Out on the Porch: The Life and Death of an American Architectural Icon

By Lara Forsythe

Every day this past summer I hopped off the 5:08 outbound train and began my ten-minute walk back home just as the church bells rang six. Having made it a habit of slipping out of my heels after exiting the station, I would often finish my route bare-footed. I grew up in this suburb. I knew my way around. The houses were familiar, as were the manicured lawns and the cars parked in the attached driveways. And yet, on one of these nightly walks home I came to the unhappy realization that, while I knew their front stoops, I did not actually know the neighbors with whom I shared a street. Nineteen years of living in this suburb—two years on this particular street—and I had no relationships to show for it. The only face-to-face neighborly interaction I could depend on was in passing an elderly man who often sat out on his front porch, his dog at his feet, lazily looking out onto the street. I would wave, he would nod, and I’d saunter on, heels in hand.

What I realized later was that the sole cause of my interaction with this man had been his front porch. The porch was my window into his world and his window into mine. It was this modest feature that made our sense of community tangible, if only for a passing moment. Nevertheless, his was one of the few homes in my neighborhood fitted with a front porch. Most front entryways opened up to a blunt stoop barely large enough for a potted plant, much less a small gathering. How this quintessential component of the American home had become all but foreign to our Midwestern suburb was a question that stayed with me throughout the summer. Somehow our town had lost—or perhaps had never begun—the art of porch building. And our community was the worse off for it.
Those who live in rural or older urban areas may be unfamiliar with this absence, for the disappearance of the front porch has largely been a suburban phenomenon. In smaller communities, however, whether rural towns or urban blocks, the front porch has thrived as a defining architectural feature of American homes. Originating in the south, where slave owners adopted the porch-like structure often attached to slave dwellings, the porch spread in popularity in the mid-19th century as the industrial revolution made leisure more accessible for the working family. Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, the two architects accredited with the popularization of the front porch, recognized the porch’s distinct American quality and sought to incorporate it into domestic architecture as a means of distinguishing American homes from their English counterparts. So began an architectural tradition that would become an icon of small-town America.

As the entrance into the private sphere, the front porch supported the household by providing an intimate space for families to come together. In his book At Home: A Short History of the Private Life, Bill Bryson summarizes the history of the private life as being “a history of getting comfortable slowly,” and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the porch was the place for this. It essentially served as an outdoor parlor (a word which originates from the French verb parler, meaning “to speak”, an indication of the social nature of the space). A cool place to gather on hot evenings to enjoy the outdoors, the porch became a central gathering place during summer months. Families gathered here to tell stories. Mothers rocked their children to sleep on the porch swing. Couples got to know each other on the front steps, talking well into the evening. The porch encouraged a slower-paced life, knitting families together in a leisurely private setting.

But it is the outdoor nature of the front porch that makes it unique. Placing the private life within view of the public life, the porch provided a space for people to engage with their community while remaining within the comfort of their own home. Passing neighbors could engage in brief conversation or be invited up to sit for a spell. Local business was often conducted here, since the porch gave private negotiations a public setting. We see the public role of the porch play out in much of Southern literature, for scenes of conflict or compromise often take place under the front awning. The plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird develops for the most part on various neighbors’ porches, given that it is here where characters pick up on community news. Perhaps the most appropriate platform for American storytelling, the porch’s communal nature called attention to the relationship between family and society, fusing together private and public heritage.

After the end of World War I, however, American architecture took on new characteristics as suburban areas began to expand. The increasing affordability of the automobile made it possible for the middle-class man to live and work in two different places. As a result of this enhanced mobility, many families moved out of crowded urban areas seeking the privacy of the suburbs. The commuter was born. “Bedroom cities” emerged, creating sprawls for working men and women to spend the night but not much else. In these areas, the front porch all but disappeared from domestic design as television and air conditioning began taking families indoors. While home-decorating magazines encouraged homeowners to modernize their houses with simple stoops, a new architectural feature began to emerge in the porch’s stead: the backyard patio. The patio afforded more privacy to families in mobile communities. Here a man could avoid interacting with his neighbors while still enjoying his landscape.

