How America fell in love with the front porch

Book Bash author traces history of one of the country's favorite places

October 26, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

It's not a platitude to say that Michael Dolan sees the world from his porch.

In 1995, after he had designed and restored the porch attached to his bungalow in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, Dolan had a moment to drift to and fro on his glider and ponder the porch's "magnetic attraction to the American psyche."

Then, he began to read. Preliminary research proved the porch and its origins a fertile topic. And yet, "I found no single volume that explained the porch," Dolan says.

So he wrote a book called The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place (Globe Pequot, 2002, $24.95). Today, Dolan will discuss his book and sign copies at Book Bash, an annual benefit for Literacy Works held at Borders in Towson. More than 50 other authors also will participate in the event.

Dolan's curiosity took him beyond the American psyche to ancient Greece and Rome, Africa, India, South America and the Caribbean. The porch, he discovered, was a prism through which centuries of civilization that led to the conception of the United States and its founding tenets could be interpreted. The more Dolan learned, the better he comprehended "how the porch itself came to figure in my pursuit of happiness and maybe in yours, too."

The book's cover illustration, a shimmery photo by Dolan of a lovely Victorian porch with a waving American flag, epitomizes his ideal. "When I saw that image through the viewfinder of my camera, [I thought], 'This is getting at what I want to have, an iconic image ... the light exploding, the sense of home and comfort and safety and being in a place you really want to be.' "

Such icons don't just spring into existence fully formed. Like so many other props that support our lives, the porch as we know it evolved through the cross-pollination of cultures, continents and climates to become something that Dolan, 53, considers consummately American.

The word "porch" comes from portico, "the term for the airy, light-filled enclosures that graced the main streets of Roman towns," Dolan writes. He traces another design that presaged the modern porch to Venice. A typical Venetian merchant's house would include "an open pillared space called a loggia" that "permitted easy debarkation, with access to the storage areas at the back and the stairs to the office a flight up."

The sheltered, elevated outdoor living room that was common to African dwellings and imported by slaves to the New World was the most significant influence on the porch as we know it, Dolan says. Other influences were the veranda, whose origins were in India, and the architecture of Andrea Palladio, who refined the loggia in the 16th century. Palladio's ideas traveled to England and then to North America, as illustrated by Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and George Washington's Mount Vernon.

Here, the porch became an expression of the American experience, from the antebellum South to neighborhoods like Sudbrook Park in Pikesville, where rounded arches supported by columns speak of classical references.

Porches, Dolan notes, also belonged to the shacks photographed by Walker Evans to illustrate James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and belong to Baltimore's humbler rowhouses, where they serve the same social role as grander counterparts.

Dolan, who is married and has one son, ties together the disparate threads of porch history with breezy ease. His book project, though, didn't proceed as breezily. It took eight years from start to finish, says Dolan, also a filmmaker who has written scripts for National Geographic television and the Discovery Channel.

Slowed by work commitments, Dolan finally wrote a proposal that was eventually rejected by more than 30 publishers. In 2000, he was offered a modest advance to write The American Porch by Lyons Press, now an imprint of Globe Pequot. It has since entered a second printing.

Dolan used a chunk of that advance to travel to Italy, where he researched Palladio's impact on architecture. A highlight was a meeting with Antonio Foscari, an architectural historian, on the porch of the villa one of Foscari's ancestors commissioned Palladio to design 500 years earlier.

Dolan also interviewed folklorist Jay Edwards, who has written on the porch's origins in Africa, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Mark Twain scholar, who suggested that a former slave's life story related to the author while they perched on a porch in New York state "was a key step along the road to writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

The porch, Dolan writes, played an important role in landmark American films, including Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. Porches figure in other forms of American entertainment and arts as well as politics. Politicians stumped on front porches. Candidate William McKinley, notably, pretty much stayed on his own front porch in Canton, Ohio, Dolan writes.

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