Porches may not be native to the South, or even America, but Southerners sure do love them.
As an architectural concept, porches have existed since prehistoric times, authors Renee Kahn and Ellen Meagher record in their 1990 book, "Preserving Porches." Versions of these structures have appeared and disappeared at various times in various cultures. Yet, according to the authors, at no time or in any culture did the porch take on such structural and cultural importance as in the form of the American front porch, first appearing in the early 18th century.
Not merely a passive addition to the house, porches function as both an indoor and outdoor domain. They are the portals by which we engage with the world, providing a sense of security and a measure of comfort as we venture beyond the sanctuary of home.
They are a place where we can be both a part of and apart from. They are where we welcome visitors into the house or can turn them away. Where we enjoy the weather or take shelter from it. Where we can sit in relative privacy but keep a discreet eye on the neighbors.
Especially in the South, porches aren't just a part of home, but a way of life. We watch the world go by in snippets of time in these outer sanctums, eventually whiling away whole seasons in our swings and rocking chairs. They are where we anticipate the first robin of spring, serve the Fourth of July watermelon, watch the leaves change colors, bask in a silver sunbeam on a winter day.
With the coronavirus lockdowns of the past year, porches have taken on new responsibilities as we cocooned with our families like never before. As home became the 24/7 nucleus of work, rest and play, many Chattanooga-area families rediscovered their porches (and decks). Here are some of their stories.
LAURA COMPTON, EAST RIDGE
Laura Compton's time on the porch starts before daybreak, when she and her three dogs, and occasionally the cat, go outside and "listen for the world to wake up."
As she takes in what the day "sounds like and smells like and feels like," she writes her observations in a daily Facebook post that has become required reading in her circle of friends.
An excerpt from late January: " There is a nice breeze stirring the chimes. Birds can be seen flying about but not heard. Traffic sounds, for a workday, are minimal. We can hear it, but it's just, back there, somewhere, on the edge of our hearing. The weather app says it's 36 degrees, but it seems warmer. The clouds look heavy, and it actually smells like it might snow. I don't think the weather app agrees. Meanwhile, the dogs are keeping a weather eye on the workmen across the street who are doing a fine job of siding the neighbors' house and repairing their porch. "
Compton, 58, who moved in eight years ago, says the property met two of her main requirements: small house, fenced yard. She would have preferred a larger porch than the alcove where she greets the day, but "it's large enough to sit on with the animals."
Some of her fondest memories of childhood center on the porches of her urban neighborhood in Memphis. "There was always a nice porch even if the houses weren't so big," she says.
She remembers families would relax on their porches with after-dinner glasses of tea on summer nights. They'd wave and talk and keep an eye on the kids (or really each other), eventually driven in by the clock or a thunderstorm.
When her parents moved to the mountains of Arkansas, they found a house with a porch large enough to host dinner parties for the extended family. "It's 10 feet deep and runs the length of the house," Compton says.
Compton says her porch is too small and the backyard deck is too rickety for serious entertaining, though she added a canopy on the deck last summer to create a shaded outdoor work space. "I worked out there quite a bit," she says.
The cozy front porch remains her sanctuary, the place where she starts her day with a cup of coffee, her animals and her morning musings.
"I like to start my day with calm," she says.
AMY CHRISTIAN, ST. ELMO
For Amy Christian, staying home more during the pandemic has not proved particularly burdensome. Having outdoor spaces where she can safely host a few friends has helped.
She's especially proud of the newest addition, a large deck that was completed last April just after COVID-19 shutdowns started.
Christian bought the house in 2009 and decided in early March 2020 to start the backyard deck. The addition gave her a bonus space for lounging, working and entertaining in her extra time at home. "It was perfect timing," she says.
A close friend who's a contractor and Realtor helped with the design. A kitchen window became French doors to access the deck, which overlooks a sloping backyard.
With several feet of headroom beneath the deck, Christian filled the space between the support beams with gargantuan ferns in hanging baskets last summer. The thicket of greenery was a constant source of compliments from neighbors passing by the corner lot, she says.
Up top, there's ample space for guests to mingle and Christian's three dogs to roam. The seating and serving areas include a built-in bartop with three stools and a square teak table with four chairs. A privacy wall on one end is strung with Edison lights. Flowers add ambiance in season.
"It's beautiful," she says. "My deck is so pretty."
When the weather's uncooperative, Christian also has "a great screened-in front porch."
Having that shelter has helped her maintain small gatherings when she can't be outside but doesn't want to move the party indoors.
"On New Year's, for example, it started raining around 9 [p.m.], and we moved to the front porch to be 'outside,'" she says.
"I don't let people come into my house — not right now, not with the pandemic. I'm just trying to maintain some sort of social life, but yet keep it safe."
Christian says having all the usable space has helped her stay content during the forced isolation of the pandemic. In fact, she's discovered, "I'm just such a homebody."
BETH AND ANDY CORADINI, SODDY-DAISY
When Beth and Andy Coradini moved into their Emerald Bay home in August of 2011, they enjoyed spending time on the screened-in back porch, but the adjoining deck was another matter.
"It was this little, tiny deck, about the size of a hot tub — not even that big," Beth Coradini says. "We tore that up and did a 52-foot deck. We've still got a good-size backyard."
The combined space, with its indoor and outdoor zones, is a hub for entertaining.
"We like having company on our porch," she says. "It's an extension of our house."
The couple keeps rocking chairs on the screened-in porch, weather-resistant teak seating on the larger deck. There's also room for charcoal and gas grills, along with a hot tub. In the summer, Beth Coradini adds "so many houseplants."
