But how can there be enough material to justify a book on such a simple
A: Actually, the history of the porch is quite complex. In doing my research,
I realized the porch is a lens through which to view many aspects of human
history and behavior.
Provide some examples, please.
A: The first porch was the Greek stoa – a public place, like a mall
or market. The Greeks used the stoa as a classroom and courtroom. Zeno
of Citium, who established the philosophy of stoicism, named it for the
Stoa Poikle, or “painted porch,” in Athens, where he taught.
When we say we’re being “stoic” – holding our
course, unswayed by pain or pleasure -- we are invoking the spirit of
the stoa, a zone of philosophical contemplation. When the Romans adopted
the stoa, they called it the portico – from the Latin word for a
portable shield used in sieges. After the Dark Ages, the portico was revived
in renaissance Italy – but by then it was already a part of life
in pre-colonial West Africa.
Q: What was the most surprising thing that
you learned about the American porch?
A: That the porch as we know it – a social institution -- came from
Africa. Pre-colonial Africans built roofed platforms at the fronts of
their houses, raised off the ground to keep out insects. Families lived
out there, greeted their neighbors, conducted business. One early European
visitor likened these structures to stages – he had no other word
to use, which suggests how remote the idea of the porch was to Europeans.
When Europeans began enslaving Africans and brought them to the New World,
the first thing their captives had to do was build their housing. Africans
built what they knew; their vernacular architecture traveled with slavery,
gradually absorbed by the dominant cultures of the New World. Folklorists
Jay Edwards, who’s at Louisiana State University, and John Vlach,
who teaches at George Washington University, have shown how the porch
came from Africa to Brazil to the Caribbean to North America.
But didn’t the loggias of renaissance Italy influence the American
A: They did – later. As Edwards and Vlach have shown, by the time
Palladianism hit the Americas, the African-inspired porch was a fact of
life in the New World. By its nature, the porch lent itself to neoclassicism,
so it quickly acquired a European look that disguised its African roots.
But there’s another issue that separates the loggia from the porch.
As I learned when I made a trip to the Veneto – the region west
of Venice where Andrea Palladio designed scores of villas -- Palladio’s
loggias are wonderful. However, they stand behind walls, available only
to those allowed in. This is not how the classic American porch works,
but it is how the pre-colonial African porch worked.
Any other surprises?
A: I also was surprised to learn how much earlier the front porch began
to fade from American domestic architecture than I’d thought. I’d
assumed, as many people do, that the porch died after World War II as
a result of air conditioning and television. In reality, the porch began
to vanish from architects’ designs before the U.S. entered World
War I, and although developers kept building bungalows and similar front-porch
houses during the 1920s and even the 1930s, the cutting edge of American
residential architecture had left the porch behind well before V-J Day.
Lately the porch has come back into fashion. How and why did that occur?
A: The revival began in the ‘70s and ‘80s with urban and suburban
gentrification and the architectural preservation movement, which brought
older houses back into vogue. The revival intensified in the ‘90s
with the New Urbanist movement in town planning. One gauge of how popular
the porch has become is that the 2002 House of the Year, chosen by the
National Association of Home Builders, was an Arts and Crafts bungalow
in Silver Spring, Maryland, that could have been House of the Year in
1902. Again and again, I hear from people who have renovated old porches
or added porches to houses that never had porches. The reason is that
the porch is too good an idea to discard. It’s etched into our national
consciousness. Americans probably won’t ever spend as much time
on porches as they did before the automobile and television and air conditioning,
but they have come to value the porch as a symbol of home, family, security,
What inspired you to research and write a book on the porch?
A: My wife and I finished renovating our porch in the spring of 1995.
That summer, except for a metal glider, the porch was empty. One afternoon,
just after a thunderstorm, I was sitting in the glider with the portable
phone when I got a call from Alex Heard at the New York Times Magazine.
He needed stories that could be written very briefly – two hundred
words max. Recalling the storm that had just passed through, I suggested
an article about lightning.
“Lightning, great,” Alex said. “Do it. What else?”
