Set A Spell

March 20, 1994|By Lynn Williams

A porch is the architectural equivalent of a hug.

As we sit on its broad maternal "lap," its railings enclose us in a comforting embrace, and it seems to whisper enticements to the lazier sorts of pleasures. A porch encourages us to sip lemonade -- or something more potent -- from tall frosty glasses garnished with sprays of fresh mint. It tempts us to burrow into the cushions of a well-padded porch swing with a mystery or romance novel in our hand (nothing too high-minded, please). It lures us into wasting a potentially profitable afternoon watching the grass grow, and smelling the lilacs, and waving a good afternoon to passers-by.

The activities that porches promote have nothing to do with the hustle of modern consumer culture, and are all the more precious for that. In fact, those seeking an antidote to urban urgency are willing to drive for hours to places like Cape May, N.J., to do little more than sit around on porches for a week or two.

It's interesting, then, that such a boon to the indolent lately has been given the most difficult of tasks: saving civilization.

That's not as silly as it sounds.

Neighborhood summit

A porch represents a middle ground in our lives: It is where our private lives meet the world outside and it allows us to appreciate the best of both. It lets us partake of nature without leaving home. We can engage in solitary pursuits there, or invite the world to sit and talk awhile. One need not be a dewy-eyed nostalgia fan to recognize that such a middle ground is just what the doctor (well, the sociologist and the city planner) ordered for our troubled society. The neighborly eye-on-the-street that porch-sitters provide helps banish our collective rootlessness and anonymity, and helps make our neighborhoods real people-places again.

"I'm sure there was less crime when people sat on their porches," says Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a Baltimore designer and preservationist.

She has researched the history of her 1887 house, and learned from a former owner that its porch was used almost daily for family ice cream time. Like most of her Charles Village neighbors, Ms. Shapiro doesn't indulge in much front-porch sitting. Still, she devoted one week of summer evenings to just this pastime.

"I really enjoyed it," she says. "It was very peaceful. My street looks like a little stage set at night. All the buildings are little gems."

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a Miami husband-and-wife architectural team, understand the porch mystique. They designed every element of Seaside, a planned town in the Florida panhandle, to increase interaction among neighbors and foster a sense of community. Seaside's houses have porches and white picket fences for that small-town feel.

Peter Calthorpe, a San Francisco architect, is also a believer. Laguna West, the Sacramento County (Calif.) development he designed for Apple Computer employees, is a pedestrian-friendly "new village" in which houses were purposely built with front porches.

"I think porches have both a symbolic element and a realistic element," Mr. Calthorpe says. "Symbolically, they turn towards the community as well as inward. More practically, when you have porches you see kids playing out front, because a parent is bound to be watching, somewhere."

Teen-agers like porches, he says, because they like to be seen. And adults, while keeping an eye on the children, can make friends. Some Laguna West residents have told the architect that they are getting to know their neighbors for the first time in their suburbs-dwelling lives.

Victorian influence

The American porch first appeared in the 18th century, influenced by the temple-inspired designs of the Neoclassical movement and the vernacular architecture of the West Indies. But it took the leisure-loving Victorians to popularize the porch and its attendant lifestyle.

As the 19th century progressed, the whole country, it seems, fell in love with porches, from stately wrap-around verandas to cozy outdoor "parlors" festooned with frilly gingerbread woodwork.

While the porch's appeal crossed regional barriers, it was especially suited to the South. Broad verandas upstairs and down provided cooling shade for the interior rooms, and allowed windows to be open for cross-ventilation even during the rainy season. Porches could also be furnished as breezy retreats when the heat and humidity inside got too oppressive. In those days before air conditioning, many houses in warmer latitudes had second-floor sleeping porches in back as well, usually screened to keep bugs at bay.

One architectural style with which Baltimoreans are familiar, the bungalow, has the same cooling benefits. The bungalow's place of origin is India (the Hindi word means "from Bengal"). This house style featuring a low-slung porch was brought to the West by British colonials in the 19th century, and remained widespread through the 1920s.

Several technological, aesthetic and cultural changes brought an end to the porch's reign.

Air conditioning lured families inside in the summer. Radio and TV proved to be more compelling entertainments than people-watching. And with more of us living in sprawling suburbs and zipping around in cars, there wasn't much natural beauty or street life left to watch, had split-level tract houses provided a vantage point for doing so.

As recreation became more family-based and less community-oriented, it relocated to backyard patios and decks, where neighbors could visit if invited. These venues lacked the element of serendipity a porch offered.

However, with the renaissance of enthusiasm for Victoriana, porches are again in demand. New house plans often come complete with front porches and verandas as the public turns on to the fact that they are welcoming, charming, environmentally friendly and, yes, a civilizing force.

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