"It's like a garden out there," she says.
The expansive space out back makes up for the lack of a front porch, she says. Their front entrance is "more of a stoop," an architectural feature common to many of the 150 or so houses in their neighborhood, she says. Coradini fondly recalls the childhood days she whiled away time on her grandmother's porch drinking sun tea flavored with peppermint from the garden.
"Everybody had porches and gardens back then," she says. "The custom back then was to sit on the front porch and watch everybody."
Coradini and her husband spend much more of their outside time out back, so they may never know what the people across the street are doing.
"We're not neighbor watchers," she says. "They could run around naked and I wouldn't know."
Out back, you can find the Coradinis idling in their rocking chairs or soaking in the hot tub.
"At night, we look out at the stars. During the day, we watch for bunnies and deer," Beth Coradini says. "And I like to go outside in the spring and summer to read."
As long as the weather is pleasant, they spend as much time as they can on the porch.
"Even in the middle of summer, as long as we can get a breeze, we enjoy being out there," she says. "For us, it's like having another room in the house."
PAUL AND ALICE FAYE SHELTON, CHATTANOOGA
Paul and Alice Faye Shelton have lived on Chickamauga Lake for 59 years, first in "a little-bitty white board-and-batten cabin that we built onto in every direction, including up," Paul Shelton says.
Five years ago, they sold the house to their son and built their dream retirement home on the lot next door.
"We did what most everybody I know tells me they're going to do — and don't — which is downsize. We actually did," Paul Shelton says.
He designed their new house with advancing age in mind, with wide doors, handrails and an entry that's on the same level as the driveway, with no steps to navigate.
Another must-have feature was a large front porch. At 60 by 15 feet, it spans the width of the house, allowing ample space for entertaining as well as plenty of options for lounging, including a bed swing, rocking chairs, hanging chairs and other seating areas. A gas fire feature adds little heat but lots of ambiance, he says.
"We live on a dead-end street and have lived here almost 60 years, so everybody that comes by stops and talks," says Shelton. "We really use our porch a lot."
The couple has three sons, so when the entire family gathers, their boys' significant others and children number at least 25 people. "It's a pretty good crowd," Paul Shelton says, but the spacious porch is up to the task.
"In the summer, it's an extension of the inside. If we have an event here of any kind, we have people outside and inside."
Coronavirus precautions have nixed the couple's trips for dinners out and movies, he says, but the porch means they can still be neighborly.
"We still socialize quite a bit, the neighborhood does," says Shelton. "We're always out there, especially in good weather."
And with the gas heat on, they can enjoy it in all but the coldest of temperatures.
"If the wind's not blowing, we're on the porch," he says. "We'll sit there with a jacket on lots of times at night, with a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvres. We use it year-round."
When coronavirus warnings began last year, he went door to door to the 32 houses in the neighborhood to get each of the homeowners' names and contact information, along with the names of their kids and dogs, so that he could compile a directory.
"We had a lot of new families who'd moved in but, all at once, everybody in the neighborhood knew how to get in touch with everybody else. It brought the neighborhood closer together," he says.
Paul Shelton says he and his closest neighbors, whose homes face west, often will call out a "sunset alert" to the others if they're outside at the end of the day. Sometimes they'll stay on their porches, but occasionally they'll wander down to the lakefront to watch the setting sun.
He also often sees other neighbors when they walk the cul-de-sac for exercise, he says. The Sheltons' house is the first on the street, and someone is almost always on the porch to shout out a hello and take a few minutes to chat.
"It's been a blessing to have a porch," he says.
ANNA CONRAD AND JIM CALDWELL, CHATTANOOGA
This time last year, Anna Conrad and her husband, Jim Caldwell, were happily ensconced in a house in St. Elmo. Then came the pandemic, and Caldwell's work travels, which accounted for 75% of his time on the clock, were cut out completely. Suddenly, the St. Elmo home felt tiny.
"We really liked the neighborhood, but we needed something bigger," says Conrad, who filled her pandemic hours sewing face masks, quilting, painting and making soap. "I could take over the house when he was gone. When he came home for the weekend, I could put everything away."
She reluctantly agreed to look at a house in the Waterhaven community near the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway. One of her favorite features of the St. Elmo home was its front porch, a feature common to the older homes in the neighborhood. She wasn't sure that Waterhaven, with homes built a century later, could match the charm of St. Elmo.
"I was hesitant to look at it at first," says Conrad. "[In St. Elmo,] we were there on the greenway where you could walk out and talk to people, get exercise. There were always lots of people, kids and dogs."
The Waterhaven home's larger footprint and open concept were its biggest selling points, but Conrad says discovering its back porch — near another greenway — may have been the deciding factor.
"When we saw the house had a large screened-in back porch overlooking a pond, we fell in love with it," she says. "We didn't feel like we were giving up the time we spent on our porch."
During the pandemic, having the porch has allowed for social distancing to see family members for meals, painting collaborations or relaxing.
"It was extremely important that we have that option," she says. "It's been the only way we could spend time with [my three grown children] and elder people in our family."
Conrad says she has claimed the home's upstairs as studio space and also completes her creative projects on the porch when the weather allows.
She and Caldwell expect to do some minor updates to the porch, adding metal structural supports and new screening.
With the pond and greenway nearby, she makes time to sit on the porch and enjoy the views, which often include ducks, geese and great herons.
"I like to sit out there because it's so peaceful watching the ducks and birds," she says. "I feel like I've been picked up and dropped into a little piece of heaven."