Why So Blue? Color Graces Many a Porch Ceiling

Calhoun mansion

hide captionCalhoun Mansion in Charleston is one of many buildings in South Carolina's Lowcountry that sports a pale blue porch ceiling.

Charleston Postcard Co./Calhoun Mansion

Scroll down to read listener-submitted porch stories.

From periwinkle and turquoise to more mellow shades the color of the sky, the paint of choice for many porches across the country is blue. Is it just trendy? Or a talisman of some sort?

Carl Langhorne, assistant manager at Strosnider's Hardware store in Bethesda, Md., says that some customers say they want a color that reminds them of the sky, others like blue because it's a calming color.

Still others believe that blue chases away evil spirits.

In the South Carolina Lowcountry, there's a name for the blue of porch ceiling: haint blue.

Alphonso Brown, a guide with Gullah Tours in Charleston, S.C., explains that a haint is a spirit or a ghost, and in Charleston, many people also paint the trim on their houses blue to ward off evil spirits.

Other theories also exist. Some say blue helps extend daylight as dusk begins to fall, and many, including Brown, believe that it helps keep bugs away.

Nathan Erwin, director of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution, says he was unaware of the theory that blue was meant to banish bugs. He says he and his colleagues found no scientific research on the subject.

But that's not to say it isn't true.

"I think it's certainly an interesting study to pursue since there seems to be some anecdotal information," Erwin says. "Maybe it would be a good project for a college student or a graduate student."

Your Turn: Favorite Porch Stories

N.C. porch

hide captionA home in Old Salem, N.C.

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From childhood memories to present-day discoveries, All Things Considered listeners from across the country share their most-cherished porch stories.

A Memory Like Lightning: Unpredictable, Spectacular, Strong

One of the few benefits of living in Phoenix in August is being able to witness, first-hand, the wild monsoon storms. And it's been my experience that the best observation deck for these adolescent outbursts from Mother Nature is a plain old front porch. I'm a lifelong resident of the Phoenix area, but the best storm experience of my 48 years was in just such a setting: the tiny front porch of an old bungalow downtown, my first house as a wife and mother.

It was about 9 p.m., and I had just put my infant son, Ned, to bed when an explosion of thunder shook the house. The lights went out, and my 3-year-old daughter, Claudia, and I met in the hall, terrified. Correction: I was terrified, not Claudia. She may have looked like a little blond Dr. Seuss character, but she was more self-assured than I was, and definitely less afraid of the dark. She grabbed my hand and asked in her 30-year-old voice if I'd like to watch the storm with her. Miraculously, the thunder had not awakened the baby, so I thought it sounded like a great idea.

Claudia and I grabbed a box of Junior Mints from the kitchen and headed for the front door, lightning be damned, to watch the show. What else was there to do? As we gingerly emerged onto the porch, we eyed the gutters, bone dry an hour ago, but now flooded with surging water. Looking across the street, in front of the turquoise bungalow belonging to our unfriendly neighbor, we saw that a 5-foot Palo Verde branch had cracked and fallen from its tree, and that the nearby palm tree, poor, skinny old thing was blowing diagonally, its hair flying forward in protest.

The rain came down in huge, cool splashes, not the prissy little drops of winter storms, and the lightning — dare I admit it lest you think me an unfit mother? The lightning was a regular magic show, begging Claudia and me to play along and guess where it would appear next. Through the whole drama, my perfectly calm and happy daughter and I held hands, spellbound, (but not so much that we forgot to share the box of Junior Mints) as we watched and wondered and felt safe together on our porch.

She's 20 now, and she still talks about that night. I can't say for sure that it was our best moment, but it was like lightning — unpredictable and spectacular and strong. Our porch moment.

— Judith, Tempe, Ariz.

Courage on a Porch: A Stray Dog Becomes Beloved Pet

For several weeks in our neighborhood, there was a large, thin, red, stray dog that avoided all attempts to rescue him. We have many dog-loving neighbors, in addition to ourselves, who tried their best to win him over, but he was too shy/scared and too quick to be caught.

One summer evening, my husband and I were enjoying the company of new friends from England. It was after dinner, and we were sitting on the porch, talking. The sky was nearly dark and the porch was warm and softly lit.

We had been out there for about a half-hour when I saw a shadow on the steps. Then slowly, as the shadowed moved more into view and onto the porch, I could see that it was the stray red dog. The porch got very quiet as we watched him approach. Cautiously, he moved to where I was sitting on the porch swing, and he gently climbed up on the swing with me, one leg at a time. Then he laid his head on my lap and looked up into my eyes.

