In Praise of Porches Some folks still find them ideal perches for chatting, relaxing

July 08, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

The porch is perfect.

It wraps protectively around the shingle-style Victorian house, enfolding it in coolness and civility; an invitation to a bygone time, when families and friends once gathered in gentle porch society.

Through elegant French doors, the home's grand hallway and living room flow into the porch, encouraging circulation of fragrant summer air as well as people. Rounded arches supported by columns speak of the porch's classical origins. It is enclosed, by both a railing and the second floor which juts out beyond the porch ceiling, a wooden cocoon with a view.

The ceiling is painted a traditional sky blue; older women in the neighborhood say it's to fool the flies that otherwise would collect below.

The porch is 10 feet deep, and so spacious it can accommodate "rooms" of furnishings -- a dining room and a living room with an irresistible circle of wicker chairs and a hand-hewn bench -- and lush potted trees and flowers. It is shored on the outside by a proliferation of perennials and grasses that wave and whisper in the wind.

In summertime, this porch, on the threshold of Sudbrook Park in Pikesville, is where members of the Brady family live. They eat out there, they read aloud out there by the flame of a kerosene lamp, they play out there, they entertain out there. Once, "just for yucks," they slept out there.

"There is something about a porch," says Darragh Brady, an architect and mother of two.

On East 37th Street, near Old York Road, the porches are no more than tiny concrete slabs that enter into plain, utilitarian rowhouses. But the porches, however humble, have been dressed up here and there with a potted plant, wind chimes, a whirly mobile or a comfy porch sofa. And a life can be lived there as well as on a grand Victorian veranda. Best friends Denetta Clark and Donna Evans have spent much of their lives on those simple porches. As children they played school and with Barbie dolls and daydreamed about the future on each other's porches.

Today, seated in white plastic lawn chairs, they keep an eye on their own children, watch the men drive by, laugh and gossip, tell of weekend plans, occasionally observe a fight. "Donna and I have been out here, spring, summer, winter, fall -- no matter what the weather," Ms. Clark says.

The lost art of porch sitting

The Bradys and their Baltimore rowhouse counterparts are a rarity. Porch sitting is in large part an art lost to air conditioning, television, auto pollution and, in some places, stray bullets.

Even in Sudbrook Park, a former resort laid out by the visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., few residents take advantage of their porches.

Drive around Baltimore, and you'll find pockets of people who still take to their porches to chat, court, swing dreamily and watch the world go by on a breathless night. But in some of the city's rowhouse neighborhoods, the attached porches stretch to infinity, like a hall of mirrors, without a single occupant.

"Today, the front porch has really gone by the wayside," says Roger Lee Katzenberg, a preservation architect with Kann & Associates and a neighbor of the Bradys. "People just don't spend time outside; the neighborhoods just aren't the same. Back then, when people were walking, [sitting on porches] was more of a social thing. Today, you go into the far reaches of the suburbs, people have decks now . . . they want their privacy."

Porches are "peculiarly American," wrote Vincent Scully, the Yale architectural critic and historian. They became popular before the Civil War when production techniques afforded more leisure time. From the grand porticos of Southern plantation porches grew wraparound seaside wonders, mass-produced bungalow porches, simple farm platforms and other kinds of porches that fulfilled any number of vital social purposes.

In "Out on the Porch," a recently published book of photos and snippets of Southern literature celebrating the porch, author Reynolds Price writes that the front porch, "a room without walls," served "as a vital transition between the uncontrollable out-of-doors and the cherished interior of the home."

But the porch, he writes, was also a lazy haven, ideally appointed with a "hanging swing that will seat at least two peaceful adults or (better yet) one drowsy adult and a much-loved child, stroked by the merest trace of a breeze and engaged in a soft-voiced dialogue of no great moment as to subject or theme, though deeply rewarding to hear and mind through a whole life's memory."

Long evenings on the porch sweetened with lemonade and gossip "suffered in the 1950s a body blow from auto pollution, air-conditioning and indoor TV," Mr. Price writes. Families moved to their decks or rec rooms, and builders just stopped making real porches.

Rediscovering porches

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