From our swings or rocking chairs, or from the steps of our front porches, we have witnessed joys and misery, and we have watched the world change before our very eyes. Originating as a place to catch a cool breeze and to escape the stifling indoor summer heat, it has served to give us both a glimpse of the world just outside and reassurance of the security just inside.
The front porch as we know it is unique to our country. Porches were part of ancient Greek and Roman architecture in the form of loggias that served to provide shade just outside the main structures, but weren’t prevalent elsewhere in Europe. Hence, the first North American immigrants didn’t use the porch as an architectural feature.
Porches made their appearance sometime later on Greek revival homes, mostly for show, but often included an upstairs “sitting porch.” And, the first “shotgun” houses built by the slaves, largely from West Africa, almost universally included porches. Although European and African influenced, the porch is truly an American trend.
The iconic front porch was once a necessity and is now often a luxury, but is still a Southern staple. Porches, while found all over the country, are more widespread in the South because of the climatic effect of providing shade and coolness in the extreme heat, and today’s versions often feature ceiling fans for added comfort.
They are a calming spot to sip coffee in the morning, or iced tea or “martinis” in the afternoon, with neighbors or alone. They are a place to sit and watch folks walking their dogs or kids playing soccer. They are a place to read the newspaper or a good book. They are a place to sit and contemplate or a place simply to sit.
Music is played regularly on the porches of the South, especially in New Orleans, where likely many great Jazz songs were composed on the porches of the legendary shotgun houses.
Likewise, Southern porches have played a vital role in Literature, from Scarlett O’Hara’s fickle flirtations on the grand veranda of Tara, to the lessons learned by Scout from her wise father Atticus while sitting on their humble front porch in Maycomb, Alabama.
War and injustice may have swarmed all around them, but there was a reassuring sense of well-being to be had on those outdoor extensions of home.
Air conditioning, automobiles, electronics and backyard decks and patios are at the heart of the porch trend experiencing a decline in many areas. But with a recent focus on new urbanism and the reinstatement of traditional neighborhoods and sidewalks, front porches are being resurrected.
While people enjoy the privacy of barbequing and entertaining on their back patio, there’s still something uniquely reassuring about sitting quietly on one’s porch swing but still being somewhat attached to the outside world.
That longing to connect may be at the root of our continued fascination with and gravitation to the front porch. Whether sitting on a folding chair on a carport, or on a pillow covered swing on a raised porch, we want to experience our neighbor’s unconscious singing as he mows the lawn, hear the joy of children playing or see someone walking a dog. It makes us feel safe and allows us to quietly participate with the rest of humanity.