I wonder how long he lingered in the shadows before gathering up the courage to come up onto the porch and into our lives. I believe that he felt not quite as threatened and a little more at ease on that summer evening, listening to the humans on the porch engaged in warm and pleasant conversation.

In that moment of stray-dog courage, he had chosen his new home.

"Yule" was our faithful and loving dog for 11 years, passing away in April 2005.

— Kelli, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Childhood on a Lake Pontchartrain Porch

The porches that encircled the camp — those houses on stilts — along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans are all gone now.

What Hurricane Georges didn't take was finally ravished by Katrina. Lifetimes of summers were spent on those porches. They were the stages for all daily activity: sleeping, dining, card-playing, storytelling, fishing and crabbing.

Most of the camps had inner rooms that were connected by a door or a window to their porches. The shade kept the inner rooms cooler, while those of us sleeping on porches in the morning sun were chased by the heat to the other, cooler side.

Most of the camps had screened porches as well as unprotected spaces. The screens, of course, kept the flies off the food and the sand flies off your skin, and protected us from swarms of mosquitoes that could carry you away, especially at dusk.

And there were nor'easters — "blows," my grandfather called them — that made the porches seem more like the deck of a ship in a storm. The wind whistled and howled through the screen, the rain became horizontal, and the crashing waves around the piling would pound the whole structure. But we knew we were safe, after all, it was the camp.

I would trade all I have for just one more night, to be a boy again and feel protected by that porch.

— John, New Orleans

A Porch, a Photo and Memories of Happiness

My grandmother was my most beloved relative. She died when I was 9. The last two years were precious, but filled with illness and incapacitation. I don't remember her ever laughing or even smiling. She seldom would allow anyone to take her picture, only a couple of small snapshots exist.

In the last year, I fell heir to a few snapshots from a deceased aunt's estate. There was a picture of my grandmother with my grandfather's arms around her in front of the porch on the house on the family homestead, and she was laughing! In April, I embarked on a journey to find that homestead, one that I'd never seen. With the help of county officials, we got the land description and eventually found the house. There was the porch, just the same as in the picture (probably taken 80-85 years ago). It reassured me that we had found the correct place and gave me great pleasure and a feeling of nostalgia to know Grandma and Grandpa had stood there, in front of the porch and had been laughing.

— Julie, Rapid City, S.D.

A Window on the World of Immigrant Neighbors

If it weren't for my front porch, I never would have known that the people living next to me are all from different countries. The old house has been converted to apartments, and exotic and delicious smells are constantly wafting from the windows. When the weather warmed up and we began spending time on our porches, we started talking, and I learned my neighbors had immigrated here.

I've spent the most time with Mike. He's an older gentleman from Armenia. He comes over to my porch, and we try to talk, but neither of us seems to understand much of what the other is saying.

On more than one occasion, he has given up on conversation and walked down to the drugstore on the corner. He comes back with a couple scratch-off lottery tickets — one for me and one for him. He hands me a penny, and we wordlessly reveal our inevitable losses. We say "next time" and understand each other right away.

— Margaret, Pittsburgh

Moments on a Porch Signal End of an Era

It was early afternoon, March 18, rainy and 45 degrees.

I had crawled out of bed feeling the first tightening grip of labor. My spouse was still napping. My 2-year-old son had just appeared, groggy and rubbing his eyes after his nap.

We stepped out on the front porch to watch the rain. We curled up on the loveseat — my son balanced around my lap beside his soon-to-be baby brother. As we sat there, cocooned in a thick blanket, the rain turned to snow. The only sound was that of snow falling on the wet leaves.

We sat in silence, content in the warmth and company of each other, knowing that this stage in our lives was almost at an end. As our lay midwife drove into the driveway, the snow melted into rain.

The snow, the quiet and our mother-to-only-child relationship were over.

— Shirin, Statesville, N.C.

Learning the Value of a Brooklyn "Stoop"

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1940s, I identified porches with status and wealth.

There was another neighborhood a short bus ride away that had Victorian houses, wraparound porches and gardens, but it seemed a world apart.

Until I listened to your stories, I had never considered that the four-family house I lived in actually did have a porch. Only we called it a "stoop." And it accomplished all the objectives that today's planners have identified as the benefits of porches: community interaction, socialization and catching the cool breezes of a summer's evening.

