Pacific Northwest | August 10, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 10, home
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Porches for the People
With yesteryear style and friendly feel, outdoor rooms are on the rise
Nine-year-old twins Mitchell (right) and Jade (center) Kirsch engage in a tickle match with neighbor Brooks Crist, also 9, on the stairs that sweep from their front porch overlooking Green Lake. The twins belong to Steve and Maria Kirsch, who remodeled the house, adding the porch, 10 years ago.
I DISCOVERED the restorative power of porches the summer I was 2 and had night terrors.

I'd awakened screaming because — and this makes no sense at all — I thought the woman in bed beside me was Aunt Jemima, the kindly pancake peddler.

When she turned on the light and tried vainly to console me, I could see it was really my mother, a scarf tied around her curlers, Jemima style. But I was in no mood to go back to sleep and risk another nightmare.

So I spent the rest of the night in my father's arms, nestled in the squeaky glider on the front porch, waiting for the sun to come up and my mother to look more like herself.
Porches aren't limited anymore to Victorian-style homes in small towns. They're making a comeback in front of new houses like this one in neighbor-friendly Snoqualmie Ridge, a planned community in the Cascade foothills.
As I grew older, I collected other memories of that porch. Of my parents there, gliding away the long, hot evenings of East Texas summers while we kids chased lightning bugs in the yard or lay in the chiggery grass watching for shooting stars. Of myself, taking shelter during spring thunderstorms when the air was heavy with ozone and the possibility of a tornado. Or squatting on the brick-red concrete stoop with my best friend, strapping on roller skates.

Scratch most anyone and you'll find a rich vein of porch memories like mine. That's because — front, back, side or sleeping — the porch is an American icon with roots deep in the cultures we come from.

The long and homey history of porches is celebrated in a recent book, "The American Porch" by Michael Dolan (The Lyons Press, $24). Dolan starts with an imaginary first porch — a stone slab hanging over the prehistoric cave of a hairy hominid who'd have contemplated starry evenings from its shelter in much the same way I did. He finishes with a nod to the gingerbread-laced porches that help define "new urbanism" — an architectural movement dedicated to bringing old-fashioned village living to the outer rings of suburbia.

Dolan, who lives in Washington, D.C., hardly mentions Pacific Northwest porches. Who'd expect much alfresco living in such a famously dreary climate?
When Karin and Claude Tate bought their Edmonds home, it was painted five different pinks, "from Pepto-Bismol to purple," says Karin. The Tates have been restoring the house bit by bit and have returned it to the crisp white it was when built in 1907. The most recent project was replacing the porch's painted wood floor with a composite material in a soft burgundy color.
Well, he should have looked closer. Porches are everywhere around here.

Maria and Steve Kirsch's porch overlooking Green Lake is reminiscent of more genteel times, when porches were more a part of houses than kitchens and bathrooms — which were outbuildings to keep away fire and, uh, smell.

The Kirsches' home was built in 1928 as a flat-fronted box with little to recommend it except the lake across the street. Ten years ago, the Kirsches raised the roof, replaced the stoop out front with a porch and topped it with a gallery off the upstairs bedroom. The result is an imposing façade that's a little bit Classical Revival, a smidge Victorian and altogether inviting.

Perhaps it would be good to say something here about what makes a porch — and what doesn't. Porches are not just attachments to houses — they are outdoor rooms covered by the roof. Stoops and entries can't be promoted to porch status without growing large enough to put in a glider, a swing and a rocking chair. Lanais (platforms stuck onto the side of an apartment building), patios (slabs pasted onto the back of a house) and uncovered decks are not porches. Verandas, galleries and piazzas are.

Karin and Claude Tate, who moved into their Victorian-style house in downtown Edmonds two years ago, are amazed at the response their porch gets from perfect strangers.
Teresa and Scott Rinker's old-fashioned porch — draped in bunting and bedecked in wicker — is an anachronism in its Shoreline-area neighborhood. Shoreline grew up after World War II, when veterans dreamed of homes with picket fences and verandas but bought the porchless ramblers and ranches that were the architectural rage at the time.
"We've had newlyweds who wanted to have their wedding pictures taken there. And tourists from China, Japan and Germany wanting to take our picture there," says Karin. "Now, why would they want our picture? It's very strange."

Not really. The Tates' porch is reminiscent of the ones you see on television — the ones that shout, "This scene is set in mid-America!"

It also isn't unusual, say Teresa and Scott Rinker, for strangers to pop up on the veranda of their Shoreline farmhouse, wanting to talk about the porch.

Theirs is what you think of when you think porch. It's draped in bunting and bedecked with country frou-frous. There's a wicker settee and an antique swing on chains. And out front is a white picket fence. When someone knocks, the Rinkers are likely to bring out the iced tea or hot chocolate and ask them to sit awhile.

"One man had just moved here from Iowa and he just broke into tears when we answered the door," says Teresa. "He was homesick, and just being on that porch brought all his emotions to the surface."

Teresa was just a child, living across the street, when the farmhouse was brought into the neighborhood on the bed of a truck. It was 1962 and the lot that had held it for more than 30 years was being commandeered for Interstate 5. The family who brought it had nine children, she says, and she was envious watching them grow up there.

The house didn't have a porch then. The Rinkers added one because, Scott shrugs, the house "just needed one. It was really plain in front."

The house must have looked a bit out of place when it was set down in Shoreline. For Shoreline was one of the suburbs that grew up around Seattle after World War II. Soldiers coming home from war may have dreamed of old-fashioned houses with verandas, but they bought the porchless ramblers and ranches that builders were hammering up in suburbs all over the country.

The post-war suburban culture made porches an anachronism. Who had time to sit on the porch after a long day's commute? Who wanted to while away the evening on the porch once a new black-and-white TV set blinked on in the living room? Who needed a porch when you could have a private deck out back?

"The porch really shrank to an entry," says Dorcus Harb, who sells real estate through Windermere's Edmonds office.

Even now, porches aren't considered very useful, Harb says, but people moving to Edmonds often ask for them anyway.

Indeed, the porch is making a comeback, Dolan writes, even in new construction, driven by nostalgia and an increasing desire for community.

Snoqualmie Ridge, Quadrant Corporation's planned community in southeast King County, is an example of the "new urbanism" movement bringing back pedestrian-friendly communities. A large number of the 1,340 smart new homes spill out into front porches, side porches or back porches.

"I chose my house because of the porch," says Valerie Anderson, who moved into a Snoqualmie Ridge model home two years ago. "I wanted a porch I could entertain on or talk to my neighbors from, a porch I could relax on."

Anderson would be what Teresa Rinker calls a "porch person."

"I really think there are two kinds of people on this earth, porch people and non-porch people," Rinker says. "Non-porch people are exclusive. They pull their blinds and sit on their back decks where no one can see them. They have privacy, and they don't have to talk to anyone.

"But porch people say, 'Come on up on my porch. Have a glass of iced tea and let's get to know each other.' "

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter. Steve Ringman is a Times staff photographer.

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