SHERIDAN — Front porches are as American as apple pie, and the history of the American front porch is in some ways the history of the American people as well. From evolving status symbols and evolving functions to declining (and possibly resurging) use, the evolution of the porch is a uniquely American phenomenon.
The modern porch came to be approximately 125 years ago, when “porch” just meant a covered entry over a door.
The portico, the precursor of all porches, originated in ancient Greece as a formal framing device that defined an entryway and created an appearance of authority. The design element was brought to America by the British and were often used as status symbols. But porticos were also functional. In the hot summers of the South, full-height entry porticoes were built to take advantage of breezes and provide shade.
Later renditions called verandahs were built as full-length or wrap-around galleries, usually extensions of the main roof and fully integrated into the house. This shaded the house’s interior and allowed for windows to be left open in the rain.
What started as a symbol of status and evolved to a functional design ended up being a catalyst to the ideal American town as gathering on front porches created a feeling of community and family.
“In the evenings, as the outdoor air provided a cool alternative to the stuffy indoor temperatures, the entire family would move to the front porch,” Reynolds Price wrote in “Out on the Porch.” “The children might play in the front yard or the friendly confines of the neighborhood, while the parents rocked in their chairs, dismissing the arduous labors and tasks of the day into relaxation and comfort. Stories might be told, advice garnered, or songs sung. Whatever the traditions and manners of the family might be could be offered in this setting. What the family room or t.v. room of post World War II America would become, existed first as the front porch.”
Though porches remained popular nationwide for nearly 100 years, modern innovations created declines in use.
The growing number of cars in America and their increased use changed the streets.
Renee Kahn, author of the book “Preserving Porches,” wrote, “The front porch was no longer an idyllic setting where one could relax and commune with nature,” for the “exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy.”
The development of air conditioning further aided the decline of the front porch, decreasing the functionality of the porch as an escape from the stuffy indoors.
If automobiles and air conditioning were the initial ailments of porch sitting, the popularity of in-home televisions was likely its final demise.
Sheridan-based architect Sandy Baird said his clients are not requesting front porches, and haven’t for a while.
“As a design element, I don’t hear a demand for front porches regardless of where they are being built,” Baird said. “No one sits out on them anymore. If they are going to sit outside and enjoy the yard, they want to sit in the back where it’s private. They are so rarely involved as part of a new residence.”
But there are still many who long for days when people actually used their porch swings and spoke with fellow community members as they walked by.
Local architect Dan Stalker, who has been involved in the production of homes in the Powder Horn development since its inception, includes front porches on all of his home designs. He said it is an important part of his design identity.
“I like the idea of the way front porches relate to the activity on the streets, and hopefully that is a trend that will stay around in a small town like Sheridan,” he said. “In many communities, like ones I have worked on in California, there is no relationship between the home and the activity of the street other than the garage door. From my perspective it’s a very important component to have. It is how to make things better and more livable for the community.”