Families, as a result, became disengaged from their communities. Many urbanists have written on the social significance of the attached garage and how it allows the working suburban man to transition directly from the anonymity of his car to the privacy of the house without having to engage with his neighbors. So it has been with the disappearance of the front porch. Without the porch, we have become able to remain nameless, faceless homeowners, indifferent to those nameless, faceless people who surround us. Rather than gathering in a place where we can see and be seen, we return home at the end of the day and retire either indoors or in the backyard, detached from the people next door.

Although we cannot attribute the broken marriage of the family and the community solely to the disappearance of the American front porch, we must not underestimate the moral and cultural impact the architecture of our homes has on society. Rather, we must remember Winston Churchill’s reminder that, though we shape our buildings, in turn, “our buildings shape us.” At its most basic level, a man’s house serves as a shelter for his domestic life. Thus, the design of homes expresses both the predominant notion of the purpose of the domestic life, as well as society’s conception of the relationship between the public life and the private life. It was the philosophy of Andrew Jackson Downing that a home’s design influences its inhabitants so much so that anyone who builds a beautiful home “is a benefactor to the cause of morality, good order, and the improvement of society where he lives.” Domestic architecture not only affects those living on the inside, then, but also the lives of those on the outside. Yet since the expansion of the American suburbs, which have largely been built on trend and convenience, few of us take the design of our homes seriously. We remain ignorant to the ethics of domestic architecture, failing to realize the great extent to which the structure of homes affects our communities.

The life and death of the American front porch, then, cannot be counted as mere architectural history, for it reflects a grander history to which the architecture points. As it is, the front porch serves as the bridge between one’s private home and the public street. As a gathering place, it encourages and helps preserve the particular unity of the family within the context of the general community. By taking marriage and parenthood outdoors, and thus bringing it within view of the community, the porch upholds the public significance of these foundational relationships. In Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, we see the porch answer what Miller considered to be the primary question all social dramas ask, that is, “How may a man make of the outside world a home?” The porch was a concrete way of grounding one’s relationships and cultural heritage in society and establishing one’s identity in the common principles of the community.

What we have seen develop over the last hundred years is a widening gap between the private life and the public life, such that we now refer to the two exclusively. The disappearance of the front porch has paralleled the disappearance of local accountability in the American suburbs. With the growth of suburban sprawl, families have become increasingly physically detached from society. Having taken the family to the backyard, we have, like Joe Keller in All My Sons, let the trees grow thick, divorcing ourselves from our communities. Those living in suburban neighborhoods can testify to this. We do not know our neighbors, nor do they know us. It is all too easy to avoid making eye contact with the woman cutting her lawn or the child walking his dog, for to do so might delay us in our own purposes. But this fragmentation has not merely been a physical one; rather, it has lent itself to the growing illusion of moral autonomy, the idea that we may exist as families morally independent of each other. Instead of sharing and sacrificing with those who surround us, and recognizing the family as the foundation of the community, we deny our own significance and the significance of our neighbors for the sake of convenience. Where we once gathered on porches, we now stand isolated on stoops, observing our neighbors in passing but rarely engaging with them.

It is certainly true that we will not be able to mend the division between the public life and the private life simply by bringing back the front porch. The state of American domestic architecture is indeed an overlooked element of community health, but it does not comprise the whole of it. Furthermore, the simple existence of a porch does nothing for a community, for the porch must be occupied to fulfill its usefulness. Perhaps in our communities, rather than seeing an absence of porches, we have seen an absence of people on porches. Regardless, it takes the organic interaction between a man’s home and his community, the dual actions of claiming something and giving something up, for him to form a relationship with his neighbors. By building porches and occupying them, that is, by becoming more conscious of the human beings with whom we dwell and how the structures in which we dwell affect them, we may be able to begin remaking a home of the outside world.

Lara Forsythe is a sophomore studying economics.

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