The Lost Art of Living-The American Porch

The American Front Porch, Garden Walk Buffalo

City life at one time was the life to live. The bustle, the alleys, the architecture and the ability to walk everywhere you needed to go epitomized city living.

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.

Raising the porch well above street level to afford some privacy, but still retain the connectedness to the neighborhood is a concept rarely used today.

Deep porches to catch nighttime breezes and the space to accommodate large families was practical, but today deemed unnecessary.

Stone side walls to give a feeling of permanence…

…and ground the structure, visually and physically. Economics often eliminates good masonry.

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.

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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53 Responses to The Lost Art of Living-The American Porch

  1. So many beautiful houses and gardens!!! A feast for the eyes and thoughts to ponder as well.

  2. Donna says:

    Donna when we built our new home it had to have a full porch. They call it a farmers porch; open at both ends with a step in the center. I have always loved porches for all the reasons you have so eloquently articulated here. As a child growing up in Philly, my Aunt had a row house with a deep porch. Everyone was on their porch and spoke from porch to porch. I loved visiting her house partly to socialize on that porch. You are right we rarely sit on them or use them for what they were intended years ago, but I for one will always use and have one. Wonderful post to contemplate…those porches left me in awe…lovely!!!

    • I never lived in a city as a kid, but I do remember, like you, relatives having porches where the folks would yell to one another across yards. But they got off their duff at that time and came over too. Those were the days.

  3. TufaGirl says:

    I love a porch – front or back. Too bad our society has gone away from enjoying the porch. Place to greet your neighbors, cool place to sleep in the summers, seems they are just decorations these days.

    • My house , like others on the street, had a sleeping porch out back. I don’t think I would have enjoyed that, but if it was in the country, I would. Today, I just made the rear second story porch a sitting porch. And I never use it either. Nothing good to look at. One tome I was going to show my neighbor’s yards, but thought they may not be too happy about it. My pear tree blocks the only good yard and I planted the pear because she has a pool. City life needs some privacy!

  4. These photos put me in a mood of nostalgia. The porches are so beautiful I wish I could see each one and sit on them looking out at the view. My favorite is the curved porch, but some of the others are a gardener’s dream with hanging plants and plants flanking the steps. I really enjoyed the tour.

  5. Bridget says:

    Gorgeous! I love American houses with the big porches on, it would be a pity if the tradition died out.

  6. Porches on modern houses are nothing more than a gesture. If you are going to have a porch, it needs to be at a minimum 8 feet deep. That is one reason why we bought this house; eight-foot-deep porch. Would like it deeper, but at least it’s wide enough for a swing. As for the people element. What good is it to have a porch when you grumble and complain about neighbors and never bother to talk to them or get to know them?

    • A little down today, Susan? 😀 Actually, in architecture there is a porch revival going on. But the main problem is that the homes themselves are not conducive to the cultural aspect because of siting. Everybody still does not want to live so close to their neighbors. People moving back to cities are the best bet at porches having the grace and dignity of long ago. And moving back by professionals is the key. But if you have the money, do you really want to live in a place so degraded over time? Such a catch 22. The wide porch was made for people and also as I noted, controlling the sun entering interior space. This is where economics is a factor today. Like you said, a gesture. The porch is also weighed in cost per square foot to build. So they add it but think about how it can or if it will be used. Also a consideration is lot size. People want to maximize usable space on a lot and there fore build-to lines come into play. Why take up space with a porch when you can have more usable interior space. I could go on and on.

      • Also, here there’s the summertime threat of mosquitoes at dusk carrying West Nile Virus, a disease that can be very serious for elderly people or those with weakened immune systems. A couple years back we did hear of some deaths from people going out around dusk without bug spray. But porches with bug screens are almost non-existent. So many factors against porches…. I agree it’s a shame.

  7. Dear Donna, Love this posting – love it! love it! My husband’s dream house has a wrap around porch, and I understand why. It is possible this house, where he has lived all his life, had one originally, and we have talked about restoring it, but the cost is prohibitive. Also, our rural road has become very busy, and the house is so close to it, that it would not be such a comfortable place to sit. There is no sidewalk, of course. If we lived in a town or city, though, it would be a necessity. I must go back and look at your photos again, and show them to my husband. P. x

    • Usually, you can tell homes having had porches. There is always telltale architectural clues. I can see why your husband has imagined one on his dream home. I have designed a home for my retirement and it has a nice sized porch. Getting my husband to move would be difficult though.

