Michael Dolan, a writer and television producer, provides a look back at the origins of the American porch and its architectural career.
The exact origins of the American porch are nebulous. There are many sources that could have provided the seed: the Greek stoa (grand columns and origin of the word stoicism), Italian loggias as crafted by grandmaster Andrea Palladio, and the Indian bangla, or bungalow, from which the British borrowed their concept of porches. The American version of the porch was, as Dolan points out, probably a mix of elements borrowed from here and there:
Besides the combination of the precolonial African housefront with the Arawak bohio that had become so popular in the Carribean, there were other treatments. The Dutch introduced the stoop. Spanish colonists built portals, enclosures they’d used in Cuba and Mexico. And, as the English came to dominate North America, they brought their beloved Palladian loggia. All these elements blended into what we know as the porch through a process folklorists call “creolization,” an intermingling of two or more cultural patterns that produces something new.
Dolan traces the early history of the porch in the South to its adoption all across the country. The trend was spurred on by the media, and ideas of a good life at home always included a porch. Dolan points out by means of examples that the porch was also a place where the “norms of social inequality” were less stringent.
The porch started its fall out of grace right around the end of World War II. The advent of air conditioning, automobiles, and a change in social patterns all contributed toward the porch’s slide. It lost its social function because Americans increasingly wanted privacy.
Dolan skillfully describes the various architectural movements and the role of the porch in them — the Arts & Crafts movement and New Urbanism that finally was responsible for the revival of the porch. Towns such as “Seaside” in Florida became the forebears of this new revival. Dolan also describes the various styles of houses — Cape Cod, Ranch, even the “snout houses” (where the garages stick way out front eclipsing the front door), and it is interesting to see the role of the porch in these houses.
Dolan’s informal history sometimes is a bit too informal. At one point he uses quotes from builders at a trade show to fill in a couple of pages. He feels very strongly about porches; it was Dolan’s own, in fact, that spurred him to write this book. While whole-hearted endorsement is not necessarily a bad thing, his strong opinions sometimes get in the way of objectivity. Dolan’s voice and views are so strong (“The deck was a bad idea whose time will never really come.”) that The American Porch often ends up reading like an opinion piece rather than a history lesson.
Dolan tries to be funny in The American Porch but he often ends up sounding cocky instead:
I’d thought my payment would rent at least a glimpse of the interior, but noooooooo. The count explained that there were no decorations or paintings inside, so the villa wasn’t open to tourists — not even the loggia, which was the whole reason I’d paid him his damned 80,000 lire.
The American Porch is a good trip down nostalgia lane and there are some interesting nuggets of information thrown in. The porch has made a comeback, but Dolan admits:
Of course, for an American porch really to be an American porch, it has to have some Americans on it. Latter-day porches often honor that principle in the breach. Instead of serving as community-oriented centers of conviviality and welcome, these porches stand, with their perfectly placed rockers and adroitly arranged bibelots, as illustrations of the hospitality folks would extend if only they weren’t so busy being busy, and if only being sociable didn’t intrude so much in their private lives.
Dolan is so in love with the porch that he desperately wants it to come back and is ever optimistic about its revival. The sad truth, though, is that the times when true porch culture abounded, when a porch was accompanied by a strong social component -- “summer nights, the rasp and chitter of bugs, the call-and-response chorus of greeting and counter-greeting exchanged with passersby, the kiss stolen” -- firmly slipped into the realm of nostalgia.
“Simply put, the front porch is too good an idea to be allowed to slip away, even if the hospitality we display is more theoretical than real,” says Dolan. That may be so, but without its attendant “hospitality” or porch culture, has the porch really made a comeback? Sadly, the porch’s revival as a mere architectural add-on sounds as artificial as the “cosmetic shutters” Dolan derides in his book.