Summer on the Front Porch
It wasn't me who decided I ought to have a front porch. I just wanted a nice deck on the side of the house, facing the woods and the wetland and maybe providing a glimpse of Penobscot Bay. The notion of a front porch sprang from the fecundant mind of my architectural designer, an energetic young man named Eric Allyn, who seemed to feel that my otherwise unassuming cottage — less than 1000 square feet on a full stomach, clad in rough-cut board-and-batten siding — could use a touch of grandeur.
Eric's first draft was pretty grand, given the limited scope of things. The porch would run along the entire front facade (all 28 feet of it), covered along its length by a roof overhang, wrapping around to join up with the deck of my dreams.
Even then, still weeks away from my initial sticker-shock, I sensed that this kind of thing might cost money.
"But Eric," I said, "I don't need a front porch. The front door faces north. There's nothing to look at out there — just the state road and the driveway. I'll never use it."
"You might be surprised," he said.
Of course there is no reasoning with artists, and I'm pretty sure Eric was dressed all in black at the time. We squabbled, I pouted, he hung tough, and eventually we compromised. The porch shrank to 12 feet, still covered. It did seem to make the front of the house less boring. And so now I've got this porch.
As this is a family magazine, I will mute my next remark. I freaking live on this porch. I feel like I've spent my whole summer there. And we're not even into August, when the idea of a cool, north-facing refuge really comes into its own.
More than that: I need this porch. Wholly apart from its utilitarian value — a place to park snowboards, longboards, sandy sneakers, Bean boots, garden tools, five-gallon buckets of rock salt, and the cat — the porch creates an in-between or transitional space between indoors and out. I sat out there for nearly an hour the other night while a spectacular lightning display flashed and boomed and rain poured down with Biblical fervor. I sat out there again yesterday afternoon while the indoor thermometer climbed toward 80 and my excellent son Tristan blasted rap music from the basement. And I'm sitting there now blogging away on my iPad.
"Nobody thought much about the front porch when most Americans had them and used them," notes Scott Cook of the University of Virginia. "The great American front porch was just there, open and sociable, an unassigned part of the house that belonged to everyone and no one, a place for family and friends to pass the time."
I'd say the first part still holds true: Nobody thinks about front porches. If you've got one, it's just there; if you don't, you don't miss it.
Which is a shame, really. So many old Maine houses — and a surprising number of new ones, now that I drive around noticing this — have fine-looking porches that don't see a lot of use. There seems to have been a period from roughly the Civil War era through the 1920s when the porch was an architectural feature de rigueur. We were a different sort of country then: the land of the endless front lawn, one property joining boundlessly with the next, connected by roads that people actually walked on. The porch was a physical manifestation of our open, democratic community. You could sit and watch the kids run around and wait for a neighbor to stroll by. The porch was really an outdoor room, not in the precious shelter-magazine sense but on the serious grounds that the family spent much of its collective life out there. Carson McCullers captured this archetypal American scene in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:
"The twilight was blurred and soft... Their Dad leaned back in the chair with his sock-feet on the bannisters. Bill was on the steps with the kids. Their Mama sat on the swing fanning herself with the newspaper. Across the street a girl in the neighborhood skated up and down the sidewalk on one roller skate. The lights on the block were just beginning to be turned on, and far away a man was calling someone."
Times have changed beyond recall, I suppose. Today, as a society, we're all about the deck. We've moved from the front yard to the back, from shared, semi-public space to concealed, private sanctuary. Our reasons are understandable and not to be scorned. But there are other modes of living. And it's been nice, this summer, to be reminded of that.