I’ve been thinking about porches lately. I did a little reading and reflecting and here’s what I came up with. First a definition. A porch is a covered shelter projecting from a building. Often it is not enclosed except for a railing—although some porches have latticework, screens, or even windows.
Front porches in the United States were very popular up until the 1950’s. Researchers say the front porch has great cultural and historic significance. A front porch connected people to nature and fostered people’s love and appreciation for the outdoors. The porch also symbolized the American family. It was an outdoor living room where the family often gathered.
The porch was also a link between the private and public life of people. It encouraged interaction with the larger neighborhood. In cities, people often spoke to other families from their front porches or greeted their neighbors as they walked down the street. The porch helped to foster a sense of community.
But the front porch began to disappear after World War II. Its demise is attributed to three major factors: the car, air-conditioning, and TV. The increase in car traffic produced noise and exhaust fumes that drove people from their front porches and into their back yards. Cars also provided families with greater mobility. They could hop in their cars and go places instead of sitting on their front porch. The rise of air-conditioning also chased people from their hot porches to the cool interior of their homes. And finally TV lured people from their porches into their living rooms or dens.
As I walk or drive around the older part of my town, Chardon, I see many old Victorian houses with huge porches. Some porches wrap around the house on three side. But newer (built after the 1940’s) and smaller homes, seem to have small front porches or no porches at all. I notice, however, that many of these homes have decks or patios in the backyard. Newer huge homes in this area often have large front porches, but I seldom see anyone sitting on them.
Growing up, I lived in a big yellow farmhouse built around 1890. Our house originally had a porch on three sides of the house, but two thirds of the porch was removed when my parents bought and remodeled the home in 1942. Still, the house retained three porches: a front porch off the living room, a side porch off the dining room, and a small enclosed back porch off the kitchen used mostly for storage. In the summer, my parents often sat on the front porch after supper. We kids sometimes joined them, usually sitting on the porch steps, talking, and watching the cars going down the road. It was a relaxing place to be. (The night before I left for the convent, I sat on that front porch with my parents for the last time. I cherish that memory.)
In her book, Ordinary Places, Sacred Spaces, Evelyn Mattern devotes a chapter to porches. She says that front porches are significant for another reason than the ones I mentioned earlier. She says, “porches nurture self-expression.” She continues, “Those who can’t afford fancy flower pots, elegant trellises, and outdoor furniture find that painted kitchen chairs and ancient rockers do very well. Some of the poorest neighborhoods in the North and South have some of the prettiest, most flower-decked and vine-covered porches. They are places in the sun, places in the shadows, where we can dream what seems impossible indoors.”
What has been your experience of porches?
Do you have a porch now? If so, what does it look like? Do you use it? If so, when and how?
Do you regret the demise of front porches?
Do we have anything today that can foster what porches used to foster: love for nature, family togetherness, a sense of community, or self-expression?
Porches sometimes call us to slow down and rest. Here is a beautiful song by Brian Doerkson that reminds us that God regularly calls us to slow down and rest. It’s entitled “Enter the Rest of God” and features not only lovely lyrics, but also some stunning photos. My favorite line from the song is this: “live the unforced rhythms of grace.”
I invite you to share a few of your thoughts with us on this reflection and/or song…