The front porch: friendly yet protected, safe harbor and common ground
The duality of the front porch is intriguing. It is a part of the house and yet it is a part of the streetscape.
Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer
HUNTER PATTERSON grew up on the sunny side of the street.
In fact, he grew up on a street named Sunnyside, in a bright-blue house in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood.
On afternoons when the sun's out, like this exceptionally lovely afternoon, the west-facing house is bathed in light. It feels hot even though it's not.
And on this perfect little house on this perfectly named street is a perfect little porch, big enough for a swing, where Hunter, now 28, used to take naps as a kid, and where his dad, Jan Patterson, used to fret about his son's wild Big Wheel stunts in the road, and later his skateboarding.
Today the men sit on the steps of the porch and reminisce about all of the life that's been lived on it. Now that Hunter and his two sisters are all grown, the family is selling the house; father and son have fixed up the porch to get ready for the sale.
It's an ideal moment to think about how this porch has factored into their lives, how it connected them to the neighborhood and each other.
Jan, who's lived here since it was a yoga commune in the early 1970s, frequently looks down at the grass as he talks, like he's not quite ready to give up the place.
"Seattle suffers from a neurosis, and that has to do with the weather," Jan Patterson says, his eyes squinting from the bright sunlight. It's hard to integrate and meet people out in the open ... But when the sun comes out, the tops come down, so to speak. It's instant California."
Hunter says a bush used to partly block views of the porch, and of the street for anyone sitting on the swing. Now it's gone, and the space is more open.
"It feels more social," he says.
The duality of the front porch is intriguing.
It is a part of the house and yet it is a part of the streetscape. It is a private space but, then again, there's nothing private about it.
You can watch the world go by there — but the world can also watch you.
It's a place that's far enough from our interior lives to safely greet a new neighbor but close enough to serve as an extension of our living space behind closed doors, where we might retreat to gossip about that same neighbor.
The front porch is safe harbor and common ground, gallery and center stage.
The strange thing is you can walk for hours through Seattle's most idyllic residential neighborhoods on some days and see not a single soul on a porch.
But when we come out from the shell of our homes and spend time there, something special happens.
IT'S TEMPTING to think of porches as mere architectural ornaments, vestigial ones at that, or solely as practical conveyances.
"The first consideration for people is to get that transitional space that's a shelter from the elements," says Diane Foreman, a design consultant who specializes in home remodeling at Neil Kelly Co.
But she's well aware that front porches do more than protect you from the weather and buffer you from the world outside your front door. There are intangibles to consider, such as how they make us feel.
"I can remember sitting with my grandfather on the front porch while he read me the comics," Foreman says wistfully. "You can put the ol' swing on the front porch, or a couple of chairs or a sofa. It's a very relaxing place."
The added benefit is that nice porches can increase home values, she says: "You can give your place a lot more curb appeal if you do it right."
A good front porch may raise the appeal of a home as viewed from the curb, but for a lot of people, "the return on investment is the enjoyment you get from it," Foreman says, adding that she senses a revival in the popularity of porches.
Liz Ophoven, who lives in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood and has recently made cosmetic improvements to her porch, learned this lesson.
"We have a great backyard, but I wanted to create a nice space up front so we can be more social," Ophoven says. "It's a great way to connect and catch up with people."
To deflect the harsh late-day sun, which shines right in your eyes at a certain hour in spring and summer, she drapes thin, white panel curtains from the porch overhang.
Like Foreman's memories of her grandfather, Ophoven's porch curtains conjure sweet daydreams.
"It creates this really wonderful billowy thing that makes me think of Mexico," Ophoven says. The family took a vacation there not long ago, and she remembers sitting at the beach among the wafting white curtains of the resort. "There's something peaceful" about that, she says.
But there's another reason for the curtains. The family lives on a busy street. They can enjoy the porch and the neighborhood scene and feel just open enough to wave at people walking or driving by, without feeling like they're on display.
On the big wooden porch of her rustic cottage by Lake Washington in South Seattle, Libby Hill hangs freshly washed laundry, and the effect conjures images of a hippy hangout, not some breezy resort. She's tickled that people who walk or jog by think that, though.
"I've heard people say, 'Look at that cute little house ... I bet they have incense burning in there,' " she says one morning while ironing clothes on the porch, for all the world to see.
The cluttered, bohemian atmosphere of the porch reflects the retiree's daily preoccupations.
Her clearly well-tended, potted geraniums reach toward the morning sun like gracious hands.
A heart-shaped pincushion, scissors and thread cover a table by the ironing board. A woven basket full of clothes pins hangs by the door. A cane pole holds up the clothes line.
Her poodle, Rocky, scurries to and fro.
"It's an extension of my living room," says Hill, who moved into the cottage — part of the historic Ellsworth Storey development — in 1996 after raising four kids on Beacon Hill.
Every couple of weeks, she comes out to do her mending and ironing there.
Like Ophoven, she hangs textiles on the door and around the east-facing porch for shade when the sun is especially bright: "It makes it very private and cool."
She used to do things like have breakfast and read the paper on the porch only during the summer, but she's found it to be a pleasant place year-round, day and night.
"The light's good in the winter, too," she says. "Morning sun, moon rises — it's great."
"I'll put the sheepskins on the chair, you can wrap up in a blanket. It's great outdoor living — even when it rains."