Thank you for helping me value my "stoop."

— Phyllis, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

A Family's Favorite Place: The "Son" Porch

Since 1904, my family has occupied the same house. It is a lovely frame house in Statesville, N.C., with high ceilings, a fireplace in every room, beautiful pocket doors, stained glass and a secret back staircase we loved to hide in as children. My great-grandparents moved into the house one year after it was built, when my grandmother was 4 years old.

My great-grandfather was a florist, and within a few years of moving in, he had one side of the wraparound front porch enclosed with windows. This area served as his flower shop.

After the death of my great-grandparents, my grandmother moved her family into the home. She was mother to three handsome sons; the middle grew up to become my father. The old florist shop became the "Son Porch" where the family and guests would gather for conversation, the boys would court, and where my grandmother cultivated her magnificent ferns.

When the house became too much for my widowed grandmother, it became ours, and I lived there from the time I was 10. My brothers and I have long since grown and gone, but Mama and Daddy kept the home fires burning. Our children have joined the long line of family who love the porch!

The Son Porch has always been my favorite place in the house, and maybe in this world. It has been home to many plants and a few stray songbirds, and our family has spent countless pleasant hours there. The porch swing and old family wicker chairs provide a most comfortable place for morning coffee or afternoon wine, and we are far enough from the sidewalk to have privacy, but close enough to see up and down the street and wave to friends walking by. Even though the Son Porch resembles a room, its tall windows give a perfect view of the front yard, and its doors open to the side and front of the house creating a delightful breeze for person and wind chime alike. From the porch we look across the street to the Statesville Woman's Club, where Mama and Daddy's wedding reception was held 52 years ago.

Last July, I had the privilege of staying at the house for a week with my ill father while my mother was out of town. Daddy had kidney cancer and had good days and bad. On one of his good days, we sat out on the Son Porch after supper —- also his favorite place —- and talked late into the evening. It took only a couple of questions from me for him to recount in great detail his memories of his grandparents who first lived in the house, how the porch looked then and how it was used, what the street and yard had looked like, who the neighbors were. For hours he was lost in memories he hadn't thought about in years, memories of family pets and automobiles, colorful town characters, cousins and aunts and uncles. Story after story poured from him. I was entranced. The conversation was therapeutic for him, and the setting made it all even better. It was dark as pitch when we finally went in the house, and neither of us would have traded anything for those hours on the porch.

Just two months later, his body betrayed him and he was in a wheelchair. Homebound, the Son Porch was the closest he could come to being outside, and he and Mama spent as much time as possible there. Hospice was called in, and at one point or another, I think most of us shed some tears on the porch. When he died at sunrise on Sept. 18, the funeral home people tenderly carried his body out the front door and across the front porch, down the steps and the front sidewalk, to the hearse parked on the street. We stood on the porch, all of us, watching and silently crying in this moment that seemed so holy. Across the street, the Statesville Woman's Club sat as the backdrop to the scene and, I thought, somehow amplified my mother's grief and loneliness.

I do not know the future of my family home. My brothers and I are not in a position to take it when Mama downsizes. I dread the day that it must be sold, and I will miss the Son Porch more than any other part of the house.

But when the breeze stirs the ferns and the American flag, and the white porch glistens in the sun, and the red geraniums compete with the blue sky for attention, there is no more beautiful and peaceful place in the world for me. For me, this is home, and all seems right with the world.

— Liz, Mooresville, N.C.

Sharing a Special Ice-Cream Treat

When I was a child, my father, a Korean War vet, attended Buffalo University School of Medicine. He worked at a local dairy lab in the evening, and my mother worked at the university in the lab to make ends meet.

Our "home" was in a brick row of low-income housing for students on what I recall was "Langley Avenue" (although I am not completely certain). The apartments were in two-story brick, four-home, flat-roofed row houses arranged in groups of five around a common central parking area with the front side on top of a perimeter of mildly busy streets. People did not hang out in this central area, however; rather, they hung out on the front side of every apartment which had a small porch on the street, what we all called "the stoop."

I recall one evening in July, being tucked into bed in the blistering hot summer, all the windows open and a rickety, second-hand fan trying to make air move for us. I remember hearing the ice-cream truck, with that ubiquitous "Mister Softee" tune coming down the street as I struggled to even pretend to be asleep. When the tune stopped just outside my window, I just knew that something was going on. I quietly slid downstairs and to the front door where I looked to the right, and left, and across the street, to find every front porch filled with families buying ice cream and people gathered, chatting.

