Portico: The Comfort of Porches

On the Porch, by Justin Smith, 1934

 The porch is a symbol of American coziness.  If you grew up in an old house, you spent the summer on the porch reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Women in Love, drinking Diet soda and laughing with dieting friends, and waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio. Over the years, I have perched on milk boxes, swings and rocking chairs on porches.  Porch-sitters used to chat with passers-by.  By the time I was born, though, people whooshed by in cars rather than on foot.  

Although the concept of the porch goes back to the ancient Greek – the stoa, a portico, was a place where Stoic philosophers gathered – the English word porch is derived from the Latin word, portico, which means porch but also refers to the colonnade, arcade, or piazza.  

The ghosts of philosophers linger on the empty porches in towns and cities.  I am surprised to pass old houses in prosperous neighborhoods where the front and side porches are perpetually deserted.  I love the beautiful houses but wonder about people who pay for chemically-produced weedless green lawns, yet don’t use their porches:  these might of course be cozier if the lawn weren’t toxic. 

There is a movement in architecture away from cozy houses.  In new suburban developments,  the middle-class dream houses look stark and inhospitable.  The developers’ by-the-number house kits seem not to include the porch as an optional add-on.   A porch might provide a little shade until the trees grow. 

Judging from the newspaper, which runs full-page features on million-dollar houses that resemble Osama bin Laden’s compound before it was bombed, the nouveau riche owners go in for open-floor plans, spas, and outbuildings, not porches. They are prepared to fend off a militia or Martian on their lonely acreages and gated communities, but there are no porches and very few trees. 

There are porches in American literature to remind us of porch culture. 

Southern literature is rich in porches. The Southern writer Caroline Gordon was partial to the image of the porch, which appears in her short story, “The Brilliant Leaves,” and the novel, The Women on the Porch.  In William Faulkner’s novels, characters lounge on the porch (or in the parlor behind closed curtains). And in the first chapter of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara sits on the porch, courted by the Tarleton twins, but before the end of the picnic, she will have moved into the yard, where she attracts other girls’ boyfriends.  

We also associate Midwestern towns with porches. Characters sit on porches in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead tetralogy, set in Iowa.  Willa Cather’s magnificent novels and short stories, often set in Nebraska, also feature women on the porch: in her novel, A Lost Lady, the Forrester’s house is “encircled by porches, too narrow for modern notions of comfort, and supported by the fussy, fragile pillars of that time.” In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Mars Is Heaven,” astronauts land on a mysterious green lawn on Mars, where there is a Victorian house with a porch, its swing moving in the breeze…  That can’t be right!

Do let me know about your favorite porches, literary, architectural, or other. 

2 thoughts on “Portico: The Comfort of Porches”

  1. My favorite porch is my own. It was a screened porch for many years, originally there as a place to escape to in the strong heat. But it had just a cement floor and the screen would get torn. Jim was worried how much it would cost us to enclose it, but I hired a man who charged less and now it is beautifully enclosed. It has a deep rug on the floor, two comfortable chairs. Five bookcases, two wide windows facing front of the block. I have my DVD sets in two, and books in the others. A radio. A cat bed. A stationary bike. In summer in the morning sun floods so I call it my sunporch.

    1. Ellen, I love enclosed porches. I have known others who enclose their porches, and they do become the favorite cozy room in the house! And they have the windows so you feel you’re outdoors! Yes, we want to make these porches cozy for ourselves.

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