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Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind

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Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind

Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're going to spend some time the rest of this summer examining the front porch, its history, its role in American life and literature and its rich symbolism. Porches were a necessity before air conditioning, whether it was the screened sleeping porch or the broad, columned veranda where the blooms and the ice tea and the gossip were plentiful.

Full architectural elements evoke such strong memories. And if you've ever spent a drowsy afternoon wiling away the time on a front porch rocking chair, you know what we're talking about. A porch is not just a place. No, a porch is a state of mind.

(Soundbite of urban noise)

NORRIS: On a hot summer night in Washington, D.C., a group of teenagers are hanging out on a front porch at Kendra Powell's row house. Powell is 19 years old and she leans on the railing to point out porches up and down the street. Each, she says, has its own personality.

Ms. KENDRA POWELL (Resident, Washington, D.C.): That porch is the nosy house. That porch is no porch. They just moved there. That porch, that's the loud porch. That's where all of them be at. And then that's the porch, up there, where the little girl's going up. That's the chill porch. And right here? This is a chill porch now.

NORRIS: Could you imagine living in a house without a porch?

Ms. POWELL: Yeah, that's boring. It is. It's kind of plain, like, what is a house without a porch?

NORRIS: Well, you know, a lot of houses don't have porches. What are they missing?

Ms. POWELL: They're missing the fun that we're having out here! What about the porch? Don't you think a house is missing without a porch?

Unidentified Man: Not if there's a big yard and a deck.

Ms. POWELL: But who wants a big yard?

Unidentified Man: Me.

NORRIS: This debate goes on for some time. Porches, debate, democracy, they seem to go together. And it's no surprise that the tradition of gracing an American home with a front porch goes back to the early days of this country's history. In the mid-1800s, a well-known landscape gardener named Andrew Jackson Downing began writing about his vision of the American home and how it could stand apart from English architecture. The porch was key. David Schuyler is an American studies professor at Franklin & Marshall College. He wrote a biography of Downing.

Dr. DAVID SCHUYLER (Franklin & Marshall College): Downing became the principal apostle of taste. He educated his countrymen in the kinds of houses and the kinds of grounds that were appropriate to an emerging American middle class.

NORRIS: Now, Andrew Jackson Downing is widely credited with popularizing the front porch in America. How is it that he gets credit for that?

Dr. SCHUYLER: Well, he published a lot of books and he disseminated ideas through the printed page. He describes the porch as something that really expresses the purpose of a house's domestic architecture. And he sees the porch in a lot of interesting ways. He said, you know, a house without a front porch is as incomplete as a book without a title page, that the porch signified its use as a residence.

And the porch also functions as a very important transitional space between the house and the garden. And the porch is a transitional space between the private world of the family home and the public realm of the street.

NORRIS: Many homes do not have that transitional space and air conditioning, television, computers and other enticements now draw people inside the home. American porch culture is not what it used to be.

Claude Stephens is trying to change that. By day, he's education director at an arboretum in Louisville, Kentucky. By evening, he's Crow Hollister. That's what he calls a porch-sitting alias. He's founder of the Professional Porch Sitters Union. Claude Stephens has had throat surgery, but he's still chatty. On a receipt warm evening, he spoke to us about the union from, where else? His front porch.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

Mr. CLAUDE STEPHENS (Professional Porch Sitters Union): It's got a maroon-painted floor and a little concrete wall around the front. And there's a little fan blowing in from the living room. I have a rocking chair. It's an old one with about 20 layers of paint. And then we have one of those gliders, those old metal gliders and it slides back and forth, and we got that out of the alley behind our house.

NORRIS: You have a calendar. You have meetings on specific days, or are these just spontaneous affairs?

Mr. STEPHENS: It's definitely spontaneous. Professional Porch Sitters Union is about not planning anything. Anybody can call a meeting at any time and attendance is optional.

This all came about, really, because a bunch of people were sitting around, people who are busy, and they were sitting around on the porch going, ah, this feels so good. We just came from a meeting with a big agenda and we feel like we're getting more done here without one. And we said, well, maybe that's the way it should be. So that's where all that came from.

NORRIS: And when you talk about getting more done, are you talking about getting things done, accomplished in terms of business or just sort of getting more done on a sort of personal, spiritual, almost psychic level?

Mr. STEPHENS: I think it's both. Really, porch sitting is about storytelling. It's where your private world meets the public world. So I think a porch is really a forum for community building. And so really, for me, the casual atmosphere of a porch, I think, just allows a community to be built in a different way.

NORRIS: Has this idea caught on? Are there other Professional Porch Sitters Unions? Locals elsewhere in the country, or elsewhere in Louisville?

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, there's a bunch here in Louisville. There's some in Maine. There's some in Florida. There's some in Virginia and Georgia. There's several in California. There's one in the Netherlands. There's one in Canada. And mostly I just know this because people email me and tell me, we're starting up a chapter and I say, well, go for it.

NORRIS: Do you all have a motto?

Mr. STEPHENS: We don't have a motto. We do have a suggestion.

NORRIS: I'm all ears.

Mr. STEPHENS: Okay. Sit down a spell. That'll wait.

NORRIS: Whatever it is, it'll wait.

Mr. STEPHENS: Yeah.

NORRIS: What does the front porch represent to you? Did you grow up with one?

Mr. STEPHENS: Oh, yes. My family home is - my brother's children are the eighth generation in the home and it has a wonderful old back porch and that's where we would watch the storms blow in over the cornfield. And in the wintertime we would sit wrapped with an old down comforter around ourselves. And that's where I learned stories from my grandparents and from my parents and from my friends. So yes, I grew up with porches and they're dear to me. And I think they're dear to many people, at least in this community.

NORRIS: Claude Stephens, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Enjoy your evening.

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I hope to see you on our porch some time. We've got an empty chair.

NORRIS: If you want to stop by Claude Stephens's porch on a hot summer night, he promises lemonade, iced tea, beer and bourbon.

SIEGEL: For the rest of the summer, we'll be pondering the American porch on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We'll examine the role of porches in literature and in new residential developments and we'll find out why people paint the porch ceilings light blue.

NORRIS: We also want to hear your porch stories. Tell us about a treasured porch memory or what's happening on your porch this summer. Go to our web site, NPR.org, and fill us in. We'll share some of these stories on our air and on the web.

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