The Front Porch: An American Tradition

History, On the Road, Traditions
on July 20, 2008
Mike Gullett

Ann Deemer coos to her 3-month-old grandson as they swing on the century-old front porch of her Victorian home in Athens, Ala. (pop. 18,967). The rhythmic swaying soothes baby Jack as the porch "and infant "beckon neighbors.

"If you're out on your porch, the neighbors just gravitate to you," says Deemer, 65. "There are walkers and joggers and parents pushing strollers and everyone speaks. So many times, people come right on up and sit down and we have nice visits."

Deemer and her husband, Frank, paid $9,000 for their fixer-upper house at an estate auction in 1976. The house lacked indoor plumbing and closets and had a cedar tree growing through the roof, but the porch was as big and inviting as an old-fashioned parlor and won them over.

"We have our morning coffee on the porch and a glass of iced tea after lunch," Ann says. "I love to knit out here and see so-and-so and wave."

She delights in introducing her first grandchild to the pleasures of the front porch. "I feed Jack his bottle and he just listens to the birds."

Origins of the porch
Like the United States with its melting pot of immigrants, the great American front porch owes its origin to several countries, including Italy, Spain, India and Africa, says Michael Dolan, author of The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place. African slaves were the first in America to universally build houses with porches.

By the 1880s, nearly every house in America, whether it was a humble shotgun-style or a Queen Anne mansion, boasted a front porch. The porch served as a cool and comfortable gathering spot that encouraged socializing and relaxing. The porch was so popular a setting that James Garfield waged a "front-porch campaign" for the U.S. presidency in 1880, meeting and greeting farmers and other folks from his own front porch in Mentor, Ohio (pop. 50,278).

"Nobody wanted to be in the backyard where there were horses, stables, manure and outhouses," says Dolan, 58, who lives in a 1920s bungalow with a porch in Washington, D.C.

After a long day, families retired to the breezy front porch to sip cool drinks and talk. They brought out guitars and harmonicas and sang and told stories. Women snapped beans into a dishpan on their laps as they sat in the porch glider or swing. Couples courted on the porch until a parent signaled with the porch light that a beau had overstayed his welcome.

The front porch remained popular until World War II, when several factors contributed to its decline, including automobiles, air-conditioning, television and, most of all, suburbs. Backyard patios and decks and a desire for privacy spelled the end of the front porch.

Return of the porch
But traditional neighborhoods and houses with porches are being revived and built anew as people long for a sense of community.

"People are feeling isolated. They drive miles and miles to get home from work, hit the garage-door button, fall out of their car and into the kitchen," says Tom Low, 51, a Charlotte, N.C-based architect and community planner. "Aging baby boomers are interested in reconnecting. They're gravitating to the kind of communities that have neighborhoods and porches."

Low works for Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., which has revitalized and planned more than 500 communities, including Belmont Forest, Va.; Seaside, Fla.; and Habersham, a residential development in Beaufort, S.C. The communities feature houses with roomy porches in sidewalk-lined neighborhoods with retail shops, schools, churches, parks and post offices within an easy walk. Houses are close to the sidewalks to encourage neighborliness.

When promoting his new town of Seaside, developer Robert Davis liked to give prospective buyers "the lemonade test."

"If we had someone who wanted more than a quick look, we'd sit on the front porch and chat for a while," he says, noting that a person who couldn't relax long enough to sip a lemonade probably wouldn't feel at home in Seaside.

Sit a spell
Lifelong porch-sitter Claude Stephens of Louisville, Ky., founded the Professional Porch Sitters Union in 1999 after a long workday with "literally thousands of e-mails and a meeting that just went and went and went."

"It was tongue in cheek," Stephens, 50, says about the Professional Porch Sitters Union, an unorganized organization whose only objective is to get people to slow down and relax. The group's motto: "Sit down a spell. That can wait."

Stephens and his wife, Erin Henle, 31, have perfected the art of porch sitting. They bring their tube radio onto their porch and listen as they play Scrabble and cards. When the weather cooperates, they eat their meals on the porch, which is furnished with a mishmash of hand-me-down comfortable chairs, tables and a metal glider. Neighbors show up bearing garden produce and eager to discuss the world's problems.

"We're all too busy," Stephens says, as he relaxes and expounds on the joys of porches. "Our lives have become incredibly jammed with too much stuff. The porch is a place to slow down, sit back and just tell stories that celebrate our triumphs. It's a place to just be."

Neighborly neighbors
Along Grand Street in Carthage, Mo. (pop. 12,668), entire blocks of homes, both historic and modern ones built to blend, have front porches and people who cherish them.

"This porch is the best part of the house," says Jana Schramm, 45, about the L-shaped porch on her early 1900s home. Her son, Oliver, 16, plays football, and on game days, the team congregates on the Schramms' porch for hot dogs and a pregame party. During the city's Maple Leaf Festival each October, dozens of friends enjoy a potluck on the porch while the parade marches down the street.

The Schramm family has become close friends with their next-door neighbors, Annette and Brent Jones. Annette, 40, spends part of every day sitting with her sons "Grant, 6, and Jake, 4 "on their front porch. They water the plants, count the cars as they go by, and play "I Spy."

And what they often spy is a friendly neighbor strolling up the sidewalk for a casual visit. "Hi, Poppa John," Grant shouts to John Hoover, who lives across the street.