  8. Greggo says:

    Dona, porches (large) are the bomb. Growing up in wyoming we didnt have as most of the architecture was recent as these towns were boomtowns. When I went to Kansas to visit grandma the architecture was older and more Bungalow/Victorian style with the large porches. They were a good memory.
    My first purchased house was a bungalow with a 8′ porch facing south. Awesome, unfortunately on the wrong side of the tracks. lol.
    When I moved to Texas and after a few years we began looking for a new house. Cindy and I purchased a new home built in a neighborhood based on old style bungalow architecture. We got our porch back and the neighborhood was wonderful. It was not an upscale area, more middle class like us. I met a lot of people during our stay there. It was great!
    Not only are gardens for people(thomas church) but porches too(greggo)!
    Great post, probably were shocked by all my words. lol.

    • A bit surprised. I am more a picture person post-wise too. But my training as an architect has to come into print sometimes. :grin:. You are a great example of how much porches mean all across the US. Plus you understand their significance culturally, aesthetically and functionally. Nice too you have a neighborhood that appreciates the porch and community living. My neighborhood is like that a bit, but many old homes, like mine, had the porch enclosed. I called on all my contractor friends to see if the porch can be restored to a drawing I did, but the problem is the paint that was used on the very textural and porous brick. A mason friend of mine worked on a 3 foot by 3 foot are for weeks, and I was not satisfied with the result. The only other option is to stucco (DryVit) the surface, and that is not a great option either. If I redesign a more attractive enclosed porch, then city ordinances come into play and some neighbor would be an ass and contest the construction.

  9. Greggo says:

    Porches are for people.

  10. Bumble Lush says:

    Lovely post. I got such a feeling of nostalgia, even though I’ve never lived in a house with a porch! Whenever we drive around exploring new neighborhoods, my favorite houses are always the ones with porches. They seem more welcoming and less closed-off than others. Have a great weekend!

  11. Barbie says:

    Oh, how I remember my childhood in Richmond, Virginia on the porch in summer! Those were happy days. We had a mosquito net that surrounded it so we could sit there in the evenings. Here in South Africa, we call them “a stoep” We have a front stoep but we live on our back (stoep) deck in summer! THank you for your colourful show !! Gives me the warm “fuzzies”!

    • My husbands grandfather, a plumber, piped up his city house porch ceiling with finely perforated pipe on the porch perimeter and would turn on the spray to cool down the porch and keep bugs from coming on the porch. It was like a curtain of water spray. Lots of people thought he was nuts, but it really was cooling.

  12. Lona says:

    The porches and some of these houses are just fabulous.I love front porches. I guess it comes from my Grandma having a porch on three sides of her house that we kids use to run around and play on on a rainy day. I love the glassed in porch and the first one looks like picture frames around the porch. I have just a small porch and would love to one day glass it in.

  13. Gail says:

    Beautiful front porches~A friend here in Nashville started a porch building company~It’s very successful. She built ours and I it. We live in a 1959 circa suburban ranch and about 8 years ago added a screened porch to the front of the house. Unfortunately our neighborhood has no sidewalks~another loss to place on the love affair America has with the car~So we invite folks over for hanging out.

    • There really is a resurgence on finding ways to connect again. Trend wise, it may take quite a while with FB and Twiiter and others like them, because the social media seems to have a hold on peoples lives and many look at it as a stress relieving way to communicate and unwind. But, in time, it will pass and possibly people will want to connect in more meaningful ways. Your friend is ahead of the curve and more builders need to jump on board. Site planners too, sidewalks are just as important.

  14. Holley says:

    I love the look of porches, and remember many a night as a child sitting outside with my grandparents on their porch. I agree people rarely use porches anymore. Too hot, too cold, computer’s inside (lol). There is a subdivision being built nearby that has a front porch requirement. It is touted as a friendly, neighborly place where people hang out on the front porch. I wonder if they really do.

