When Gayle and Wes Werling moved to the Northern Neck two decades ago, they brought their shared Louisiana heritage with them and built a home designed by Gayle’s architect brother typical of the style of the Pelican State. Overlooking the Great Wicomico River, the house has a striking façade with a copious front porch with chamfered columns done in a natural finish.
Recently, they have augmented the Creole and Cajun ambience with the addition of two teak rocking chairs and a teak rocking bench, each of which Wes has restored and refinished. The setting of the porch reminded me of a presentation I heard many years ago at a conference I attended in Birmingham while I was teaching in Alabama.
The speaker was the late Duard Le Grand, who at the time was the editor of the now defunct Birmingham Post-Herald, which was one of the city’s two daily newspapers. In his talk, which was the only memorable feature of the conference, Le Grand blamed the invention of central heat and air conditioning for the decline of the spirit of community in modern-day America.
His point was that in the days before those conveniences that at present we take for granted in our daily lives, the front porch and the cast iron woodstove together provided year-round means of pulling people together.
In winter, when neighbors would visit, they would sit by the woodstove to stay warm. In summer, they would congregate on the front porch to keep cool, away from the heat of the kitchen, chatting about whatever struck their fancy. The result of those get-togethers was that people really got to know one another and thus built community.
Those were the days prior to the arrival of the internet, personal computers and cell phones that have transformed our lives even further than central heat and air conditioning. Le Grand noted that houses were being built without front porches anymore and woodstoves were becoming a relic of past times.
Without those two gathering points, people independently pursued their own courses. He might have been correct on the front porch comment, but energy crises over the last generations have brought the woodstove back into popular fashion, at least at our house. Significantly, younger folks, such as the two B.E.s in particular, are especially fond of heating with wood.
In my youth, the porch still was important as a neighborhood center. My parents would have neighbors over to sit, rock and chat. They would reciprocate by going to visit on others’ porches. The porch swing was also an important draw.
The front porch has been superseded by the back deck, but in our days the deck is the site of the grill and the picnic table, rather than the rocking chair. It is an outdoor dining room, rather than a sitting place, and it is a great locale for eating crabs, i.e., causing no potential mess on the dining room carpet.
Updating Le Grand further, today we have the plethora of swimming pools in backyards across the American landscape, but they are hardly what we might call places for conversation, what with children jubilantly yelling and bouncing around, along with the occasional dive into the melee by the water-happy spaniel or golden retriever, eager to lick any human fellow water-bound companions.
This coming summer, I look forward to having engaging conversations on the Werlings’ front porch, seated either in one of the newly restored rocking chairs or the swing, thereby doing my small part to reverse the downward trend defined by Duard Le Grand those many years ago.