Meet Me on the Porch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Me on the Porch
Plenty of Southport homes feature front porches, but the original use may be lost.
STORY BY: KASS FINCHER
photos courtesy of Southport historic society
If you’re lucky enough to live in downtown Southport, this Fourth of July might find you sitting on your front porch watching the parade of families, strollers and dog-walkers pass by. Your porch will be decked out in patriotic bunting draped over the rails, and your rockers and porch swing will be filled with family and guests.

Our biggest event of the year is steeped in tradition, about sharing our community and patriotic spirit with the many visitors who join us. The front porches we occupy during this celebration also have a rich cultural history. Connecting us to nature, family and community, this design feature still plays an important role here in historic downtown Southport.
The American front porch became popular in the mid-19th century. It connected the family to nature without leaving the home. It provided a way to interact with others without intruding on the interior – the home’s eating and sleeping quarters. And it offered an escape to cooler breezes on hot summer nights.
In Out on the Porch, North Carolina author Reynolds Price describes the porch’s appeal. “In the evenings, as the outdoor air provided a cool alternative to the stuffy indoor temperatures, the entire family would move to the front porch. The children might play in the front yard or the friendly confines of the neighborhood, while the parents rocked in their chairs, dismissing the arduous labors and tasks of the day into relaxation and comfort. Stories might be told, advice garnered, or songs sung. Whatever the traditions and manners of the family might be could be offered in this setting. What the family room or TV room of post-World War II
America would become, existed first as the front porch.” The heyday of the front porch lasted until about the 1920’s, when several technological developments hastened its demise. The automobile was the first.
Cars brought noise and exhaust fumes to the once-quiet neighborhoods – not a pleasant experience for porch-sitters. Also, the automobile enabled people to drive to and from town, so they were able to buy cheaper land in the suburbs and move there. With large lots and less proximity to neighbors and roads, the front porch became less important. And over time, post-WWII homeowners discovered the comforts of air conditioning and television that brought families indoors. The home’s interior was much more comfortable, and the after-supper activity changed from interacting with family and neighbors on the front porch to sitting on the sofa, watching the box in the living room as it brought you news of the world.
In recent years, the backyard and deck have become the family gathering place, with gas grills, fire pits and water features offering places to commune. The privacy of the backyard took over the neighborly outreach and spontaneity of the front porch. The front porch might still be there, but oftentimes its rockers are empty.
Local architect Rich Bandera, who moved here from New England and has lived here 15 years, reflects on the changes in our community. “When we first moved here, many homeowners were Southport natives. The porch is where people met. As those people got older and property values went up, houses were sold and the mix of residents changed. I think the pace has changed, fewer people are walking; people’s lives have changed.”
“I think in a small town, whether it’s here or Key West or a New England town, when you’re close to the street it facilitates community. When I lived in Boston, I lived in a neighborhood where the streets were compact, even though the units were three stories high. So the street and the porches were where you met people.”
Bandera’s designs here are often partially a reflection of the subdivision’s requirements. “I’ve had experiences where they were forced to put a porch on, due to the development’s architectural rules, because they were trying to create an aesthetic. Some people do the minimum to comply, knowing they won’t use it. But a lot of clients want the porch and that’s good to see.”
He refers to some new local developments that are embracing the small community feel. “There are some successful new neighborhoods here. Jonas Creek went through a process to get their roads narrowed; the intent was to create community and bring in a pedestrian character. The people who are moving there are excited about that. Price’s Creek is another good example.”
As for the downtown historic area, Bandera believes new construction is largely in keeping with the older neighborhoods. “The street layout in Southport is set up on a pedestrian grid. You’ve got the main commercial street, the waterfront, and interspersed streets on a straightforward grid system. Although there are no strict requirements, most people building homes here do “what they can to fit in.”
He is concerned, however, about a couple of challenges to our small town way of life. “There’s a 99 foot right of way on a lot of these streets, maybe 25 feet is actually roadway, the rest is city property, usually greenscape. When you start to whittle away at how people park, using different materials to extend the paved surface, you’re changing the landscape. And that’s kind of the beauty of Southport. I wish we had some more controls there. The right of way fits in with the treescape and the hardscape. When it’s paved it changes the character of th streets and neighborhoods here.”
His other concern is cars and golf carts. “When people are driving by at 35 miles an hour, that doesn’t work. Golf carts are destination-driven, missing the parts in between. We have such a wonderful, walk-able town. When you walk, you see a lot of different things, you meet people.”
And the front porch, Bandera believes, facilitates that spontaneous interaction. “There are all sorts of options with porches. Within a front porch, some people might have a different rail, an opaque one that creates more privacy, or no rail at all, or a deeper porch that creates areal living space. That creates a whole different character. Some want more privacy and others want it open. Either way, it’s Southport – our beautiful town.”

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