Life On The Porch

The Herald | Life On The Porch

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Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Marlena Sloss

The front porch is more than just an outdoor extension of a house. Lives intersect on the porch. Life slows down on the porch. Life unfolds on the porch.

“That’s pretty well where everyone congregates,” said Diane Carie of Dubois.

She and her husband, Terry, have lived in their home for 36 years, and they utilize their front porch a lot. “Anybody who comes over to the house,” she said, “if it’s a nice day, we all end up on the porch.”

Jim Lechner’s front porch in Jasper has a different atmosphere.

“That’s my relaxing spot,” he said. “Sometimes I read. But the biggest part of the time, I just watch and look around, just watch the traffic go by and just keep an eye on the neighborhood.”

The porch is traditionally known as a room or gallery located in front of a building’s entrance. It comes from the Latin word porticus and the Greek word portico. It’s described as an entry to a classical temple, and in the Middle Ages, the porch was known as a cathedral’s vestibule where congregrants would socialize before and after service, according to Scott Cook, who wrote “The Evolution of the Front Porch” for the University of Virginia.

Nowadays, the porch is commonly known as the structure that is outside the main walls of a building or house. It’s a safe space, a place where you can invite others into your home without actually going inside your house.

Diane’s porch is the entertainment hub for the six children she babysits on the weekdays. She has a combination of her granddaughter and grandson, her great-great niece and great-great nephew, and two young friends.

Diane Carie of Dubois plays with her great-great niece and nephew, Hallie Knieriem, 4, and Drew, 1, at her home on April 7. Diane and her husband, Terry, have a wind chime collection on their porch. When she is watching kids, they often go outside and sit on the porch to give Terry quiet time inside.

“That’s where the kids go out. We play on the porch,” Diane said. “I have a fairy garden out on the side, and they play in that. We put a swimming pool on the porch when it’s warm. And they have toys, trucks and cars out there.

“We do a lot on that little porch.”

She has a gate up to keep the kids contained. “I don’t want the little ones to run out and run into the street,” Diane said. “But I believe kids need to get out and get fresh air.”

Diane is used to her porch being on display. “We’re used to everyone coming by and looking,” she said. “We have people drive by and watch us. We have a little boy here, and his papaw drives by every day to say hi. The neighbor kids go by and they have to check out the fairy garden and my whirly gigs.”

Along with the playthings for her young charges, Diane’s porch also has wind chimes — about 15. She started collecting them after seeing a movie years ago where the chimes blowing in the wind alerted that the aliens were coming.

“I collected them over the years. I have some from my mom when she passed away, and when my brother passed away. My husband thinks the neighbors will run us off if I get another one,” Diane said with a laugh.

Cook wrote that the American front porch documents the history of American life, as it connects people to nature.

“For a majority of our nation’s history, America did exist as an agrarian nation, and it praised its ‘purple mountain majesties’ and endless forests,” he wrote. “Yet along with the idealization of nature came an ideal to control it. Americans’ ‘manifest destiny’ induced them to conquer nature, by building towns and cities, clearing forests, and otherwise civilizing the land. The front porch provided a compromise for these two opposing American ideals and connected human control, in the form of the house, to nature and the wilderness outside it.”

Jim likes to watch nature from his porch.

“During a nice rain, I like to sit out and smell the freshness of the rain and look at the beauty you got around you, of what He gave us,” Jim said. “You sit there and get some of that fresh air and sunshine, there’s nothing like it.”

He knows his neighbors, but not many are often out on their porches. “Most people just kinda stay in, and get out when they have to mow the yard or something like that,” Jim said. “Some neighbors have front porches. But it doesn’t seem to be too many people who use them like they did years ago.”

The style of front porches changed over the years as their usage changed, local architectural historian Ron Flick explained.

“They had their heyday after the Civil War, up until about 1910,” he said. “They morphed from a Victorian porch — a wraparound porch that were strong statements and kind of independent of the structure — into a Craftsman-era porch — which is a little lower and more integrated into the organic structure to the house.”

In the WWI, WWII and post-war era, porches were not as popular across the country.

According to Cook, this can be attributed to technological changes, including the development of the automobile. The front porch was no longer the place to be for relaxing with nature, he explained, because the “exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy.”

In addition, cars “allowed for Americans to move further distances from their workplace to build homes on less expensive property,” Cook wrote. The ‘automobile-dependent suburbs’ did not feature front porches, due to the omnipresence of the automobile.”

“If there were any kind of porches being built they were kind of small,” Flick said. “Everybody started going to the backyard, patio, deck area. And then you had suburban flight, and people wanting to isolate themselves.”

