Where Have All The Porches Gone?
edited: Friday, August 06, 2004
By John Richard Lindermuth
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, August 06, 2004
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Architecture as a barometer of social relations
The front porch began disappearing from the American architectural scene with the advent of televison and life has not been the same since.
The elimination of the porch and the fascination with television were significant factors in a societal schism initiated by involvement in World War II. Yet, the significance of the two events has either been ignored by socio-historians or accepted simply as a cultural change following a technological advance.
The decline of the porch marked a turning away from the open and neighborly-cooperative spirit that had prevailed prior to the war and adoption of a more self-centered attitude that continues to this day.
While many might view the porch as a mere architectural fixture, its significance as a barometer of social relations can be traced through the history of the nation.
In the colonial period, it was not a design factor in the predominant Federal or Georgian styles of architecture. A portico on the front might indicate a semblance of openess to one's neighbors but the primary social attitude was one of self-reliance. Socio-political division between loyalty to the crown and the quest for independence was not conducive to the trust necessary for a uniform spirit of cooperation.
The presence of porches on some farm homes of the period might appear to conflict with the theory. However, these aberrant porches were more likely meant as sites for work not suitable indoors, as places of exile for the squalling and brawling excess of children necessary to farm families in those days and to serve as a barrier between the domestic sanctuary and the outside world.
After independence, the portico broadened to a true porch, reflecting the desire for closer contact with neighbors and the necessity of embracing a more cooperative relationship with them in order for the fledgling nation to survive as an entity.
The true period of the porch evolved during the Victorian era when it became a statement of status expressing the character of the American psyche, expansionist, flamboyant and class-conscious. Broad verandas embraced the front of the home and spawned adjuncts on the sides, rear and, often, overhead as balconies. The porch on which a visitor was entertained was a clear statement on his relationship with the family.
This xenophobic position is further illustrated in the nation's adoption of a spirit of us against them, an isolationist attitude that prevailed until World War I. We sought (demanded) trade with other nations and pursued a role in determining global destinies yet imposed embargoes, limited immigration and resisted participation in such ventures as the League of Nations.
The latent participation in World War I broke down the barriers for involvement in the next war, though that was prompted as much by a desire for revenge (over Pearl Harbor) and survival instinct as it was by moral and global concerns.
World War II fragmented prevailing societal attitudes by introducing millions of Americans to a wider world, new ideas, scientific advances, collapse of old religious and moral standards and the rise of a new political threat (communism).
Recoiling from the horrors they had witnessed, Americans turned inward, seeking respite from pain in a binge of materialism and egocentric pursuits.
Architecture eliminated the porch as Americans embraced the new technological marvel, television, which offered information, entertainment and diversion from reality. Staring at it required minimum energy, limited attention or thought and absolutely no response.
Ironically, with the disappearance of the porch and the subsequent boxing of American architecture, the front hall was also eliminated, giving visitors immediate access to the family hearth. Fortunately, since television deteriorated conversational ability, there was no need to talk to them.