Thursday, August 20, 2020 / by The Villages Home Search
The very first thing Joanna Taft and her husband did after they bought their house in downtown Indianapolis in 1991 was decorate the front porch. The 1898 Victorian had been abandoned for seven years, so adding a porch swing and setting out a seasonally appropriate gourd was a quick win. That no one had any intention of sitting there was beside the point. “Here I bought a historic home with a front porch, and I thought I was supposed to decorate it,” Taft says. She and her husband hung out on the back patio, the way Taft did at her suburban childhood home.
Then, in 2007, new neighbors in the Herron-Morton Place neighborhood invited them to do some pregame tailgating on their front porch. Everyone loved it so much they did it again. And again. Soon the event had its own name — porching — and a weekly time slot on Sunday afternoon. “People would send an email or text saying, ‘Porch? 3 p.m.,’” Taft says. “Now I literally porch every single Sunday from three to 5:30. It’s this really meaningful rhythm that has enriched my life.”
Taft and her small circle of neighbors were unusual in urban Indianapolis. The porches were standard issue on 19th- and early-20th-century houses downtown, but it was like everyone had forgotten how to use them. Like Taft, people decorated their porches with a few chairs or a flowerpot, then took the party to the backyard. Perhaps not coincidentally, neighbors seemed more isolated than they’d ever been. “When I saw how much porching had affected my life and my well-being and my neighbors’ well-being, I thought, This is really interesting,” Taft says. Was porching, she wondered, a skill that could be taught?
As architectural features, front porches have been making a comeback over the last decade. About 65 percent of new-construction single-family homes included a front porch in 2018, according to the National Association of Home Builders. It’s on the top-ten list of features millennials want most in a house, with 44 percent calling it desirable and 34 percent essential. One survey found that 46 percent of new home buyers will pay up to $10,000 extra for a wraparound porch.
But what do we actually do with them once we have them? Recently, I watched a YouTube driving tour of Celebration, the New Urbanist neighborhood near Orlando that was built by Walt Disney as an “ideal small town” in 1995, where a good 90 percent of the houses had front porches decked out with Halloween decorations and rocking chairs. There were no people.
The Instagram tag #porchlife tells a similar story. What you see in photo after well-liked photo are exquisite setpieces. Wicker seating arrangements. Magnolia wreaths. Beribboned topiaries. Color-coordinated pillows. The occasional dog. Very few actual humans. Perhaps our collective love of the front porch is more a love for the nostalgic fantasy it represents: a genteel community social life that hard-charging, privacy-obsessed Americans aren’t equipped for anymore.
Or perhaps we just need a little encouragement regarding what to do with our porches. In 2014, the Harrison Center for the Arts, where Taft is executive director, launched Porch Party Indy to galvanize gatherings with friends and neighbors on their porches. Forty-five families in mostly white Herron-Morton Place signed up, hosting neighbors on their own porches. Then they traipsed a few miles east for a cross-porching initiative with a nearby predominantly African-American neighborhood, Hillside. Over time, it’s become more organic, with porching happening statewide.
A few years ago, Indianapolis’s Historic Preservation Commission told a developer to take another crack at some housing designs to make sure they included porches. “Haven’t you heard of porching?” a commission member asked.
Thanks to COVID-19, front porches everywhere are seeing new use, as are stoops, the dense-city equivalent. There have been porch dance parties, porch recitals, porch proms, porch weddings, porch receptions, porch block parties, porch workouts, and porch happy hours. In one video that got 61,000 likes on Twitter, two kids play a cello concert on their 78-year-old neighbor’s front porch while she looks on from ten feet away, as pleased as if the performer were Yo-Yo Ma.
Like the rest of the world, Porch Party Indy had to pivot to “social-distance porching” in 2020. Every day at 5 p.m., neighbors get up off the couch, go to their porches, and wave at each other for a few minutes. Simple, but Taft and a lot of her neighbors structure their days around that bit of social connection. “Porching is definitely a thing in Indianapolis now,” says Taft.
But there’s a challenge to spending more time on the front porch: It is neither public nor fully private, exposing porch-sitters to interactions they can’t expect or control.
The social life of porches has a highly practical origin story: In pre-air-conditioning America, they offered an ideal place to catch breezes in hot weather, which turned into an ideal place to greet friends and neighbors. Because they were so visible, porches became a gathering space; sitting on one was like sending an invitation to the neighbors that visiting hours were on. Picture the opening scene in Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara holds court on the steps of a front porch the size of a McDonald’s. Gossip and drama ensue.
In the sultry Deep South, wide front porches soon became part of the regional architectural vernacular, with their own haint-blue ceiling paint to ward off spirits. In fact, porches are still most popular in Deep South and southern Appalachian states like Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, where 95 percent of new-construction single-family homes are built with them. But in different forms, including bungalows and farmhouses, the feature spread across the country in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Everything began to change in the 1950s, as the modernizing forces of air-conditioning and television eliminated any social or meteorological reason to spend time on a front porch. Americans fled to the Great Indoors. On the ranch houses and split levels of the postwar building boom, porches were unnecessary frippery.
Was it coincidence that neighborliness began its long, downward spiral right about then? By 1974, 44 percent of neighbors still socialized more than once a month. As of 2008, that number had fallen to 30 percent. As modern life became increasingly high stress and work-centric, both porches and neighborly relationships seemed less relevant.
