“Dare you laze away your dwindling days with an exquisite view of the fleeting world?”
I’ll say right up front that my wife is the one who always wanted a porch. I grew up with a front porch at my childhood home, and I suppose I took it for granted. At the time there was barn across the road from us, which housed (or barned) cows and later pigs. It wasn’t a big barn, but it was popular with flies, and our porch, barely 50 yards across a two-lane road as the fly flies, became a killing zone. Swatting flies on the porch was a summertime necessity, and you didn’t have to be particularly accurate because the flies were so pervasive and large that there were times they seemed to cover the ceiling, corner posts and wide rails of the porch. It wasn’t quite as challenging as shooting rats at the old town dump with a .22, but I didn’t have to walk a mile and a half to slay flies.
There were peaceful and relaxing times on the porch, especially on summer evenings with a gentle breeze caressing your flushed cheeks. The barn eventually became vacant, ultimately torn down, and the fly population declined dramatically, allowing normal porch use. That all pretty much happened after I left the fold.
Mary and I had a small porch on our starter home in Williamsport, PA, and we even had a porch swing from which to watch the traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, pass on our shady, residential street. However, we were still in our twenties with small children then, and I was playing in softball leagues throughout much of the summer, along with odd hours at the newspaper where I worked as a reporter. This all combined to cut down on available porch time. The porch on our first home may have been far from spacious, but it was a porch.
When we moved back to this area in the summer of 1979, our house was porchless. We made good use of a picnic table positioned out front overlooking our tree-lined street and the green of the borough park, but it wasn’t the same as having a porch. This architectural deficiency was regularly mourned by Mary, and it became more pronounced as the years elapsed.
What is a porch, after all? It’s like being outside, but not quite because there is a roof to protect you from the elements. Porches are commonly covered, projecting structures in front of a doorway. We had something like that, but it was really just a canopy over the door that was just about large enough to accommodate two people standing. It fit the definition for me, but my wife wasn’t buying it. It seems she regarded a porch as being sufficiently large to contain a group of people availing themselves of assorted furniture, and that it should include some kind of rail as a unobtrusive separation from the outside world.
On a recent spring, as part of a siding and roofing job, we were able to work a porch into the equation. It spans about 15 feet between two large windows fronting our house and about 10 feet in width. It’s amazing how accommodating 150 square feet of floor space can be, and it has already accommodated a dozen, plus a dog, quite comfortably. Make that intimately. It turns out that it offers a superb view of both baseball fields on the park, and with a breeze it is a great place to sit at the end of a warm summer day. Our part of town, which we like to call the Improvement Grounds as it was labeled by town planners in the early 1900’s, also attracts a lot of walkers and joggers because it is fairly level and is comprised of a short circle (about a half-mile) inside a longer one (almost a mile), as well as the park itself with the ball fields, pavilion and tennis court. There is no better place in the world for a porch to be.
Porches are places to observe and to make observations, slightly elevated for a better view of your surrounding world. In the case of a balcony, which is a kind of porch, the view may be panoramic but not so accessible. It’s no accident that there is only one letter difference between porch and perch. That’s pretty much what you do on a porch. Front porches have traditionally been places for visiting back when people actually did such things. Deeper in the cities, the porches are known as stoops and are usually nothing more than a wide set of steps. Both are symbolic of neighborliness.
For some reason, you never hear about serial killers sitting on their porches, but you occasionally hear of them using one to bury the bodies beneath. A porch always vacant is a waste indeed, and you can assure vacancy with wafting odors of underlying decomposing bodies. (Might have gone too far with that one.)
Porches, Patios and Decks, Oh My!
There seems to be confusion about porches, patios and decks. There are decks with roofs on them, but generally you think of one as being uncovered. A front porch is accessible, inviting the world to your door—or at least to stop and talk a bit. Decks are more often out back, or away from the public view. They are situated for privacy and likely to be devoted to eating, drinking and assorted shenanigans. Patios don’t require any building or attaching and can be little more than a slab of concrete or configuration of flagstone out your back door. Like the deck, the patio is often secreted away from public view. You usually go through the house before you venture out on the patio.
A porch brings you into a house and is open with corner posts, probably rails. An enclosed porch has its own walls and windows which, to me, doesn’t seem so much like a porch as an addition. Generally, a porch is a place you can stay dry during a rainstorm. Patios won’t keep you dry and decks may or may not. Decks have become more popular than porches, especially in rural areas, and even more elaborate. If you live out in the middle of nowhere, there is probably little reason to have a front porch. Not too many people, if any, walk by, and the vehicles that pass throw up a lot of dust. Decks are better than porches, I suppose, if you live in the middle of nowhere. (I don’t know where nowhere starts or ends, so the middle may be unmeasurable, as would be the case with my part of Pennsylvania — the Endless Mountains.)
Screened-in porches keep out the flies and obscure whoever is inside—if you can actually be inside when you are on a porch— and are not anywhere near as inviting as an unscreened porch. A sun porch is not to be confused with a sunroom; the latter being enclosed by windows on at least two sides. A sun porch is really nothing more than a porch facing either the rising or setting sun—an eastern or western exposure.
Obviously, now that I have a porch on which to meditate and contemplate, I’ve at last learned to appreciate its essence. My whole perception has changed. It has become a favorite place to be, and much more enjoyable when you don’t have to spend most of your porch time swatting flies.
(This is an expanded newspaper column from about a dozen years ago. It is about something that has gained importance during the pandemic, whether you are urban or rural, making sheltering in place more endurable. The original, shorter version was written shortly after my wife, Mary, and I had a new front porch added to our home, compliments of Erich Barrett.)