Porch plans: Living life out front

The front porch wins converts as chatting with neighbors and watching storms brings connection.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Friends from out of town were visiting when the deep summer storm hit. The lightning was fierce and constant, the thunder was, well, thunderous. Our friends are longtime deep suburbanites, and I always felt that when they came to visit us in our 90-year-old home it was like a trip to a foreign country. Just a day earlier, their 14-year-old son had asked me what "that building" was at the end of our driveway. It was an honest question, he'd never seen a "building" like that before, but I still had to laugh. "It's a detached garage," I explained.

Once the storm started, my family did what we always did: We went out to the front porch to sit on the swing and watch the weather roll through. Quickly, the neighbors on both sides also came to their front porches. We chitchatted with the neighbors on both sides; the neighbors on the east yelled across our front porch to the neighbors on the west.

At some point, one of our kids picked up a bottle of soap bubbles. They knew from years of experience that bubbles have a supernatural ability to stay intact and travel amazingly far in a downpour. The neighbor kids wanted to blow bubbles so I tossed a bottle to their dad across the driveway and they all blew bubbles, too.

As often happens in this kind of storm in the Midwest, it passed quickly, and when the sun peeked through the clouds we all went to the sidewalk to look eastward for a rainbow.

As we went back into the house, my visiting friend said, "You know, we've lived in our house for more than 20 years and you just talked to your neighbors more in that 15 minutes than we have in the whole time we've lived there."

Such is the enchantment of front porches and swings.

I remember reading once that Henry Ford not only took credit for changing the American roadway system and revolutionizing the way people live and work, but also for actually changing the architecture of American homes. Because the family no longer sat on the front porch at the end of the day waiting for dear old Dad to trek home from the bus stop or streetcar after work, the front porch became obsolete.

My own kids have heard the story too many times of how I grew up in a house without air conditioning and how my parents and I spent too many hot summer nights sitting on a glider on the front porch, listening to the radio broadcast of a baseball game coming through an open window. I'm very pleased my kids grew up in a house with a front porch, sitting on the swing, albeit with the windows closed, so as not to let the A/C out.

When my wife and I first looked at this house, the front porch and the swing were among the most attractive features. I envisioned our future family sitting on the swing, doing nothing more than watching the neighborhood go by. And that's what we did. Over the years, we sat on the porch swing while our three daughters ran through the sprinkler in the front yard or chased lightning bugs across the neighbors' lawns. We talked to the neighbors as they sat on their porch swings, storm or no storm. The view never changed, the ride was always the same. But that was enough.

After 25 summers, we sold the house. It was a bitter sale, the buyers brusquely telling one of our daughters that they planned to tear down the house where she and her sisters grew up. After the movers left and we'd done our final walk-through, one of the daughters – grown by then – told me she wanted to take the swing. I argued with her that technically it was part of the house and legally had to stay. She didn't care and insisted that she "didn't want those people to have it." We packed it up and stashed it in the basement of her mother's porchless new apartment. I promised it would go back up if we ever had a porch again.

I've noticed that some builders are putting up houses that have huge veranda porches. It's good that the front porch pendulum is swinging the other way. Sorry, Mr. Ford. You lose this round.

Two of my daughters and their husbands have bought their first houses. Of course they don't have porches so I bought each of them an on-a-frame swing for the backyard. Even though their husbands grew up in porch-free suburban homes, my daughters know the value of a swing.

The people who bought our house didn't tear it down, by the way. They decided to gut rehab instead. Even though it's definitely not the same house my kids grew up in, at least someday they'll be able to drive their own bored kids past the old place and show them where their mom and aunts grew up.

When the new owners put the place up for sale, there was a new porch swing out front. Smart people.

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