Easing the transition from inside to out, the porch is more than an icon of Maine architecture — it is a way of life. A new book
Excerpted from Porch by Brian Vanden Brink with text by Richard Grant. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; $14.95.
Nobody thought much about the front porch when most Americans had them and used them,” notes Scott Cook, a professor of American Studies at 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 realize anything is missing. Which is a shame, really. So many old 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.
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.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of the porch as a staple feature of American domestic architecture. This seems especially true where porches (or verandas, or waterside decks, or plain front stoops) have long been part of the architectural vernacular. A welcome development, to be sure.