Parker: Porches offer escape from heat, welcome to neighbors

What have we gained from the switch to air-conditioning and social-networking by handheld computer?

By Kathleen Parker

The Washington Post

CAMDEN, S.C. — With the arrival of spring and the advance of summer, American life shifts toward the porch; at least for those lucky enough to have a sheltered outdoor space, preferably attached to the front or back of one’s home.

That all people seem to love a porch and the conversations and activities that transpire there, it’s a wonder that anyone ever bothered to build a dwelling without one. Architects, hang your heads.

But then, perhaps it isn’t the fault of designers or builders that American porches have come and gone from favor after their initial popularization in the 19th century, depending upon cultural developments and climate. In their earliest days, long before air-conditioning, porches provided relief from summer heat. But porches couldn’t compete with electrically cooled air, and people went back inside.

With them went the more-open, neighborly ways of communicating; and what went on behind closed doors, well, nobody knew. Today, as social media and associated technologies have enhanced the availability of private spaces, we’ve also become further removed from community. Porches, to the extent they invite human communion, may be less appealing to rising generations who prefer texting to talking.

Ear plugs keep out noise but also others’ efforts to communicate. A cellphone, or rather a hand-held computer, may link us virtually to the great big world, but it conveys to everyone that you’re not open for business.

As a porch-dweller since birth, I’m partial to screened porches, largely because of the ravenous insects of my native lands: Florida and South Carolina. In Florida, we lived on a large lake opposite what was then “Cypress Gardens.” The name derived from the cypress trees that lined the lakefront, providing porches of sorts for water moccasins that liked to spool around the cypress knees protruding from the shore’s sandy bottom. Almost daily storms thundered across Lake Eloise as a dark gray curtain of drenched fury. At certain times of the year, about April through November, another kind of curtain crossed the lake like a dark, dense veil: millions upon millions of “blind” mosquitoes (aka aquatic midges) that painted our white house black before dropping (like flies?) in fluffy heaps of faintly scented decay.

It was even stranger than it sounds. Although blind mosquitoes don’t bite, suck blood or carry disease, their monstrous numbers made screens a necessity.

During summers, most of which I spent with my mother’s family in South Carolina, we’d gather in the dark, sticky stillness of my grandparents’ front porch to hear my grandfather tell ghost stories that chilled children’s bones while my grandmother shelled lima beans just picked from their farm or churned ice cream made with peaches freshly plucked. From this scene repeated on porches across the South, you learned everything you needed to know about family, conversation, stories, our connection to nature, food and love.

I’m more acutely appreciative of porches this season as ours is being rebuilt just when I’m yearning to take up residence there. Apparently, unbeknownst to us, it was about to collapse after holding tight for almost 200 years, supported by ax-hewn beams held in place with long, wood-carved nails.

Our porch, beneath which Union Army Gen. William Sherman is alleged to have parked his horses during the torrential rains that, legend has it, saved our little town from being torched, is typical of the era. Freestanding columns support the roof a few feet in front of the porch itself. Like many historic houses here, a metal-pipe frame runs the length and height of the porch for vines to grow, usually wisteria. When soaked by rain or a garden hose, the fragrant wall becomes a cooling filter that reduces porch temperatures by at least 10 degrees. Genius.

The origins of the American porch apparently aren’t settled, but one theory is that it, like the vast waterway systems of the South that made the rice fields possible, the American porch was brought here by Africans and Haitians. It was they who built the first “shotgun houses,” typically a narrow residence with one room feeding into the next without hallways, a back door, and front door to which a porch was attached. With both doors open, air could pass through and cool the entire house, and the porch afforded access to community, as well as relief from the heat.

Other theories include that porches were brought to America by Europeans who created porticos and other outdoor shade structures that evolved and became part of houses. But the fact that porches are nearly ubiquitous throughout the South — as are the traditions of storytelling and Southern literature — suggests that we may have slaves and their descendants to thank for the best room in the house.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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