    • You are right about people being a bit fickle about the weather now a days. Sitting on the porch was the thing to do whether cool, hot, rainy or stormy. Now the climate controlled interior rules.

  15. Amy says:

    Loved your post! The 7th photo has such beautiful landscaping. I love the older homes that have such character. Front porches remind me of ice tea and family. 🙂

  16. Stacy says:

    Whenever I’ve lived in a house with a front porch, from Colorado to Vermont, I have met more neighbors than I even knew I had. Sitting out there with a glass of iced tea is the same as putting out an “open for business” sign. My current neighborhood is a new urban infill development, and most of the houses are being built with front porches on purpose to create a community feeling. Just a handful of the townhouse units (including mine) don’t have them, and it’s much more isolating. If you walk past the porch houses, people know their neighbors by name and know all the chit-chat. And gossip, of course… 🙂

    • Walking my dogs is how I met the neighbors who were porch sitting. I think it is a tradition that will come back sometime. And you noted the gossip aspect. I always knew everything when I walked my dogs, now dogless, I know nothing about most neighbors. Plus the neighborhood busybodies are no longer here either.

  17. The porch is definitely an interesting concept, both as a permeable lower facade on a building, as a natural air conditioning system and as a middle ground between public and private space.

    I think the open structure of a porch makes a home seem so very inviting; the focus is taken away from the front door that locks out the world and placed instead on the openings in the porch facade, and it creates a visual statement that these houses are not someone’s castle, locked and bolted, but someone’s homes where family and friends are beckoned in with promises of a friendly welcome.

    Of course, the natural air conditioning properties of a porch are also amazing, though there in the Danish climate it never gets hot enough to necessitate such structures, which is probably why we don’t have them. I first came across this concept when studying Glen Murcutt’s work in Australia where he uses the overhang of the roof to keep out the summer sun without blocking the winter sun from entering the dwelling spaces, and it really makes sense that in hotter climates you’d want to steer clear of the monolithic sort of architecture we favour in Scandinavia where it’s all about retaining heat in winter.

    As for public and private spaces, I think there has been such a dramatic change even during my life time; if you look at it from a theoretical point of view you could argue that these days we’re beginning to see virtual spaces as the ones that have the most nuances between public and private, whereas in our built environment people seem to favour a strict division between private and public spheres. Odd that in a time when people are sharing more and more information about themselves, enacting their personalities and lives on social media etc. (over 50% of the Danish population has a profile on Facebook, for instance, though I guess that percentage would be much lower in the US), that we should be struggling to retain privacy in our homes at the cost of those building features that once created a semi-public/semi-private area to live out part of our everyday lives.

    • You made an extremely valid and interesting point in your last paragraph that I never considered. You should explore this further and post on your findings. The more reclusive people become having less social interaction face to face, the more information they put out there for all to see. The space that is most private in the home is the place where all the public information is dispelled.That is ironic. There is quite a bit that can be written on this subject. The public and private realms are becoming one in the same in a virtual world.

      • In the past I’ve written a few papers about virtual geography in relation to the social media and the way we construct and perceive relations and “togetherness”, so from that to examining “The Private” is a very short step. After all, it all relates to the narrative we create of our lives and the way we enact our being in a digital age.

  18. Cynthia says:

    I really enjoyed your post! We have an eight-foot wrap-around porch on our country house – but no human neighbors to socialize with. However, we truly enjoy sitting out there, swinging, watching the birds, chatting amongst ourselves. Such pleasure and relaxation can be found on a porch!

    • If I had my house in the country, I would have to have a porch, and one I would use too. I was thinking about all my clients of means and not one of these large homes has a front porch. All designs are euro-based and the most any have is an entry stoop, just barely enough to cover the doorway. Some of these homes are over 100 years old too, which really got me thinking about it more deeply.

      • Cynthia says:

        I hadn’t thought of it that way. In my neighborhood, a rural subdivision of middle class and below in Central Texas, most houses have porches; many are put to use frequently. Porches – especially front ones – are to casual for a fancy house, I guess.

