Made in the Shade

By Michael Dolan
Sunday, August 20, 2006

A porch evokes memory and possibility -- friends hailed, strangers met, peace made, the grace of time unaccounted for, the endurance of the ordinary, the irreproducible moment.

A porch summons images out of history and invented truth -- Jefferson and Washington, Tom Joad and Boo Radley, Mary dancing while the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely.

A porch declares to the world: You may have more money but no sweeter a breeze; fancier furnishings but no finer a gander at fireflies; grander digs but no greater a claim on the world. Set a spell. We'll talk. You'll see.

Porches lend houses soul, as eyebrows lend faces character. They bring a neighborhood into focus, framing the view for those who, in urban theorist Jane Jacobs's felicitous phrase, would put "eyes upon the street."

As many of us lately have rediscovered or never did forget, a porch is a great good place.

That's why, in a lengthening revival, we see so many porches going up on new homes, so many old porches enjoying makeovers, so many ramblers and ranches and split-levels acquiring porches they never had. Even self-aggrandizing mansionettes are sporting florid blurts of porch-like substance, useless but sufficient to be seen, which is the real point.

The porch is as American as cherry pie, which is to say it has deep foreign roots -- Africa (which conceived the front porch as social center), India ("veranda" and "bungalow" came from Hindi), Italy (font of neoclassicism, popularized by Vicentine genius Andrea Palladio), ancient Rome (whose civic porticos Palladio recast residentially), even more ancient Greece (whose architectural homework the Romans copied and where, on the Athenian stoa poikile, or "painted porch," Zeno of Citium taught the enduring philosophy we call stoicism) -- but a distinctly homegrown character.

Kidnapped from Africa, the porch came to Brazil, then to the Caribbean, to the mainland Southern colonies, to their seaboard cities, and on and on. Eventually, the African idea of the porch as a familial social space was overlaid with the classical Greek design -- which had been used not for personal space, but in civic chambers and temples.

These concepts converged in the New World, at first rurally rough-and-tumble, then evolving a sophisticated Palladian mien that begat Greek and Gothic Revival and Victorian variations. By 1900, the porch was ubiquitous; the Historic American Buildings Survey at the Library of Congress documents porches in Anchorage.

But the porch's truest nature has accents of the South, where meteorology and antebellum society demanded a shelter from the elements that also, for better and for worse, nailed status like a skin to a pole. Hence the big house, in its white-pillared egregiousness, but also porches on the slave shacks out back, a social spectrum later filled with infinite adaptations.

So, given its sub-Mason-Dixonly coordinates, the Washington area ought to be dense with porches, old and new, great and small, humble and gorgeous, formal and in-.

And it is.

In rowhouse ranks across Mount Pleasant and off Capitol streets North and East, on Gold Coast villas and Cleveland Park's Queen Annes, by bungaloid platoons in Palisades and Anacostia, staggered on Brookland's airy streets, in the streetcar suburbs of Mount Rainier and Cottage City, and Hyattsville and Berwyn Heights, and Maywood and Del Ray, and Glen Echo and Chevy Chase, and parks Takoma and Garrett and the rest, cresting Piedmont swells in Loudoun and Fauquier and resting on the die-flat Eastern Shore and its island jewelry, scores of thousands of porches make ours a city of porches set in a region of porches. Even when America tried to consign the porch to the dustbin of history, you hardly could get through a warm day hereabouts without noticing one, and on it folks, maybe challenging gravity in a glider, maybe playing guitars or a board game, maybe simply defying the capital's rampant careerism by doing absolutely nothing.

And folks like those are still there, even with TV and AC and Asian Tiger mosquitoes and drive-bys and the ever-rising storm of ambition.

Right now, someone is sitting grinning in the shade; or waving to some other someone, who visits awhile; or has friends arriving by whim at dusk, hauling cold ones to sip under the ceiling fan and staying far longer than intended on a school night, talking about those darned teenagers, some guy's excellent map collection, camping and vacations, before finally, reluctantly saying goodnight.

Idle chatter, you say.

Life itself, I say.

Michael Dolan, author of The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place, lectures on Washington history at Catholic University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company