by Durand Seay
The porch becomes the defining element to what it means to live there.
| Selma, Alabama has to its name a very rich history preserved in its architecture. When it comes to defining the essence of community, my first thought goes to the Fair Oaks district there in Selma. Made up of mostly late 1800 to early 1900 homes, Neo-Classical, Italianate, and Victorian homes, there is a constant vocabulary here which binds the variety together into a consistent, cohesive neighborhood. It becomes apparent that that element is defined by the porches and the proximity of the houses to the street.
The front porches are far enough away from the street that one would have a small yard surrounded by a fence of some kind, quite often of cast iron and brick. However, they were close enough so that someone could speak to a passer-by or keep an eye on those coming and going next door while seated in a wicker chair and settee. The porches are deep enough, at least 8 feet, to allow a table and chairs to be placed there and still walk around. So much time was spent there to escape the heat of the house and hopefully catch an afternoon breeze.
The primary of the grid streets are wider than expected, such to accommodate a horse and buggy parked out front, lining both sides and still allowing the traffic to pass with two lanes in the middle. A stretch of landscape possibility, with a sidewalk lined the streets, creating that line of demarcation between outdoor public areas and ones low fence at the property line with a gate. The sidewalks consist of pavers, some as old as the first streets. A person on the porch feels that sense of separation from the street, protected, but still connected by talking distance.
There is a significance of what a porch does to protect the entrance and provide an invitation to knock or ring the door bell to the visitor. It is that place where we come to get out of the rain while we fish for our keys. They provide a comforted transition between outside to the inside realms. Even if it is nothing more than a small stoop, a covered rest spot large enough for several to stand comfortably, it will always establish a feeling of “welcome to my home”.
To the rear of the houses are the back porches. They represented the private areas of the home, sometimes being two stories to accommodate the bedrooms on the second floor. Many times later made into a screened sleeping porch where one could set up and sleep in cooler air during the summers. Below to the rear of the house was where the cooking was done. Many preparations of food would begin here, shelling peas, cleaning corn, dressing a fish. Both levels would be connected by an outdoor stair considering how they were used to facilitate services to the bedrooms. These porches often overlooked a rear garden. So meticulously kept with brick paving for walks often you would find a cast iron fountain surrounded by ferns. Here too you would find the underground brick cistern for capturing rain water. All shaded by several oaks, these trees’ shade was a necessity to block the suns heat.
On an occasion one year I was invited to a porch party on Porch Day sometime around 1996. This was a neighborhood wide observance, a yearly celebration of meeting all the neighbors around, going from porch to porch, and having a party at every stop. Everyone was invited to stop by. These people intrinsically understood just how significant a porch was to the definition of community and who they are. As an architect, reflecting on Selma always instills in me the desire to pass this pattern of living along to the next generation. Never to loose aspects of a traditional context, has which transcended time. Community is so much greater. Capturing these enriching architectural expression makes for enduring places, I will always wish to return.