I knew that my parents did not have a nickel to spare, but when I looked up, there was my mother with a "Banana Boat" — a plastic "boat" with a whole banana slice on each side, three different scoops of ice cream, peanuts, chocolate, whipped cream and maraschino cherries that she had purchased with money from the cookie jar — and there were two spoons! Mothers have wonderful second sight.

I remember that night to this day, and the sense of community, as I looked up and down the row of brick houses where many people, in low-income housing, and their children, were joined in this common act of sharing an ice-cream treat on a hot summer night — all on our front porches.

— Stephen, Elmira, N.Y.

Porches Connect Baltimore Neighbors

My first impression of my Baltimore home was the trees lining the street.

The second was the porch.

I live at the end of the row, and from my porch I look down two straight blocks of porches with a variety of furniture and plants standing watch. I, one of the youngest on the block, live next to Birdy, the eldest.

Every afternoon of every warm enough day, Birdy and other neighbors gather on her porch to discuss current and past events in the world and their own lives. I began my relationship with the women with only a brief hello before rushing off to school and work. Over the two years I have lived here, my exits have slowed down and I have begun to look forward to hearing the women's voices through my front window.

While I am not a regular at the porch meetings, I often sit on my porch, with half an ear to the conversation a few feet away. I hear about their children and grandchildren, their health issues and garden successes. I hear about all the neighborhood gossip, why the police cars were on our street last week and when the woman across the street delivered her baby. And in return they hear about my house renovations, occasionally keeping me on task when I just want to enjoy a beer on the front porch.

In all, I have never been happier to cede the personal privacy I had finally gained by owning my own house to a passel of women chattering away mere feet from where I'm enjoying a quiet dinner.

— Sonia, Baltimore

Nostalgia for an Oakland Porch

I didn't grow up with a porch. Porches were something we watched on The Waltons while basking in the comfort of central air in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s. But when I got older and moved to San Francisco, then to Oakland, I understood the lure of a porch or even a good stoop and what it means to a neighborhood.

In our awful apartment in Oakland — too small for our two dogs, two cats and my wife and I, our only refuge was to be outside in the front yard. It was there where we began having afternoon gatherings with our neighbors. While sipping cold beer or mojitos and munching on homemade guacamole, we got to know most of the residents in our building. Like our upstairs neighbor Deanna, who liked to hang her gloved hand outside her window to smoke a cigarette (apparently the smell and smoke didn't know how to penetrate the magic glove) or our aloof neighbor who apparently had stacks and stacks of newspapers piled around his apartment.

Then there was the boy across the street who'd try to sell stuff from his porch. One time, he shouted in repetition "ice cream, coffee, yogurt, chicken sandwiches." Apparently he was running a mini-mini-mart from his front door.

Now that my wife and I live in Richmond, Va., we try to enjoy our own porch. But with the heat and mosquitoes, we miss the camaraderie of our old place in Oakland, and the sound of "ice cream, coffee, yogurt, chicken sandwiches."

— Ian, Richmond, Va.

The View from an El Paso Porch

Louisville Street, in the central part of El Paso, Texas, is about five miles north of Juarez, Mexico, in a neighborhood called Manhattan Heights. When we sit on our front porch at night, we can see the lights of Mexico. From our porch, you can hear the trains moan and cry out as they cross through Five Points below us, going east, perhaps, to New York City or west towards California.

This old neighborhood in central El Paso was once a fashionable place to live, filled with brick bungalows made by a builder named David Crockett. They named the elementary school after him — Crockett School — and all the kids in this neighborhood have gone there, our three kids included. Now El Paso has grown north, away from the border, east and west out from downtown and homes like ours are not in demand, which makes the prices just right for people trying to come up from Mexico or for families starting out or for people like us getting a late start in life.

We moved to Louisville Street in the summer of 1978. It was in the middle of June in the 11th year of our marriage. We came to this neighborhood in our old gray Vega and somebody's borrowed pickup truck stuffed with what broken-down possessions we then had. We parked it in the driveway, and as we unpacked, the neighbors sat on their front porches and watched, a way of looking that has mostly become unknown as people build patios and seek the privacy of their walled-in backyards. But on Louisville Street, that's how we do things. It is how we came to know the neighborhood ourselves, sitting on our front porch to eat supper, sitting there after supper, too, all through the windy springs, the hot summers, those sweet autumn nights. It's so warm in El Paso — we often spend Christmas Day on the front porch, too. As long as we've been here, the neighbors have watched us and we've watched them back.

