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Porches and Poché

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A now classic text on the evolution of the American family home is Dolores Hayden’s Grand Domestic Revolution. Professor Hayden staked out domestic architecture as her specialty very early and GDR is the keystone of her scholarship. Before I try to deal with many more examples of Agincourt’s residential stock, it would be good to review her.

The image above might be a turn-of-the-century apartment house in any North American city, but it seems especially typical of the Midwest. In fact, it’s the Burrel Apartments in the 400 block of North Fourth Street in Fargo. I’ve borrowed the photo from Modern Man on facebook©, a photo from circa 1936 from his grandmother’s collection. After the initial shock of seeing a building that barely resembles what occupies the site today, it also spurred me on to think about the shift in family activities from the front of the house to the rear; from the porch to the patio, so to speak.

I’m old enough (god knows) to remember front porch life at my grandmother’s house (my house) when I was young and impressionable. We sat there on summer nights, screened from mosquitoes but watching fireflies appear in the twilight. An operable storm window on each of its three sides gave cross ventilation, but they also let us speak with neighbors passing on the walk only twenty feet away. Watching and being watched crafted social links among us. In fact there was a time when I could name practically everyone along the three blocks that constituted West 65th Place in Bedford Park, Illinois. I doubt seriously that many apartment dwellers today can name the folks across the hall; our friendships aren’t forged from such affinities but from noisy parties and untended garbage.

Those porch screens also afforded some social distance between the sitter and the passer-by. With lights off, the option to announce your presence was yours. And the rhythms of village life continued from early spring to late fall. Looking back, it would have been a mistake to “winterize” the porch, to hermetically seal its occupants in climate-controlled comfort and turn the passing parade into yet another TV show.


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