To combat some of those trends, New Urbanist architects in the 1980s often built single-family homes with garages in the back and porches in the front. “You look at a streetscape full of porches, and it’s so much more inviting and friendly looking,” says Geoffrey Mouen, the town architect for Celebration. “It’s not because it’s an economic value; it’s a social value. It’s a psychological value that you recognize.”
In some towns, he says, builders and developers won’t even build a house without a front porch, so ingrained is the association between porches and livability. “We sometimes take it for granted that we’re all supposed to have front porches because they make the world a better place.” But even he acknowledges that a century ago, the porch was much more likely to be used on a daily basis for active socializing. “It doesn’t function the same way now,” he says. “You sometimes don’t like to be out there because you’re exposed and part of the community. You want to be outside, but you don’t want to hang out on the street.”
Ocean Springs, Mississippi–based architect Bruce Tolar lives and works in Cottage Square, a neighborhood he designed in which all the houses have front porches. Yet even he admits that they can be a minefield. “There are people in the neighborhood that have very outgoing personalities,” he says. “They’re sitting on the porch waiting for you to walk by, and they’ll wave at you and want you to talk to them.” He’s been waylaid from getting to his office three doors down by so many “Hey, y’all”s that he’s figured out how to take a quick right to avoid the porches altogether.
In 2006, Steve Mouzon, an architect and urbanist in Miami Beach, began to pay attention to which front porches were being used and which were purely decorative. In neighborhoods across the South, Mouzon would search for signs of life on the porch — not just furnishings but a newspaper, a coffee cup, children’s toys — evidence that the porch was being actively used by the people who lived there. Then he would measure the height of the porch and its distance from the sidewalk curb. Whether there was a hedge, a fence, a wall, or a porch railing factored in, too.
Mouzon created charts that measured these characteristics to help architects “determine with a certain degree of accuracy whether someone was likely to sit on that porch or not.” The closer the porch got to the sidewalk, the higher it needed to be, while fences, hedges, walls, and railings moderated that effect. A porch that was 25 feet from the sidewalk curb could only be 20 inches tall, while one that was ten feet from the sidewalk had to be at least four feet tall — otherwise, no one would sit there.
Research shows that humans gravitate toward protected areas with a view, the kind of defensible vantage point that might have helped our ancestors stay alive on the savanna. When we’re too much on display, as on a front porch, we can feel too vulnerable. “A porch can be a finely-honed Social Interaction Device, while a fence can be a precisely-tuned Personal Space Protection Mechanism,” writes Mouzon in a blog post about his charts. “It’s primarily about geometry, not about style.”
Finding the right balance between social interaction and personal-space protection made porches more likely to be used. Once, working as a town architect in a traditional neighborhood in Huntsville, Alabama, Mouzon spotted an under-construction house with a porch that was too low relative to the sidewalk. He left instructions for the builder to add a more solid railing and to increase privacy and decrease vulnerability. As soon as the builder did, the house sold to a couple who’d seen it before but liked it more now, without quite knowing why. “My point is that this stuff really does actually work,” says Mouzon. “It changes the way that people behave.”
The correct porch-height-to-curb-distance ratio may ultimately come down to personality. Introverts like me may feel a little too exposed by a low porch, even when we’re fairly far from the street. Tolar says that in his work designing custom homes, he tries to pay attention to the kind of person he’s building for and perhaps moderate the openness of a front porch with adjustable shutters, or, if the lot allows, opt for a Charleston side porch hidden behind a door. Mouzon likes to design U- or C-shaped houses built around interior courtyards. A screened side porch and a back patio are alternatives that allow homeowners to be outside and yet remain private.
But for Mouzon, the whole point of a porch is that it primes the pump for neighborly interactions. “There’s a much tighter web of connection than in neighborhoods where we don’t set the stage for people to get acquainted,” he says. “It’s a serious business.”
Maybe we’re struggling to want that. But what the architects I spoke with agreed on was that a porch offered options. “I think I just create the opportunity [for social interaction],” Tolar said. “It’s when you give no opportunity that it’s just going to be a garage out front and a stupid door stoop with a big door and a doorbell to get you in the house. There’s no opportunity to sit out front and interact.”
As more of us stay in our homes and neighborhoods amid COVID-19, we’re also more willing to take the opportunity presented by a front porch to reengage with the people who live physically closest to us. That’s not unexpected in a pandemic; in those first few weeks, most of us felt a burst of goodwill and protectiveness toward fellow community members.
But things are starting to normalize. As the world reopens in fits and starts, and we grow less desperate for human contact, we may see porch-sitting go the way of Zoom happy hours. The question remains: Have we become more connected to our neighbors for good, or are we as keen to control the distance from them as we were in February? I put that question to Kristin Schell, the author of The Turquoise Table, expecting her to be entirely pro-porch. She had, after all, put a picnic table in her Austin front yard so she could more easily befriend her neighbors.
But when I describe how the desire to be neighborly sometimes butts up against the desire to be left alone — Tolar’s choice to sometimes take a quick right to avoid people sitting on the porches he built — she says, “Oh, girl, that’s the story of our lives.”
That’s the tension in being on the porch: We can’t control what happens. “We know it’s going to cost something,” Schell says. “But we don’t know what the cost is. Is it going to be time? Am I going to get into a relationship that I don’t want? Some of us worry that no one will show up; some of us are worried that everyone will show up and they’ll stay too long.”
It might take us time to adjust to that loss of control. But whenever we’re ready, our porches have built possibility into the DNA of our homes. We could become better neighbors any time we want.
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