Welcome Home: Reviving the Front Porch, From the Wraparound to the Stoop

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Placing a basket at shoulder height is an aesthetic alternative to the humdrum mailbox; it also provides a convenient place to stash keys or a book you’re reading. This metal wall pocket is made from old Canadian sap buckets, once used for maple sugaring.
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If the stoop is large enough, add a small bench. This one, salvaged from an old carriage, is big enough to be comfortable for sitting but small enough not to overwhelm the stoop. Keep a basket with pillows or rolled-up cushions just inside the front door for easy access when everyone wants to enjoy socializing outside on a fine spring evening. Here, vintage ticking from old German mattresses is remade into exquisite pillows that are tucked into a Parisian tote made from rainforest-friendly raffia.
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Accoutrements that feed all five senses are the best invitations to porch spaces that live, to borrow a phrase from architect and author Christopher Alexander. This cast-iron reproduction bell sings with passing breezes and also acts as a dinner gong or a signal to the kids that it’s time to come home.
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Placing potted flowers along the steps leading to the stoop softens the hard edges and provides a feeling of shelter.
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Adirondack chairs are incredibly versatile and good for a compact arrangement; their flat arms provide space for an open book and a beverage. Look for cedar chairs, which weather naturally and last many years, even when exposed to the elements. Or check out ECORondack chairs and ottomans, made of 100 percent recycled ­plastic and available from ECOlogic, www.ecoloft.com, (800) 899-8004.
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Tom Lyons’s wife, Laura, inspired him to have some fun with the columns on their porch addition. Now a gallery of famous men—Sigmund Freud, Jack Kerouac, and Bozo the Clown among them—watches from the top of the posts. To make the conversation-starting posts, Tom drew sketches and then created patterns using simple shapes that were easy to make from pieces of scrap wood. Can you guess who this is?
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A roof and railings supply the desired sheltering feel of a porch and make it a true transition from the indoors to the outdoors. Space-conserving furniture such as bistro chairs and a small accent table are a smart use of space. And a hanging swing is a traditional way to encourage porch sitting.
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With the right accessories, even a small stoop can become an ideal spot for socializing or just sitting. The stoop on this 1920s home accommodates several people on the stairs.
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You visit the mailbox every day—shouldn’t it make you (and the letter carrier) smile? Tom Lyons created this “ferocious” pooch as a playful homage to loyal watchdogs.
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The large porch almost requires a hammock. If the porch is not oriented to prevailing breezes (or if you live in a steamy climate), consider a ceiling fan or provide its low-tech alternative—the hand-operated, bamboo variety.
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Invite in the birds. Hummingbirds are particularly attracted to red. And not only do they make delightful guests, they eat thousands of gnats and aphids. Fill your hummingbird feeder with a solution that closely matches the sucrose content of the flowers that hummingbirds love. Add one part white granulated sugar to four parts boiling water and let cool to room temperature before filling the feeder. Never use honey, which can cause botulism in the hummers, or red food coloring. To prevent mold, which can be deadly for hummingbirds, empty the feeder every two or three days and wash with very hot water and a bottle brush.
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An ideal socializing space, the large front porch that wraps around more than one side of the house is perfect for a solitary nap or a large gathering of friends and neighbors. Tom Lyons, a principal with Wolff Lyons Architects in Boulder, Colorado, replaced an unsightly, unkempt porch that had been built on to his turn-of-the-century home with this whimsical yet practical gazebo-like octagon. The porch “catches the southern orientation and allows us to celebrate being on a corner lot,” Lyons explains.
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Buckets full of flowering plants are a truly sensual experience, bringing color, fragrance, and sometimes taste to the porch. The traditional French method of tightly packing in many plants causes them to grow up and out, creating an abundant look.
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Flower boxes that sit on or mount over the railing can add beauty without taking up floor space. Here, in an unusual twist, wheatgrass thrives in an old chicken trough. Amazingly simple to cultivate, wheatgrass germinates from seed in three to five days and grows an inch a day afterward. During its six- to eight-week life span, it can be harvested to use in healthy wheatgrass “shots.” Also known as “cat grass,” it acts as a digestive aid for the family feline. Wheatgrass seeds are available at garden supply stores or online at www.sprouthouse.com.
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Give your friends and neighbors a beautiful way to announce themselves; a chime is less jarring than an electric doorbell. This American Arts and Crafts chime from Woodstock Percussion in Shoken, New York, has been tuned using the ancient Greek “golden ratio,” which can be found throughout nature and in Arts and Crafts style architecture. The kiln-fired glass windcatcher, handcrafted in a small studio in Johannesburg, South Africa, is distributed through Trade plus Aid, an international fair-trade organization committed to helping some of the world’s poorest communities through sustainable crafts projects (www.tradeplusaid.com).
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No matter how large your porch, a bright front door graced with a fragrant wreath always makes a good first impression. This wreath of dried peonies, coxcomb, celosia, and pepper berries heralds the arrival of spring.

“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.

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