In the Shelter (and Exposure) Of a Well-Loved Porch
A HOUSE (or apartment, tent, cabin, igloo) is a retreat. An escape. A bolt hole. A thing of interior spaces offering greater or lesser degrees of privacy.
Once inside, we shut out the world - theoretically at least; telephone, TV, mail, and newspapers may invade, it's true, not to mention neighbors, but so strong is our sense of within-ness that we manage to absorb them comfortably enough and make them part and parcel of our contained world. Home equals castle; still does.
Yet ever since arrow slits gave way to windows - when at last those who were living inside felt secure enough to indulge the delights of looking boldly out from the fortress they were beginning to call home - the builders and designers have explored every possible variety of jut and protrusion, shelf and projection, to make sure that "inside" is not completely cut off from "outside."
A number of such outgoing features have accrued names - the balcony, the veranda, the piazza, the porch. Others don't quite fall under any name, but variously function as rooms out of doors - of the house, but not exactly in it. Moving further out into the surrounding ground, we have terraces, patios, and decks: no longer rooms, but still extensions of indoors into outdoors, conversations between the private space and the public.
Yards and gardens can themselves be walled or hedged, small (or enormous) Edens, pockets of seclusion which enlarge the territory of the house, taking its living areas out under the sky. Such enclosed gardens are deliberately separated from the wilderness beyond, whether it happens to be rural or urban.
In cities, steps from door down to street - stoops - have often been appropriated as improvised settings ideal for loafing and lounging, for encounters with the passers-by, for meeting and gossiping and getting to know. Outside the building, the stoop may not be quite "as safe as houses," and isn't protected from the elements, yet it remains at least umbilically attached to indoors while offering escape from the oppressiveness of interiors without air conditioning.
But it's the porch (with due notice given to Romeo and Juliet's balcony) which somehow epitomizes just the right kind of balance between the intimate and the outgoing in house design. Heavy with memory, open to the waft of moldering autumn leaves and the smell of ocean or woodland, the scent of mown grass, falling apples, accessible to chipmunks and hummingbirds, the porch has become an indoor-outdoor space of nostalgia and sentiment. I imagine, but find it difficult to prove, that there's scarcely a rom antic Hollywood movie of a certain vintage that doesn't have a scene on the porch in it: the ideal place for boy meets girl. The porch seems about as American as hot dogs and sneakers.
The porch we are talking about isn't at all the abbreviated European appendage confined to little more use than sheltering you inadequately from rain while you hunt for the key to the front door: It is the extensive, generous cliche-porch of old American timber houses, from the greatest Long Island mansions to the meekest vernacular street house in the Midwest - the porch with steps up, gappy floorboards, overhanging roof-canopy casting it into deep shadow, the whole thing contained within a lineup of wo oden posts and balusters, simple or elaborate.
It might be just one side of the house. It might be back and front. Or it might - as in the architect-designed house that plays a crucial role in the Goldie Hawn/Steve Martin movie `Housesitter" - wrap round the entire building. In some of the 19th-century mansions in the deep south, the porch not only envelops the first floor in its skeletonic structure, but climbs to the upper floors as well: The whole building becomes one massive shadow-casting, breeze-passaging porch, like some beached Mississippi s teamer.
The porch is surely an indelible ingredient of the American imagination. In Westerns, seemingly absent-minded heroes creak meditatively back and forth in rockers waiting, waiting for the arrival down Main Street of the second-fastest gun in the West - and then action!
In "Firecreek" (1968), James Stewart, cowboy, plays hide and seek with some gun-happy wild man, in a kill-or-get-killed showdown which uses as its entire mise en scene - a porch. He even gets underneath it.
In "Oklahoma," the title number has the bride, groom, and assembled guests building their glorious choral crescendo in, on, and around the front porch: Gordon MacRae lifts Shirley Jones onto the railing on the final note, symbol of over-the-threshold. Earlier, Shirley Jones had positioned herself on a chair on the back porch and, singing "Out of My Dreams and Into Your Arms," she went out of her porch and into her dreams. The porch is vestibule to dreamland.
