“A country house without a porch is like a man without an eyebrow.” —Donald Grant Mitchell, Rural Studies, with Hints for Country Places, 1867.
I grew up in a post-World War II subdivision, a refuge for returning veterans and their young families. While the houses were modest, nearly everyone had a small front porch, which we children considered the perfect setting for all kinds of games. The porch was a safe haven, within earshot of the kitchen, and we were free to conduct our childhood business inside its wooden railings, while our family carpets and upholstery remained unblemished.
After supper, the adults appropriated our space, sitting on the glider or the rush-seated wooden rockers that were the porch’s “formal” furnishings. We could join them until bedtime, greeting neighbors as they strolled by.
The porch was a friendly yet secure connection between the family and the public space at the sidewalk, simultaneously extending the living area of our small house and expanding our lives outward to the social realm.
Front porches—from the city stoop to the genteel Southern veranda—were a fixture in American life until the urban exodus of the 1950s and 1960s changed the orientation of new homes to the backyard and the patio. While this change provided families with some sense of security and privacy, it also represented a turn away from the vitality of the close-knit neighborhood. A generation of children grew up without the sense of community that the front porch provided. So it is perhaps their collective sense of longing for this connection that has again changed the face of the American home.
New housing developments, from Seaside and Celebration in Florida to cohousing projects in New England and the West, feature front porches as an integral part of their residential designs. Even the most cookie-cutter subdivisions offer the attractions of railed and columned entryways, in part because real estate moguls realize that porches make houses look larger and more welcoming. Inaugurated by New Urbanist architects, the return to front porches has spread throughout the country, and homes again present their friendliest face to the street.
This trend notwithstanding, porches must actually be used to become, in the words of architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, “spaces that live.” So whether your front entry is a grand, wraparound relic of the Queen Anne period or a small in-town stoop, you may have to do a bit of work to make your porch the social space it was meant to be. Dig the hammock out of the garage and raid your parents’ attic for their old rocking chairs. It’s porch season—time to gather together, enjoy the breezes, and rekindle the spirit of neighborhood.
The Big Old-Fashioned Porch
Lucky you, if your porch is party-size, with room for one or more seating arrangements and a hammock for warm-weather napping.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, when wraparound construction was the rage, the porch was a virtual stage set for social interaction from morning until bedtime. Children played there during the day, adults rested on lazy afternoons, visitors were entertained without disruption of the home’s inner workings—and without hasty tidying of the sitting room to receive guests. And sitting on the porch after dinner was a treasured way to keep cool. Some folks even spent the night there on cots.
Today, although our social interactions are much less formal, a big porch can take the place of multiple interior entertaining spaces. A perfect enclosure for a child’s birthday celebration, the ideal setting for intergenerational reunions, protected from the weather yet open to the world, the large porch may become one of the most enviable luxuries of our time.
Maximize the Mid-Sized Porch
If the square footage is minimal, furnishing a porch so that it functions as a true living space may require some creative thinking. Compact but comfortable are the key words here. A porch swing can rock babies and tired adults into composed reverie; a small table and a couple of chairs—the folding, bistro variety will suffice—create a social space for conversation, cold drinks, and a game of backgammon or checkers. Hanging or potted plants add to the porch’s identity as a transition from outdoors to indoors.
Consider all the senses when you plan the furnishings. Replace an electric doorbell with a chime or a gong. If the porch is outfitted with just a functional light fixture at the door, add a couple of lanterns or a hanging lamp.
The Social Stoop
No front porch? With a little creativity, even a small set of steps, perhaps with a railing, can become a sociable space. Stoop sitting is a great way to meet the neighbors and watch the children playing on the sidewalk or in the front yard. Just a few furnishings will make your stoop an appealing place to linger.
A small stoop is more inviting with a few touches of beauty and comfort. Paint the front door in a welcoming shade; hang a wreath or a spray of dried flowers. Frame the door with some potted plants. A basket or other small container for mail, a bench or a small seat to invite passers-by to stop and talk, even a couple of cushions to make the steps more sittable, are strategies for creating a semi-private respite on the public way.
Some blocks in the older neighborhoods of America’s big cities still have this friendly quality: old-timers hold court from lawn chairs, and domino players appropriate a little sidewalk space with folding chairs and a card table. Making a stoop a social space takes a little attitude, perhaps a bit of courage, but it reaps many rewards in the sense of community it effects.
If you plan to become a porch-sitter, make sure your enclosure is safe for its occupants.
While building codes vary throughout the country, a railing or a low wall should enclose any space elevated above eighteen inches from the ground. Railing heights vary by local codes from thirty to forty-two inches, with thirty-six inches the average specified rail height.
Many codes do not specify the width of the space between porch balusters (the individual rails). But homeowners who welcome small children should try to minimize this space to four inches, to prevent falls or small bodies stuck between rails. If close-spaced rails impair your “window on the world” from a porch seat, consider painting the inside face of the rails in a darker color, an optical effect that provides a better view of the outside landscape.