When I moved into my historic home, I found four square-shaped columns in the basement, a sure sign that there had been a front porch on the house at some distant time.
Shortly after moving in, a woman in her late 80s stopped by unannounced and introduced herself as a descendant of Dr. Ebenezer White whose family and descendants occupied my farmhouse from the 1770s until the mid-1940s. She brought with her many photographs of the house from the turn of the last century and, sure enough, they showed a large front porch featuring the very columns I found in my basement.
Further research suggested that the porch was removed sometime following World War II, and perhaps the owner at that time decided to save the columns just in case he wanted to build another porch someday. But that never happened.
Once a staple of American residential architecture, the front porch has all but disappeared in house plans today. When we in the real estate business see an occasional listing that promotes itself as a “front porch colonial,” we’re actually surprised. I suspect that most of us have a nostalgic feeling about this architectural feature that would denote socialization among family members and friends, but for the most part, the concept has had its day.
For most of us, that is.
My friend and fellow realtor Carol Christiansen recently told me that her husband, a contractor, is currently adding a front porch to their home.
“I grew up in Astoria, Queens and, while I didn’t have a front porch, our stoop was our gathering place for family and neighbors in the hot summer evenings,” she said. “Sometimes the dads would be playing cards on folding card tables, and the moms would have homemade lemonade and cookies for the kids. As I grew up, I always wanted my own home to have a front porch where my friends and family could gather, just like in the movies.”
Carol’s dream was not to be realized, however, for a long time.
“My first three homes – a raised ranch, a contemporary, then a colonial – all lacked a front porch,” she said. "My husband and I later rented an old haunted Victorian with a front porch and I loved it, but I didn’t own it. After that, we bought a cottage which my husband is now expanding and the most important addition will be my front porch, at last. This is where I’ll read, meditate, see my neighbors and just watch the cars drive by. How many people get to have a childhood dream come true?”
The front porch has a long history. In his informal but detailed book, “The Front Porch and Its Architectural Career” (Lyons Press, 2002), Michael Dolan traces its origins to many sources, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to bungalow appendages used in India, from which the British borrowed the concept. With further influence of a pre-colonial African house front that became popular in the Carribean, the English introduced the concept to America, starting in the south where the climate demanded an outside living space with cross-breezes.
The reason that the porch proliferated in the mid 1800s was because of industrialization and social influences that created a considerable leisure class, free from the drudgery of having to tend to endless daily chores. With this new leisure came the necessity for an area to enjoy more free time, and the front porch was an obvious place.
But for every movement, there is a counter movement and the rise of technology was met with a new interest in nature and the American landscape, as seen in our own Hudson River School of painting. And by the 1840s and 1850s, the works of Emerson and Thoreau would provide an idealized vision of nature, offering an escape from the industrialization of the cities. Socially, nature and our nation’s landscape were taking on new importance in our consciousness in the countryside, and cities soon followed suit by creating parks, Central Park the most notable among them.
By the end of the 19th century, the front porch was ubiquitous and could be found in the most remote areas as well as closely-knit neighborhoods in cities and spaced out plots in the suburbs.
But right after World War II, the porch started its fall from grace with the advent of air conditioning, automobiles and a change in social patterns. The porch lost its social function as Americans chose to stay indoors or on a back patio or deck which would afford more privacy. And, of course, the computer with its games and social media dealt the final death blow. In effect, today, Facebook is everyone’s front porch.
Dolan notes that front porches built now are more a nostalgic throwback to another time, but people rarely actually populate them anymore. They are built to suggest what people would do if they had the time to do it, he notes. I have the feeling, however, that my friend Carol will be the exception.
Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (www.PrimaveraHomes.com), affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a marketing practitioner (www.PrimaveraPR.com). For questions or comments about the housing market, or selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.