SOME YEARS AGO, MY NEXT-DOOR neighbor, eager to improve the appearance of his row house (which, like mine, faced south), had the roof removed from the front porch. My neighbor wasn't alone in his decision. All over this city rich in covered porches, people were snatching off their porch roofs and, in many cases, demolishing the entire porch, replacing it with steps, usually tastefully curved, ascending to the front door.
The removal of my neighbor's porch roof did change the looks of his house, possibly improving them, depending on one's taste, and it did let more light into his living room, especially during the summer months, when the sun rides high in the sky and more light (and heat) inside is not necessarily a good thing. It also meant that on rainy days my neighbor's newspaper got wet while mine did not. But more important, removing the roof changed the personality of his porch, turning it into an exposed platform on which no one ever sat again.
Washington architect John Wiebenson calls the porch "the transition zone between outside and inside," an area that eases our passing from the public milieu into our private sanctuary and vice versa. text continued on page 68 photographs continued on next page Few of us would go outside wearing night clothes and bathrobes, but on a front porch around the corner from my house, a couple so costumed sit almost every morning, sipping coffee and passing sections of the paper back and forth. Even though they are perfectly visible from the street, the pair don't seem "outside" in the way they would if seated, say, in chairs on their front lawn. So strong is the aura of "almost-insideness" on many covered porches, especially screened porches, that strangers headed for the front doorbell hesitate to cross the porch floor to apply finger to button. Walking onto such a porch without specific invitation seems like an intrusion.
Before the spate of house "improvements" that swept Washington in the 1960s and early 1970s, porches were among the glories of many, perhaps most, houses built in the area between 1880 and 1940. They came in many forms: front porches, side porches, back porches, sleeping porches and, on some of the grand, sprawling detached houses of Cleveland Park and other once-suburban areas, wraparound porches that offered a little of everything. On the wraparound porch, warm-weather activities might range from sipping iced tea and gossiping in the front, to courting on the side porch in a gently rocking glider (or preferably a swing hung from hooks screwed into the porch ceiling), to cranking the ice-cream freezer, shucking corn and stringing beans in the back.
Porches weren't necessarily limited to ground level. In the Washington of my childhood, before the days of air conditioning, screened sleeping porches climbed the backs of row houses like morning glories, and the back bedrooms opened onto them. In the hottest weather, they offered the only hope to be had of a whisper of breeze. The experience of sleeping on a sleeping porch, lulled by the hum of the resting city, is a lost one for most of us now. Almost everywhere, what once was a sleeping porch has been closed in, insulated and converted into an additional bedroom. Sleeping in an air-conditioned room is doubtless more restful, but it will never compare with gazing out at a starlit sky on a steamy night from the coolness of percale sheets.
Life lived on the porch permits many people to escape the isolation that characterizes the typical home of today. In the last years of her life, one of my neighbors, a widow, spent hour after hour on warm days sitting on her porch, just watching. At first the constant surveillance was unnerving. Why was she watching us so closely? To whom did she report? In time, though, we learned that the neighbor rarely was judgmental about what she saw. She simply preferred the human comedy unfolding on the street to anything her television set had to offer.
Now, after years of neglect and downright abuse, porches appear to be enjoying something of a revival. As I move about the city of an evening, I notice families who have abandoned the television set within to dine, play cards or simply chat on their porches. Near my office most afternoons, a teen-age boy rocks to and fro in the swing hanging from his porch. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he just stares meditatively into the distance, and seeing him I remember from my own youth the bittersweet waves of loneliness that intermittently swept across me when I rocked by myself in a glider.
The fashionable decks that are sprouting like mushrooms on houses throughout the area are surely little more than porches masquerading under another name to disguise plebeian origins. A deck shaded by an awning -- another accouterment banished in the 1960s that is threatening a comeback -- is psychologically identical to a covered porch, whatever its owner chooses to call it. Even the growing legions of condominium residents are not entirely to be denied the porch experience. Toward the end of the afternoon rush hour, raise your eyes as you drive past the new condos on Wisconsin Avenue and other arterial streets, and you'll see the condo dwellers shoehorned onto their tiny balconies having cocktails as they watch the traffic honk its way home.
Depending on its decor, design and setting, a porch can be many things: a leafy glen, a stirring overlook, a floral bower, a sunswept nook, a safe haven against the terrors of the night. More than the well-trimmed lawn, more than the lovingly tended garden, it is a taming, a domestication, of the wild outdoors, bending and shaping it to our use without shutting away its pleasures entirely -- as inevitably we must when finally, reluctantly, we walk inside the house and close the door. ::