  19. I really enjoyed reading this post Donna, and the wonderful photos that you illustrated it with. For me the American porch is tied up in romance, from films and old TV series where it played a key role in romantic and tragic scenes alike. Nowadays I am more interested in it as a half-way space, a way to enjoy “outdoors” when it is raining or a little cool. I’m also very interested in its potential role in passive solar heating, shading the sun in the heat of the day in summer but allowing sun and heat through in lower light conditions. When I daydream about my perfect home it always has a deep wrap-around porch, some of which is covered in to act as a greenhouse/conservatory but most of which is open to the surrounding garden. Not realistic in the UK where build-your-own demands huge sums due to the cost of land, and large plots to accommodate generous footprints are available only to the very rich. But I am sad that America is losing its porches as people move out to the suburbs and become slaves to the car, and, it seems to me, ever more isolated in individual homes rather than being part of a wider community – trends which are very much real here too. Great essay.

    • In my last comment to Cynthia, I mentioned how the homes of clients have no porches. It is the style of the large homes that have European influence. Porches here in this area are predominantly for middle class residences and city homes I think. Also for second, country homes of those with the ability to own one or more vacation homes. Many modest older homes had porches, probably due to the social aspect more than anything. This really is a good topic to further explore. It was not until I wrote about it that I thought about styling of homes and section of the country that have a great influence on a home having a porch. Down South and out West, they are more necessary and common. Porches have a great regional aspect too, that a short post could not include.

  20. Ah, the good old days! I have many fond memories hanging out with my family on the front porch. My dad use to read stories to all us kids on the front porch. We ate ice cream and my mom always had lovely pots and hanging baskets brimming with blooms. Your photos are great! I am afraid you are right that that front porch has lost its purpose… even in the south!

    • Air conditioning killed the porch more than suburbia living I think. You ruined my image of the South. 😀 I always envisioned the porch retaining character and use there. Those big verandas holding a bigger family rushing to get out of the gentle, Southern rain.

  21. Alistair says:

    Beautiful houses, with or without the porches. I must say I have always thought of homes in America having large front porches and the old timer sitting with his feet up smoking his pipe. The world has changed and I think most people prefer to hide round the back of their homes, is that where the porches have gone? As for shapes in the clouds, is that some sort of prehistoric flying reptile soaring upwards with a ghostly head at the top r/h side. Never mind me, I am daft as a brush.

    • You are the first one to notice the evil face in the cloud. I did not think prehistoric bird until you mentioned it, but that is just what the upward figure looks like. I am not sure where the contrails and and clouds start, but it was an interesting sky find.

  22. Malinda says:

    Donna – what a fun post! Very inspiring too. We are in the process of building (finishing) our home as we live in it (not fun) – and are right now designing our front porch. One reason our front door has been put off to the last , when really it should be ther first, is that we want iit to be just right. Welcoming, homey, beautiful, roomy etc. I was very excited to see all the examples in your post. I also thought what a good book this would make – America’s Front Porches!!

  23. b-a-g says:

    Who would have thought that a post about porches could bring a tear to the eye ?!

  24. I love the idea of a front porch, but don’t see them too much where I am in San Francisco. People do sit out on their front steps when it’s hot, though. We have a back porch, and talk to our neighbors in the back yard. I do have old, very young memories, of sitting on a front porch with my family, probably in Brooklyn or Long Island. I guess these pictures make me think of a home I never had, but they still somehow feel like home.

  25. Tatyana says:

    Donna, what an excellent article! Thank you!

  26. Les says:

    Thanks for sharing some spectacular examples of one of my favorite architectual features. When we were shopping for a home, a fornt porch was on the must have list. Here in the south they were often the coolest room in the house. One particular local quirk of architecture is the upstairs sleeping porch, which was always screened in and traditionally would have its parimeter lined with cots and day beds. People would sleep out there during the worst of the summer weather. Most of the sleeping porches have now been closed in to expand master bedrooms or turned into offices. Ours is a sun porch my wife uses for her office, but the light and view are great.

  27. When I was growing up (pre-air-conditioning), almost all of the houses in my hometown had front porches. It’s where we LIVED in the summer and was a great place to see neighbors, read books, etc. Your post brought back many fond memories.

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