THE nearest those of us who live in northern European countries get to experiencing porches in the true American sense are in glazed "conservatories," sometimes in the past even more pretentiously called "loggias." They are modest descendants of the orangeries of great old country houses. The glass is a necessity. Our weather is too rarely hot enough for us to design outdoor rooms specifically to foster cool shade and attract some passing breath of air. Our climate is mercifully free of stifling summer h umidity - but the corollary is, we don't know what it's like to have a real porch.
On hot sunny days we just sit out in the garden - maybe we have a paved terrace, but it's not a necessity. We have our "garden furniture," but it spends most of its days in the garden shed. What do we know of the richesse of "appropriate furnishings" for the American porch?
Here from the turn of the century is what "Country Life in America" suggests: flower boxes, hanging plants, swinging seats, awnings, grass or rag rugs, steamer chairs, rockers, stools, floor cushions, lanterns, desks, and wicker everywhere. No doubt in Frank Lloyd Wright's 1930s "Fallingwater" villa in Bear Run, Pa., with its concrete parapets, verandas, and terraces reaching out into the natural world all around, the apt kind of furnishings would be little different: A porch is a porch is a porch.
"Porch" is the preferred word, but in 19th and early 20th century America it was just as likely to be called a veranda or piazza. For any self-respecting homeowner it became de rigeur. Mariana van Rensselaer, who wrote about gardens, stated in 1903: "It is hardly needful to-day to affirm that an American country house without a piazza is in every sense a mistake and a failure."
Another writer referred to "our piazza life." But if people went so far as to virtually live out there, were they less sensitive to hungry insects than we are today, or did they already screen in their porches - in which case wouldn't they have deprived it of much of its essential outdoorish quality? Somehow a screened porch suggests aviary.
So keen were people a hundred or so years ago on their verandas and porches that one owner of a southern villa described his as "noble" and visualized it as "the lounging place, conversazione, and often dining-room itself." In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" the narrator, Nick, has dinner with those over-rich ennui-ridden protagonists Daisy and Tom on their Long Island porch, and then walks round the house to the back porch for further desultory conversation after dinner.
Porches found their way now and then into novels and stories before the golden days of film made them their own. Herman Melville, way back, had dubbed a bunch of his stories "piazza tales" and had written one entire short story in which a piazza, built unconventionally on the north side of a house for the view, becomes a symbol of meditative outlook, of contemplation on the near and far, the subjective and objective, the inner and outer, perhaps even this life and afterlife. This strange story, with its grass-is-greener yearning, is simply called "The Piazza."
SHERWOOD ANDERSON'S 1919 "Winesburg, Ohio" describes isolated, inchoate people living in a small Midwestern town: "Hands," the second story in the book, is about a born schoolteacher who has washed up in Winesburg after being unjustly hounded out of another place and deprived of his calling. Anderson conveys understanding for this misunderstood man, suggesting "strange, beautiful qualities" in him rather than something perverse.
This story begins with Wing Biddlebaum - the man with the restless, expressive hands - walking up and down "upon the half decayed veranda of [his] small frame house." After an experience which exaggeratedly called to mind his earlier persecution, he had returned in panic to his house: "Upon the veranda of his house by the ravine," Anderson writes, "Wing Biddlebaum continued to walk up and down until the sun disappeared and the road beyond the field was lost in the grey shadows." The veranda seems the per fect stage for this obscure drama of an individual needing the protection of home, but wanting desperately to be freed from what is also his prison.
A memorable scene taking place on a porch is not fictional at all: In the first of Maya Angelou's autobiographical books, "I know why the caged bird sings" she recounts movingly how, as a small black child, she watched from inside the house when her "Momma" (actually her grandmother) won a courageous psychological victory singing hymns quietly on the porch while some scruffy "powhitetrash" girls did their best to bate and intimidate her.
In the end these dirty children leave without moving the woman one inch. An early lesson for Angelou in dignity. And the porch is integral: Her grandmother's right to be there, her strength not to retreat indoors, signify exactly what this event was about. That porch and her stance on it was the symbol of her right to own her ground and stand her ground. What occurred could not have taken place in any other part of her home. Her porch.
* Third in an occasional series. Previous essays ran Sept. 30 and Oct. 21.