BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
Much has been written and rhymed about this uniquely American summer pastime that began in the mid-1800s, when well-known landscape gardener and architect, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815 – 1852), promoted the idea of a front porch being particularly suited to the American summer as “ a cool and airy veranda…” In his Architecture of Country Houses, Downing lauds American architects who “have wisely departed from foreign examples” (read: British) and “adapted the style [a front porch] to our climate that needs shade and abundant ventilation.”
While Downing wrote primarily for the bourgeoisie, who could afford expansive, elegant country houses, the front porch became sought after by all for outdoor living (sometimes evening serving as bedroom for the common, predominantly urban, man). Not only a convivial space for friends and family to sit, at ease in swings and rocking chairs to gossip, sipping iced tea or lemonade (or something stronger), this architectural add-on was also necessity, as Downing recognized, before air-conditioning swooped in to rescue our sweltering summers.
One of my favorite description of “porch sittings” from long ago is the opening scene from “Gone With The Wind,” where the indomitable Scarlett and her admirers “hang” on the front porch sipping mint juleps:
“ Seated with Stuart and Brent Tarleton in the cool shade of the porch of Tara, her father’s plantation, that bright April afternoon, she made a pretty picture…On either side of her, the twins lounged easily in their chairs, squinting at the sunlight through tall mint-garnished glasses, as they laughed and talked…”
Summer life on the front porch is no longer what it used to be. Air-conditioning and increasingly noisy streets have drawn us off the porch and inside our homes, while outdoor fun such as swimming pools, the more private and spacious backyard, and barbecues on back patios have relocated many porch sitters to alternative locales and more active pursuits.
You might ask, “How does this relate to your trusty bicycle?” Well, I decided instead to seek out some of what is left Scarlett’s “cool shade of the porch” state of mind in our fair city by bicycling quite a few miles across northwest Chicago to look for front porches, and I hoped, some porch-sitters. I am happy to say that many beautiful porches and dedicated porch enthusiasts remain.
One early evening I set out, pedaling slowly down one of the older streets in Lincoln Square looking right and left, thinking that this would be a good time for folks to enjoy the gloaming on their front porches. And thus, I found my first porch-sitter: Captain Ben. Reclining on a rocking chair and smoking a Meerschaum pipe, he appeared a vision of yesteryear. I just had to capture that moment. After some polite banter, I had to explain why I was doing what I was doing, and he graciously allowed me to take his picture. He told me that even though he has a backyard, he still likes to enjoy “sitting out front.”
After wishing him a good evening, I continued down the street, and there she was: the woman I call Lady Alyce, “sitting out front.” Some understandable initial misgivings notwithstanding (after all, a stranger approaching on a cream-colored bicycle on a dusky street, wanting to take your photograph might seem a bit odd), she was charming and eventually invited me to sit with her. I heard many a good story of life on the street 70 years ago, when her family moved into the house in which she still lives: the butcher, baker, milkman, and iceman restocking the proverbial “icebox” in person, children playing in the alley, mothers ringing the dinner bell at 6 pm, and neighbors worshipping at St. Matthias on Ainslie. Yes, indeed, stories from a time when porch-sitting had its heyday. I said thank you and goodnight and rode home across beautiful Winnemac Park.
To broaden my field of inquiry, geographically and otherwise, I asked my friend Trip Driscoll to bike with me to Irving Park/Old Irving Park on a recent Sunday. I had been there some time ago and remembered gracious old mansions on triple lots with fabulous wraparound verandas and porches. I was also somewhat aware of Irving Park’s history. Like so many older Chicago neighborhoods, it had its roots in farmland. From 1869 onwards, 200 acres of agricultural land were ultimately transformed into an exclusive suburb, with easy access to Chicago’s downtown via the new Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. One of the older houses, the John and Clara Merchant House (c. 1872), was built by architect George Woodward in Second Empire-style and is an early example of “pattern book architecture” building designs sold by mail order.
Trip and I first visited friends of mine, Allison and Mete Mutlu, who are Irving Parkers and know the community well.
Mete grew up in Istanbul and owns an exclusive rug boutique, the Yoruk Gallery, in Roscoe Village on Belmont Street. His collection of vintage carpets is among the finest in the city, and he is a most affable, communicative, and deeply knowledgeable collector/dealer. Luckily, he offered to show us around, amused by my obsession with front porches and sharing my interest in historic houses, architecture.
We slowly biked down the catalpa-lined avenues, stopping to admire some excellent examples of late 19th-century domestic architecture – houses in the Arts and Crafts style, romantic Italianate fantasies, ebullient Queen Anne extravaganzas – of course, focusing on their elaborate and inviting porches. Mr. Downing would have been so pleased by our adventure’s purpose.
And, as luck would have it, I met happy porch-sitters who did not mind being photographed. They told me how much they look forward, each year, to sitting outside on beautiful summer days on their shady porches, to gather with friends and neighbors, quietly read, or just sit and think about how lucky and grateful they are to have these perfect spaces, these front porches.