‘It isn’t just about lumber’: Conference explores porch’s role in Southern culture

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Contributed by Campbell McCool

John Maxwell performs the one-man play Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write? at last year’s Conference on the Porch.

 

TAYLOR — Most Southerners pass by front porches without even noticing, except maybe to admire a particularly beautiful one. Most of us aren’t measuring the sociological connotations of the porch and what its absence in modern suburbia signifies.

That will not be the case at the annual Conference on the Front Porch, where people will come together to celebrate the porch and discuss its meaning.

“It’s really more we’re celebrating life on the porch and what the porch represents, but we get into some hardcore porch academia as well,” said Campbell McCool, who conceptualized the event.

The two-day event in the Plein Air neighborhood of Taylor, will feature lectures, panels, six meals (one of which will be in the Field at Plein Air) a porch concert and a porch play. Speakers include Bill Dunlap, Robert Khayat, Curtis Wilkie and others.  

The idea began to formulate four or five years ago when McCool started studying the whole history of the front porch in America, and the South in particular. He found that in the 1940’s with the advent of air conditioning, cars and television, the porch started to fade out of American architecture, which impacted how we interact with each other.

“You had air conditioning, so there was no longer the need to sit out on that front porch and catch the cool air at night,” McCool said. “Also you had that new invention inside called the television set so there was no longer a need to talk to people. You could just watch the idiot tube.”

Of course, there are caveats to this, but the phasing out of porches has in some sense led to the diminishing of community, the lessening of neighbors stopping by to visit when they see a familiar face sitting outside.

“If you’re on your stoop, you are in fact advertising yourself as being available for social interaction. It doesn’t mean that somebody can ask you out to the movies, but it does mean that if somebody comes by and says, ‘Hey,’ you have kind of a social obligation to go, ‘Hey, what up.’ That transaction is the beginning of human connection,” said Mike Dolan, a speaker at this year’s conference and author of “The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place.”

They’re also a place where we cultivate the culture of our families. Where you sit in a rocking chair next to your grandfather and watch an afternoon storm roll over the pond. Or crack pecans that fell out of your grandmother’s backyard tree with your cousins.

“The porch means something to us. It means home. It means a place we can relax. It means a place where you’re welcome,” Dolan said. “Bad things have happened on porches. Martin Luther King’s grandfather’s porch was bombed on the street in front of his church in Atlanta. But in the main, porches are places of shelter and interaction on a pleasant level and relaxation and familial encounters.”

To learn more about the Oct. 18 – 19 conference, click here.