Appearances have changed, but their purpose and utility have remained largely the same
HOME EXTERIORS BY JAIX CHAIX
n outdoor storage closet. A way of life. Whatever the purpose, front porches are as American as apple pie – and indeed a unique part of Flathead Valley architecture and lifestyle.
Sure, for some folks, a porch is little more than a place to keep gear, a blend of the stuff used for outdoor activities last season, cluttered with things needed more readily at the moment. Some kind of camo gear complementing a pair of cross-country skis among spring seedlings for the garden is not uncommon. So stand some of the porches of purpose and utility.
Meanwhile, more enchanted front porches, whether in “downtown” neighborhoods or at the front of sprawling, backcountry escapes, seem more decorated and deliberate. Throughout the Flathead, one can find front porches of nearly every shape and style: whether horseshoe-curved, wraparound, or partially enclosed. And in taking notice of front porches (which may now suddenly seem everywhere), you’ll find they are somehow unique. Adirondack chairs bolster some, while rockers comfort others – and altogether, porch styles may seem as varied as the personalities of their owners.
But beyond the style and furnishings, more inviting front porches come to life – literally – as folks use their front porch in a way they were initially intended: for outdoor living and leisure. Incidentally, the Flathead (as we know it) started at a time when front porches were at their peak of popularity. Porches became increasingly popular in the 1840s and 1850s. However, it wasn’t until the 1890s and early 1900s that porches came to prominence – about the same time towns throughout the Flathead Valley were platted, whether Bigfork, Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Polson, or Whitefish.
And much like the origin of the very word itself (Old French “porche” or Latin “porticus”), porches originally served as a shelter at the entrance to a home. Similarly, in the late Victorian era, porches protected guests from the elements, but also provided a buffer between the “modern world” outside, and the private sanctuary inside.
Indeed, front porches were also influenced by cultural phenomena, such as the ideology of “connecting with nature” and lofty social ideals, such as asserting one’s status by putting leisure on display. In the 1890s, porches were crammed full of ferns, chairs aplenty, tables of nearly every fare and flair, and other essentials of the era. As if walking around in a hoop skirt wasn’t trouble enough, going from one end of a porch to the other was quite an obstacle course (both socially and logistically).
As architectural styles evolved, Queen Annes gave way to Craftsmans, and porches evolved as well. The popular Craftsman style reckoned front porches as a formidable negative space – one that equally challenged notions of architectural form, and equally provided function, albeit in a far more minimalist manner compared with previous styles. Meanwhile, Bungalow and other contemporary styles somehow transformed front porches into cozier and more comfortable outdoor places.
Yet, while appearances may have changed, the purpose of a porch remained somewhat constant, in one form or another. Thus, the front porch was the place where dandy bachelors called upon available ladies (as mothers kept a watchful eye from the parlor window). Porches were the place of last goodbyes for soldiers going to war and the place of heartfelt welcomes upon their return. Since the 1950s, anxious parents increasingly used the front porch to look out for their teenagers, after nights of who-knows-what.
And all the while, porches were the place where libations mellowed in the evening haze, or otherwise permitted the passing of time in general. And oftentimes, porches provide a somewhat ironic sense of place, especially considering that majesty and awe surround the Flathead Valley, yet some of the most memorable views are had just beyond the front door. Likewise, while there are countless places to enjoy nature, hummingbirds at the feeder on the front porch forge some of the most cherished memories.
The front porch is a special place, no matter the activity (or lack thereof). For those who indulge, relaxing about the porch can be a sublime simple pleasure (one uniquely capable of changing one’s perspective or easing one’s apprehensions). More experienced practitioners of “front porch sittin’” know that taking the time to enjoy life on the front porch (that is, taking time to actually think) is a way of life, if not an art.
So, if you happen to see someone enjoying life on their front porch, they’re preserving a bygone way of life, one deserving of acknowledgement (whether with an enthusiastic wave or the ever-so-slight nod). And if you endeavor and enjoy sitting on the front porch, realize you’re doing more than leisure: you’re connecting the past with the present – and forwarding a lifestyle toward the future.