The creation of air conditioning and television also helped with the decline in the porch’s popularity

“Providing a cool environment indoors, the front porch was no longer needed as a cool shaded area during the day or as a place to enjoy the cool night air,” Cook wrote. “Families remained indoors comfortably, and a primary use of the front porch was no longer needed.”

And television provided entertainment indoors. “As a result, family life shifted from the porch to a family room or TV room,” Cook wrote, “where families could watch the evening news, sporting events or the early sitcoms, all while enjoying the newly invented ‘TV dinner.’ No longer would families relax outside on the front porch.”

But for those homes that already had porches, like many of the older homes in Dubois County, outdoor socialization still happened.

“At the home place, we had a front porch with a swing on it,” Jim said. “Ninety-five percent of the time we were out on that porch swing.”

Back then, he spent most of his time outside, and the neighbors would visit and socialize on the porch, he recalled. “That’s how you kept in touch with everybody,” Jim said. “It’s different nowadays, compared to when I was growing up.”

Jim Lechner of Jasper reads Consumer Reports on his porch on April 3. “I spend a lot of time out here,” Jim said. “I can get sunshine and look out and see what’s going on and keep an eye on the neighborhood.”

That’s how Lisa Chatman connects with her neighbors now. After she leaves work in Ferdinand, she tends to relax on her front porch in Jasper. “I’m relaxing, talking to family and friends,” she said. “It beats sitting in the house all the time.”

She socializes with the people who are also outside. “I talk to a lot of people while I’m sitting out there,” she said. “I’m very friendly, don’t know a stranger. I talk to everybody. I’ve met a lot of my neighbors just from them walking by.”

The porch enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s and '90s. “There was a return to pre-war simplicity,” Flick said. “The houses started getting bigger in the '90s, and they started putting porches back on many of them.”

As a kid in the '80s in St. Louis, my front porch played a big role in my upbringing. The kids in my neighborhood ran around as a pack. As soon as we were done with homework, we were all out and about, going up and down the street, taking breaks on each others’ porches.

I didn’t live on a busy street, so there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic to contend with, but we didn’t play in the streets. The front yards were small. And I didn’t dare go to my friends’ backyards without my mom’s permission. I had to stay in the front and along the sidewalk, where my mom could see me.

When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to get on a porch and stay there, if we wanted to stay outside longer. My porch was usually the one we sat on. It sat a little higher than most of the other porches. And there was plenty of room for a bunch of kids to sit on the porch itself or the stairs. And then, one by one, each friend’s parent would step out on their porch and call them inside. I was the last to go in, and the parents on the other porches would watch as I went into my house safely.

I was safe, protected, smelling like outside and happy.

Now, when I go visit, that childlike feeling returns, as there is usually a neighbor or two sitting on the porch with my uncle.

Blanca Villalobos of Huntingburg works on an online Spanish course through Vincennes University Jasper, her last class before graduating, on her porch on June 3.

Blanca Villalobos and her family enjoy the outdoors and connect to their neighbors while they are on their front porch in Huntingburg.

“My neighbor, Jerry, is always outside cleaning and mowing his lawn, so we’re always talking to him,” Blanca said. “And our neighbors that live in front of us, they help us with doing things. The last time we were painting, they came over and helped us paint. And I usually go over to their porch to hang around; we’re close to them.”

She spends time on the porch with her mom and sisters for a change of scenery. “We go out to relax on the porch, and to talk,” she said. “Sometimes we take food out there and we eat together.”

Blanca also sits on the front porch by herself at times, such as when she works on her online classes for Vincennes University Jasper. “It’s calming and relaxing,” she said. “And I can concentrate outside better than being inside with a lot of people.”

In the era of the coronavirus, the porch is playing a new role for connecting people safely. People visit each other from a distance, with one person standing next to their vehicle and the other on the porch. People drop off packages and cards of well wishes on each other’s porches. And people celebrate life on their porches.

In April, family and friends celebrated Jason Songer’s last chemotherapy treatment by having a parade go by his Huntingburg home as he and his family sat on the front porch.

“My daughters wanted to do something special for their dad,” Jason’s wife, Valerie, said. “This community has went above and beyond for us. It was a nice way to let him know that everybody was thinking about him.”

Jason is doing well and has been back to work full time for three weeks. The parade gave the family a chance to show their appreciation of those who supported them. “We were able to thank people as they drove by,” Valerie said.

They have lived in their neighborhood since 2008 and know their neighbors well. And they enjoy their porch as much as they can.

“This is the place where we usually congregate,” Valerie said. “Usually, every evening, I’m sitting out here. I love doing landscaping, and I have lots of flowers out here. I come out and take care of my plants, and water them all. On the weekends in the mornings, I sit here and drink my coffee.”

“I take pride in my front porch,” she said. “It gives me a sense of calmness.”