In the first half of the 20th Century into which I was born, and especially in small-town America, there were certain features of residential architecture that were so commonplace as to be thought of as “timeless”; features we might have taken so much for granted as to suppose they would always be with us. As I look around me in the “cookie-cutter sub-division” neighborhoods which characterize so much of the residential landscape characteristic of post-world-war-two” America, I see that the backyard patio together with its outdoor grill and trampoline have all but replaced the old fashion front porch my generation grew up with. (Nothing against patio-living, which I practice and wholly subscribe to!)
A large part of the “sense of neighborhood” my generation grew up with was played out every time I was sent on a family errand to McFarland’s store, Shuster’s butcher shop, the town Shoemaker, or simply (and daily during WWII), the village post office. In that one-mile walk I would run the gauntlet of several dozen homes where I would be under the direct observation of people who knew who I was and kept a careful – if silent - vigilance over my movements from their front porches. Perched in creaking cane rockers, glissading “gliders” and cushioned Adirondack chairs would be the Brallas, the Stephensons, the Bragaws, Donovons, Bridenbergs, Normans, Woods and a small legion of others whose names I may have forgotten, but whose presence in my life I never will.
Come to think of it, a lot of informal visiting went on under the cover of those venerable verandas on any warm summer evening, where ice cubes clinked in glasses of ice tea or lemonade poured from sweating pitchers, and where neighbors and passers-by shared the latest war news and family trivia. Air conditioning was still in the distant future, and the coolness of an evening filled with the sparking of lightning bugs and the singing of locusts was an invitation to slow down and enjoy shared relaxation on the veranda. For kids like me, it was a magical hour.
One historian has noted that porches connected people and communities, and other social observers add the idea that it was the view seen from under the protection of that rain-proof overhead “umbrella” which encouraged a new appreciation of the natural environment, out of which sprang succeeding generations of hikers, bikers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts. It was perhaps no coincidence that at the same time as the “Hudson River School” of artists led the shift to flowing natural landscape portrait styles in American art, residential architecture was emphasizing the idea of connecting the indoors with the great “outdoors”.
Among my young Italian-American friends, it was their “piazza” where parents rocked and children played marbles and dominoes, while the descendants of Dutch settlers sat on their “stoops” to watch the sun set. Old 18th century Victorian estates still thought of their regal attachments as “porticos” or even the more formal “port-cullis”. By whatever name, it was that architectural attachment which made the transition from the home inside to the home outside, and which became a cherished piece of Americana for a people whose economical and social progression rewarded hard work with hours of leisure and the need for a connection with others. With all of this in mind, we were careful to design our home in Zion with a wide front porch which connects us year-round with the wonders around us.
As I drive today beneath the canopy of century-old elms and maples shading streets and lanes laid out before the coming of bull-dozers and back-hoes, I experience a special sense of peace and harmony as I admire the verandas, piazzas, stoops and porches of an age whose graces I fear we are slowly losing.
Photo Caption No. 1 Two sisters and a farm wife share an afternoon porch chat at “Nickwacket Farm” near Chittenden, Vermont.
Photo Caption No. 2 A generous expanse of gallery-like porches makes possible near-unlimited views from a Utah mountain cabin.