans."

from the Preface
posted by drakepool at 7:34 AM on May 29, 2005

I experienced a golden age in the New Orleans French Quarter, in which you could still find regular people sitting out on their "stoops"

ditto NYC. Cars are part of the urban landscape here, and the stoop (most often the staircase and landing in front of some buildings) is still where people hang out (whether you like it or not), eat, drink, smoke, and holler at people passing by. It's still very much a part of life on the block, and generally being concrete, hard to remove ;-)
posted by Edible Energy at 8:16 AM on May 29, 2005

I had heard that the 1918 influenza epidemic started the decline of the front porch, but cars and AC make a lot more sense.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:26 AM on May 29, 2005

When I was quite young and foisted off to my grandparent's farm, we spent our afternoons out on the porch. It was the only semi-cool spot in the house, kept skeeters and flies off us, and afforded grandma the opportunity to keep a surreptitious eye on the comings and goings of the neighbors while we sweated. Excellent post plep! Thanks.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 9:29 AM on May 29, 2005

The evolution of porches is just a theory, not a fact.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2005

Great post plep. Here in SW Missouri, lots of old homes have second story "sleeping porches" where folks could spread out a mattress and try and catch a whiff of a breeze on sticky summer nights. Over the years most of these porches have been either framed in or torn down.

And as a fellow old house owner, I second octothorpe's comment that porches are very exposed to rot, insects, etc. A porch is not the same as a deck at all, it is much more complicated and expensive. My wife and I are trying right now to figure out if our 100 year old porch can be saved or if we need to tear it off and start over.
posted by LarryC at 10:01 AM on May 29, 2005

I live in a small college town in Northern California, and porch culture is one of the best things about this place. If you ride your bike around the neighborhood in the evening, people are out on their porches, talking to their neighbors, watching their kids play. It really makes you feel like you live someplace...
posted by slimslowslider at 10:40 AM on May 29, 2005

ludvig_van: all facts have a theory even if it is implicit - a theory is a window by which to look at the 'facts', they are co-dependent. Sorry for being pointed, I just get picky about that point.

Secondly, I this is a great posting, as a foreigner who lives in the US I've always thought there was something important about the role of porches in american housing and in the american cultural psyche. This gives me plenty to feed on.
posted by blindsam at 11:18 AM on May 29, 2005

Our 1926 house has a concrete porch, plus there ain't no termites in this high desert climate, so I'm happy. Sitting out there reading the paper watching the neighborhood...
posted by kozad at 11:23 AM on May 29, 2005

The last house I owned (no longer, sadly) was pretty unremarkable, save for 9 steps leading up to a beautiful porch with two swings. The house sat on a back road, and watching time go by by day or night was wonderful.

The porch had a lot to do with the buying decision.

There was also a large deck in the back. Not the same. Thanks for the post.
posted by justgary at 11:23 AM on May 29, 2005

another thought - Gaston Bachelard wrote the poetics of space which is a phenomenological study of domestic spaces and how they relate to our psyches but doesn't (from what I remember) include anything like a study of porches. The role of the porch could be an interesting symbol for a distinction in the american cultural mind.
posted by blindsam at 11:25 AM on May 29, 2005

The irreducible complexity of the American front porch proves that it has not evolved, but was designed by an intelligent creator.
posted by grouse at 11:27 AM on May 29, 2005

I remember times on my grandparents porch. They lived on an old street of very good homes which lined the river. The maple trees were gargantuan, the shade was heaven. The porch was where you sat outside but away from the bugs.

Yet, I can't help it, as fond as I am of that memory, yet...The porch was a place where you sat and showed everyone how normal you were, and where you watched your neighbors to make sure they were normal too. Certainly that was what some people were doing.

Nowadays, folks are on their deck or patio, in the back, minding their own business and keeping that business away from the prying eyes of the neighborhood busy bodies. I do not doubt, the decline of the porch is in part a simple matter of population, and peace becoming a matter of privacy.
posted by Goofyy at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2005

all facts have a theory even if it is implicit

I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. It does seem like a pretty grand statement, though, unsupported by any evidence.
posted by grouse at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2005

The Evolution of the American Front Porch.

Don't tell bevets.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 11:35 AM on May 29, 2005


one doesn't dissect gossamer
posted by drakepool at 11:43 AM on May 29, 2005

You gotta respect the front porch. Without this essential habitat, there could be no middle finger man.
posted by Galvatron at 3:45 PM on May 29, 2005

It's so interesting to see in both the site and these comments how the porch is both private and public. I'm new here...thanks for the great post.
posted by never_work at 3:10 PM on June 2, 2005

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