"There are people who ask to come sit on the porch," she says, adding wryly, "It's not necessarily because of me."
But some strangers have become friends, like the man who collapsed one day on a stroll outside her cottage.
Hill helped him up and took him home. He and his wife became instant friends, and the man started to use her porch as a pit stop on his walks. When he died, a bench was placed at a nearby park in his memory.
Another friend she made by sitting on the porch used her cottage as his rest and turnaround point whenever he jogged through the neighborhood.
These are the people who make this place special, but all in all, she says, "It's just nice to be here."
IT'S ONE OF those perfectly room-temperature Seattle afternoons that makes college students skip evening classes and workers disappear from the office an hour before quitting time to catch the last heat of the day. The fading sun slouches at a boozy angle, its rays painting horizontal streams of light. For a city that spends much of the year wrapped up in an old flannel blanket of clouds, the effect is almost mystical. The city becomes an Instagram version of itself, all burnished and golden and smiling, like captured memories.
Jan Patterson is right. Seattle sheds layers of itself on these days. Long pants become short; sweaters morph into tank tops. Inhibitions ease. People come out on their porches and, in this sun-dappled moment of weakness, say hi to total strangers.
If you pass by the shared house north of Northeast 45th Street where Saudi Arabian UW student Mansour Al Hadyah lives, he just might be out front to greet you with a warm "Salam alaikum" and invite you to the porch for an afternoon coffee and honey-smothered dates.
Al Hadyah, who's here studying English and political science, is from Riyadh, and he says there it's customary to say, "Peace be upon you," to people who pass your house and even strike up conversations. If you don't respond in kind, "It's rude," he says.
Who are we to offend? He invites the photographer and me for coffee and dates with him and two of his housemates, who are reading on the porch, and we say yes.
He disappears into the house and a few minutes later emerges with a bowl of glistening dates and a pot for brewing "Arabic coffee," a light roast perfumed with cardamom pods that he swears will induce a caffeine rush lasting hours and whose pungently floral aroma evokes thoughts of desert spice routes and crowded souks.
Al Hadyah makes a show of it. When the coffee is done, he lifts the pot high and pours a long stream of steaming amber liquid into each of four tiny, white cups he's arranged on the porch, making no splash.
Al Hadyah recognizes a guy walking down the sidewalk as a fellow Saudi. He calls out "Salam alaikum!" and the fellow reciprocates.
The two housemates, Katherine Burris, a psychology major, and Vasily Kovzun, a medical anthropology major, are not surprised. They've seen Al Hadyah in action lots of times.
The big front porch they share with 13 others has become the social epicenter of the house, says Burris, taking a break from her statistics homework.
"We don't really have a living room, so this is our living room," she jokes. "Everyone on this street hangs out on their porches."
As the sun approaches that hour when everything is cast in a dreamy glow, it's easy to see why this west-facing porch gets so busy.
"I think the other day we spent like six hours out here," Kovzun says. "We'll have dinners out here."
Here again, Al Hadyah is a happy instigator. Kovzun and Burris say he's also invited strangers to join him and the housemates for dinners. They never know who might show up.
But he is not alone in using the front porch as a bridge to the neighborhood, not just a place to relax. On the front porches of houses along Greek Row and surrounding streets, you'll hear the banter of frat boys and sorority girls, the strumming of wannabe acoustic-guitar stars.
Just up the street from Burris, Kovzun and Al Hadyah, 10 students and young adults share a house owned by University Presbyterian Church, and today the front porch and the yard buzz with activity as housemates chat and work on laptops and as friends, including one with a guitar, stop by to hang out.
"This is the place where we can come out and enjoy each other's company," house manager Brian Petermeyer says. "We were out playing Settlers of Cattan last night until about midnight ... It was so nice and warm out."
As for visitors: "We pretty much have an open-door policy," UW student and housemate Berty Mandagie says.
Maybe Seattle is always this open, but we just don't take as many opportunities as we should to put it on display.
GOOD PORCHES make good neighbors. It's something to take to heart.
"They're the opposite of fences," says Tom Klos, who's talking politics on the porch of his buddy and neighbor, Tor Bell, after work one afternoon, as their kids play on the lawn.
Their neighborhood, close to Seward Park in South Seattle, is the kind where neighbors look after each other's children and where homeowners share garden equipment and invite each other over for barbecues.
It's like that in Wallingford, too, where, from the front porch of the bungalow she rents with her partner, Breayne Cooper blows bubbles to their 2 ½-year-old daughter, Clementine, as she races through them. Clementine's toy kitchen, where she cooks toy hamburgers and pizzas, takes up space in a corner of the porch. It's the porch as playpen.
"We spend a lot of time out here when it's nice — it's cozy," Cooper says, noting she's gotten to know her neighbors and their kids, who are roughly the same age, while living here. "It's very friendly in this neighborhood. It feels safe."
Her partner's parents live one street over, creating an "Everybody Loves Raymond kind of vibe," Cooper says with a grin.
The proximity allows relatives to visit without much notice — kind of like nosy reporters.
The sun's getting lower in the sky. Clementine wants to play. She runs back and forth across the wooden floor of the porch, which she and her mom have decorated with pink chalk drawings.
Mom nudges her to say goodbye to the visitors cutting into her play time.
"Peace out," she says.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.