— Lee, El Paso, Texas

The Only Socially Acceptable Spying

The porch is alternative theater. At this theater, the audience sits upon the stage… and looks out over the play of life and all its characters.

Here's another thought: The porch is the only room in the house from which it is socially acceptable to spy on one's neighbors. Oddly enough, it is the only room in the house where you're most likely to be seen doing it.

— Nancy, Barrington, R.I.

'Cures Porches' in Upstate New York

A few years ago, my wife and I moved from the New York City metropolitan area to a small town in northern New York, Saranac Lake.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Saranac Lake became world famous as a place where you could go for a cure to the dreaded disease tuberculosis. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who put Saranac Lake on the map, developed a cure that became known as the rest cure. Part of that cure was taking rest with plenty of fresh air, in all seasons. As the treatment gained notoriety, people started coming to Saranac Lake from all over the world to "take the cure" from Dr. Trudeau.

Homeowners in town immediately saw the open business opportunity, and many started taking in patients. To facilitate the cure, porches were added to houses all over town, some with multiple porches on multiple levels. Many of these houses still exist today, and wherever you look in Saranac Lake, you see houses with beautiful porches. In town, these are known as "Cure Porches" and the houses are known as "Cure Cottages." The local historical society has been successful in getting more than 180 of these houses listed in the National Historical Register.

In the heyday of the cure, there was an unofficial law in town that nobody could make any noise between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. This was the town's official naptime. During that time, children would have to play indoors and the police stopped patrols to cut down on traffic. This was the time when all of the tuberculosis patients would be out on their porches for their afternoon nap. Wouldn't that be a wonderful practice these days?

— Rich, Saranac Lake, N.Y.

Porch: Garden, Larder, Observation Platform, Theater

My husband and I live in the oldest house on a Ketchikan hillside, a house built about 1905 soon after the standing spruce and hemlock was clear-cut. Originally, this was a small cabin erected by some Norwegian fisherman strong enough (and stubborn enough) to lug all the lumber up the 30-degree, mostly rock, slope.

Ketchikan is on an island in the Alaska Panhandle, surrounded by the Tongass National Forest and accessible only by air and water. Ketchikan is described as being 40 miles long, half a mile wide, and 6 inches deep: The small amount of topsoil covers an up-thrust of rock which, below ocean level, provides a deep-water port and access for the summer cruise ships that dock along the front of town.

My porch is my garden: I hang summer baskets of petunias (like candy to slugs) along the front of the porch. This year, those baskets are filled with red and purple petunias and golden nasturtiums, and they swing gently in the breeze high above the slugs' grazing reach. Pots of lavender and primroses and spring-flowering bulbs sit atop the railing. In the winter, I pack all my potted perennials and shrubs (the ones the slugs haven't eaten) onto the porch, where they won't drown in the weeks and months of rain that constitute a Ketchikan winter.

My porch is my larder: A chest freezer sits on the side porch. Gradually over a summer, the freezer fills with whole-body sockeye salmon, bags of shrimp, and chunks of halibut.

My porch is my observation platform: Kingfishers nest in the woods behind the house, emerging to plummet the 200 feet to the small boat harbor below, singing their wooden-ratchet call. Eagles use a hemlock in my neighbor's yard as a perch to look for fish on the ocean surface, to meet up with other eagles, to preen shiny brown feathers with impossibly yellow hooked beaks. Eagles sing, a lilting descant that is never in movies, a song that floats across our neighborhood. From their perch these eagles observe our cats, all four of which are protected against becoming eagle chow by the porch space and the incompatible breadth of wing an eagle sports in flight.

Every Fourth of July, my porch is a theater: Fireworks begin at 11 p.m. and are ignited from a barge anchored in the ocean directly in front of the house. We line up deck chairs and assorted quilts and sweaters, and enjoy a front-row seat on the glories of golden chrysanthemums, red and green twizzles, and the deep booms of blanks that echo across the hillside and rattle the front window immediately behind our heads.

My porch is not the place for contemplating the rare sunny day in Southeast Alaska. There's a deck higher up the hill behind the house for an outdoor meal or an afternoon spent reading on a summer day.

My porch is a place to live a part of every day.

— Mary, Ketchikan, Alaska

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