Phil Gulley Advocates for the Front Porch

Illustration by Ryan Snook

PORCH SEASON is fast approaching, which makes what I’m about to tell you all the more urgent. I’m referring to the gravest threat to the United States today, more perilous than Russia, nuclear conflagration, deadly viruses lurking in Chinese wet markets, or Donald Trump winning a second term.

I am speaking of the looming extinction of the American porch, whose decline began with the creation of the ranch house. It first emerged in the 1920s, then boomed in the postwar decades, saturating American cities and towns. Not one of them had a front porch, causing irreparable harm to its inhabitants, who lacked a porch swing from which to view the passing world and set it right.

I bring this up after a new house was built midway between our farmhouse and town, a 9-mile stretch of century-old farmhouses, rolling hills, and tree-tunnel roads. The new house replaced just such a farmhouse, whose owner, rather than sprucing up a perfectly serviceable home, bulldozed it all the way down to its hand-hewn foundation stones and built a brick ranch house in its place. He added a covered porch across the front of the house, but one so shallow as to be useless. At only three feet deep, it’s sufficient to walk across, but not deep enough to accommodate a chair or swing. My wife opined that it was not a porch at all, but a decorative flourish.

Worse yet, the house sits on a rise, overlooking a meadow and forest, one of the finest views Indiana has to offer, which no one will now enjoy thanks to a man who didn’t see fit to extend the depth of his porch to eight feet. There go the balmy summer evenings spent watching the fireflies light up the pasture, the unhurried stroll of the doe and fawn at dusk, or the swoop of the killdeer and barn swallow at mid-day. Those luxuriant sights are replaced by the television that dominates their living room, the glow of which spills through the window with enough intensity to signal overhead aircraft.

The first nine years of my existence were spent in a ranch house, leaving me vaguely disappointed with life, though I didn’t know why, not missing what I’d never known. In 1970, my family moved to a house with a front porch 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep, vastly improving our dispositions. My father promptly hung a swing, and we were in business, greeting passersby, visiting with the neighbors, and discussing world affairs. A good front porch has a way of reducing the most egregious global threats to manageable inconveniences.

Though my father-in-law’s formal education ended in the sixth grade, he knew enough to add front and back porches to the family farmhouse in 1951. The farmhouse is a little less than 1,000 square feet, but the porches add another 500 square feet and are the best parts of the house. I’d do without indoor plumbing before I gave up our porches. My wife and I begin our day on the back porch, eating breakfast and watching the sun rise over the wooded hills until the heat sends us to the front porch. In summer, I write there, on an old kitchen table snug against the house. I once saw an ad for a $1,000 writer’s chair with lumbar and thigh support, but at the farmhouse I use a wood chair I bought from my neighbor for $10.
My lumbar and thighs are perfectly content.

We go in for supper after David Riley and his wife ride past on their ATV, out for their evening drive around our 9-mile block. We wave, they honk, then my wife and I warm up the lunch leftovers, which we eat on the back porch, now shaded and cool, the sun having thoughtfully moved to the west. The deer amble out of the woods and into the fields, followed by the turkeys. A red-tailed hawk works the meadow, every now and then swooping down on a distracted mouse. Once a mouse steps from its home, it is susceptible to all manner of terrors. What mice need are porches, to see without being seen.

If I had my way, anyone who builds a house without a porch would be recognized as the public menace they are and be made to sit under the Saharan sun until they came to their senses.