The American Front Porch, Garden Walk Buffalo
Traffic was foot traffic. The restaurants, banks, corner markets, coffee shops, theaters, and quirky little shops selling who knows what were found on every street corner. Kids could walk to school carrying their lunch pails without the fear of ending up as an Amber Alert or picked off in a drive by. There was living and there was LIVING.
And city life had the staple of the front porch built to homes of yesteryear. You could be outside and literally watch the world go by. It was the phrase ‘Eyes on the Street’ for real, not an idealized concept.
The front porch was a place to enjoy the rain, let your imagination soar finding shapes in the clouds, and watch the sun set to a rainbow of radiant color. It was a place of spontaneous conversation. It was a place to solve all the world’s problems without worrying about how PC one had to be. The front porch had many roles, but most of which, it was a place for family to be together and just converse. Imagine that, a family talking.
Neighbors would stroll by and stop to say hello as the little kids blew bubbles from the porch to shower guests, mid-sized kids played stick ball in the street, and the big kids did wheelies on skateboards. The porch swing also filled many roles, from rocking the little ones to sleep, to the first kiss by young lovers as the swing creaked letting concerned parents know that all was well.
The porch was a place where the milkman left milk of all flavors, and the postman delivered mail you ‘wanted’ to the wall hung box. It was a place where the delivery man left packages that kids eagerly awaited and a place where the grandparents told colorfully embellished stories. The old gents played cards to pass the time as they told the same war glory stories over and over. The front porch was a link from the house to nature, a transitional space between the privacy of one’s family to the public realm of the street.
So many porches, portico, verandas, terraces, and balconies have been disappearing on the old historic city homes. Porches bring a sense of stateliness to an impressive home, but time and poor upkeep is taking a toll on many that are left. Not only is the physical porch important, but so also is the cultural aspect, and sadly, fewer people today use the porch as it was intended.
It suffered the humiliation of being turned into a poorly proportioned interior space, ripped from its home, left to sag, and eventually fall to its demise. Yet, some porches that were removed were done with the care in retaining the character of the home and neighborhood. But more often than not, function and finances outweigh good design and careful planning.
Ironically, the technological advancements that helped create the porch are also responsible for its decline. We learned more efficient means of construction that enabled our craftsmen with better tools to speed up the work. As we improved and advanced, the new technology moved into producing more cost-effective square footage for the home itself, not the little used porch.
Air conditioning, computers, TV, and other enticements lured people back inside. As the streets filled with cars, the population shifted to the suburbs. Porches started to become obsolete.
“Nobody thought much about the front porch when most Americans had them and used them. The great American front porch was just there, open, and sociable, an unassigned part of the house that belongs to everyone and no one, a place for family and friends to pass the time.” – Rochlin, The Front Porch, in Home, Sweet Home
Interestingly, no one is really thinking seriously about them today either. As early American tastes in architecture went through a transformation, one element remained, the porch. But as we approached a car in every garage mentality, the porch weakened in new design.
American porches seem to have not been wholly rooted in European tradition, but in that of colonial trade as well. When early Americans forged off on the trade routes of Europe, they detoured and stopped along the way. They became heavily influenced by island architecture and the open nature of the structures. They related to the heat and humidity and saw the solution in the design of the porches. Whatever factors are responsible, America grew to love the concept of porch.
Long stairs to a landing well off grade is not common place today. Stairs must conform to codes and entries must be considerate of those with special needs.
Awnings were a common attribute back in the days when porches were used. They provided some privacy, shade and cooling in summer. Deep porches, if oriented south correctly, would allow winter sunlight to enter the living space. The sun, which is low in the sky, could enter the home when it was needed most.
The move to suburbia, minimized the necessity of a front porch as homes were set back from the street and spaced further apart. This is a time and place when I grew up, so my first hand knowledge is limited. At a very young age, living on my grandfather’s estate, we had a well used front porch on the very old cottage, but I was too young to appreciate the culture built around the porch. But I have to say, the memories are very clear from what I do remember. And this has a lot to do with the impact the porch had on how I feel about the importance it held in daily life. It was a time of family and bouncing on my father’s knee each evening before bed.
I have written this post, not from the perspective of a landscape designer, but make no mistake how aesthetically important the porch is to the entry of a home and in relation to the welcome of the gardens. They work hand in hand. And historically, the gardens transformed as well in both prominence and importance. But that is an entirely different post and design impact to explore.