On those evenings when the sky turns deep purple and veins of lightning etch the clouds, Wayne Wadson and his family do not cower indoors. Instead, they adjourn to their new front porch.

"It's a great place to sit and watch a storm," said Wadson, 30, a hospital administrator who lives in a recently constructed Victorian-style condominium in Upper Marlboro. "I love my front porch. It's why we picked this place."

The back porch is something else: a utilitarian drop-off point for the dog food, the muddy sneakers, the toolbox, the trash. The deck, with its modern, geometric lines and social overtones, also is different.

But the front porch, which is making a comeback after 50 years of neglect by builders and buyers of new homes, is a philosophical place. It is a spot for sitting and thinking, sitting and reading, sitting and watching the world go by and, of course, just sitting.

"My porch is very soothing to me," said James Henderson, a 45-year-old machinist whose Takoma Park home represents the older version of the front porch.

"I read the paper. I watch the cars. I catch the breeze when it comes by," he said.

Many builders and developers, taking a cue from the charm of more venerable structures, are adding porches to new houses.

"It's a trend back toward more ornamentation," said Bob Kimberlin of the American Institute of Architects. "It's a modified Victorian style, and that includes porches."

The Wadsons live in a new development called Marlborough Towne that includes pale blue, green, yellow and beige row houses with wraparound porches and curlicue trim in the $70,000-to-$90,000 price range.

Intercontinental Construction Co., a Landover-based firm, is building a development near Largo called Victorian Hills featuring new homes with old-fashioned front porches.

And while no figures are available on the number of new developments incorporating the trend, architects and builders from Northern Virginia to Texas apparently have porches in mind.

"It's nice to drive by and see people sitting on porches," said Ellen Cantor, executive secretary of the Northern Va. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"It's a turn back to small-town values and a true American-type spirit," she said.

Porches, after all, are "a uniquely American invention," said Clem Labine, publisher of the Old House Journal, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based newsletter.

He said they first became popular during the second half of the 19th century.

"During the Colonial era," Labine said, "you either had a plain front door or a portico, which is nothing more than an architectural emphasis of the door and not a living space. That's because during the early settling of this country, nature was a hostile factor, something to be feared. Nature could kill you."

By the mid-19th century, life was more civilized and that attitude had changed.

"Then came the Victorian love of nature," Labine said, "and that porch, that extended living space, symbolized harmony with nature."

The porch passed from vogue when the turn of the century brought a Colonial revival. Labine attributes the change to the advent of the automobile; people no longer sat on porches and watched other people walk by.

As the years passed, suburbia blossomed and a brick structure sometimes called the ranch house -- porchless, except for a small stoop -- was predominant.

It was only a few years ago that the Victorian revival began and the porch began to recapture its lost influence.

Labine and others caution, however, that the porch, while fashionable, may not be for everyone.

"I love porches," Labine said, "but they are a headache to keep up. They're exposed and so they're subject to weathering and rot. Keeping the latticework painted is a chore. I think the ultimate luxury is a wood porch."

Accordingly, the personal philsophy of the prospective buyer determines the value of a porch.

"For the romantically inclined buyer, a porch may add several thousand dollars to the value of a house," Labine said. "But a hard-headed realist might look at a porch and want to take a few thousand dollars off. Someone who views the house as a machine for living might find a porch extraneous."

Not David and Judy Padgett; for them, the porch on their almost-new house near Largo is the place to unwind after a long day's work.

On a recent evening, David Padgett, 37, smoked a cigarette and flipped through a newspaper. Judy Padgett, 32, gazed studiously across the street. Daughter Kim, 13, idly ate a peppermint stick, one leg braced against a porch post.

"I'm just wondering why the people across the street paint the bottoms of their trees white," said Judy Padgett, revealing the subject of her study.

"The reason I'm sitting here," said David Padgett, as he turned a page, "is because I'm too tired to go in the house."