I looked around for inspiration, but the porch was empty. I was desperate.
“Porches,” I said.
“Porches,” he said. “What about ‘em?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Something.”
“All right,” Alex said. “But do the lightning story
I wrote the lightning story, but learned way too much about the porch
to fit into 200 words. There were loads of articles and lots of passing
references in books, but no single volume explained the porch. I mentioned
this to the architect Andres Duany, who said, “There are no good
books on the porch; you should write one!” So I did.
That was in 1995, but your book is only coming out now. Why did it take
A: I couldn’t afford to write a book on speculation. So I kept working
– writing a trade newsletter on FDA, writing for Washington City
Paper and magazines like the New Yorker, Slate, and Outside, and writing
documentary television scripts. Meanwhile, I was researching the porch,
which turned out to be a fascinating but formidable task. In 1999, Jane
Dystel took me as a client. She helped me write a proposal; 33 rejection
letters later, I had a contract with Lyons Press, later acquired by Globe
Pequot. I completed the manuscript during 2000-02.
Did you grow up in a house with a front porch?
A: No. My family lived in the classic post-World War II suburban houses:
brick colonial, Cape Cod, ranch. The only front porch in our life was
at my grandparents’ house in Brookland – though my folks eventually
put a back porch on our first house, by adding an upstairs back bedroom.
The pillars supporting that room were the structure for the back porch.
We ate dinner there during the summer, and often played Monopoly and Scrabble
So what’s the attraction to the porch?
A: I got curious about porches when I renovated my own. I applied professional
curiosity and followed personal instinct. I wanted to learn as much as
I could about the porch, and I wanted to know why, when I sit on one,
I feel so good, why neighborhoods full of porches seem so American –
and why, after being discarded for so long, the porch came back into fashion.
You address the porch as an evocative piece of Americana.
How did it acquire that status?
A: That was also surprising – not only the extent, but the speed
with which the porch became an American icon. As soon as we had a mass
medium – lithography – we were printing pictures of porches.
Currier & Ives had their greatest success with images of the American
home, inevitably portrayed as having a porch. That iconography also occurred
in pattern books, which 19th-century Americans used to choose house designs.
The porch became prominent in politics in 1880, when James Garfield ran
the first “front porch campaign,” and once motion pictures
and later TV arrived, those media used the porch as visual shorthand for
indicating “American place.”
What other books have you written?
A: This is my first book. I wrote a novel I was unable to get published
and, as a contract book doctor, have rewritten several non-fiction books.
Where and how did you learn your trade?
A: After attending the University of Maryland, where I majored in English
and minored in American history, I kicked around as a journalist and publicist.
In 1978 I started covering FDA, and for 25 years, wrote trade newsletters
while freelancing. In 1982, I started reviewing music for the Washington
Times; in 1985, Jack Shafer invited me to write for City Paper. I was
on the staff there for 10 years, which led to the New Yorker, Outside,
Slate, Newsday, and other outlets. I went full-time freelance in 1991;
in 1994, I started writing (and eventually producing) documentary TV,
which is now my chief stock in trade.
Would we have seen any programs you’ve worked on?
A: Probably. I’ve worked on National Geographic series Taboo, Snake
Wrangler, Crocodile Chronicles, and Explorer, as well as Discovery Channel
programs like those covering the Eco Challenge adventure races in Morocco
and Patagonia, as well as a Discovery Channel series, The Critical Eye,
that’s supposed to air sometime next year.
Please compare writing for TV with writing for print.
A: Writing a book or a long article is a satisfying but solitary exercise,
while TV work is collaborative. I enjoy aspects of both, which was why
I was able to get the book done while being so busy making documentaries.
Each endeavor facilitates the other.
Are you going to make a documentary about the American porch?
A: Yes, I am. I’ll start on it once I get the book launched. I plan
to cruise the U.S. with my video camera interviewing Americans on their
porches and weave that footage into archival material to produce a documentary
that covers the same story arc as the book.
What will your next book be about?
A: It will be about 300 pages. But seriously, folks – although I’m
studying a few topics, I’m not sure which I’ll choose.