By DEBRA KARPLUS
We purchased the house from its original occupant, built in 1907 and located near Champaign's West Side Park, perfect for our young family. The former owner who grew up there seemed pleased to pass it along to us with our promise to take good care of the property. And we did.
In 1978, when we moved in, my Grandma gave us a housewarming gift, a wooden porch swing. It never occurred to me that the front porch would become our special family outdoor place. Even after building a wooden deck out back, the front porch was where we congregated.
As the children grew up and moved out, that porch became my special place. I was notably visible to those passing by, dog walkers, families pushing baby strollers and other neighbors, as I sat on the swing, gently swaying early in spring and late into autumn, sometimes bundled in warmer garments and occasionally even covered with a blanket.
On that swing, I often read for hours, ate meals, chatted on the phone and entertained expected and unexpected visitors, played Scrabble, and crocheted blankets and little hats for new grandchildren. And in more recent years, I'd bring out a folding table and laptop computer and write, until the sun set and it was simply too dark to work.
An ever curious researcher, I wanted to learn more about the history of front porches. I discovered that front porches were an idea originally taken from the Greeks.
American homes began to be built with front porches sometime in the 1880s, around the time Urbana-Champaign was beginning to flourish. Often referred to as verandas, many were wrap-around porches.
Porches added to the house's living space and gave the house an appearance that helped define its age. Porches gave families a place to escape the toasty indoors on hot summer evenings, while providing the perfect scenario for neighbors to interact spontaneously.
Drive around some of the older Champaign-Urbana neighborhoods, and more often than not, you'll see well-used front porches.
I learned that after World War II, fewer houses were built with front porches. Increased use of automobiles and noise from those vehicles made people want to just go inside. And the evolution of air conditioning, radio and then television gave people fewer reasons to stay outside and more reasons to bring the family indoors.
Recently, I felt the need to scale down from that really old, three-story fixer-upper to a one-story townhouse in a newer part of town. The new place, built in 2002, is 95 years newer than the former one, and is a perfect spot to age in place.
I fell in love with the place, purchasing it immediately. How easy it is to live in a house that has more electrical outlets than I could possibly ever use (unlike the old house) and relatively "new everything," no retrofitting needed on repairs in this place.
How excited I was at the prospect of more outdoor living, with the peaceful and beautiful view of a large pond out the bedroom and living room windows, and a patio, completely furnished with patio seating and tables overlooking the pond, and best yet, a freestanding swing.
But the real conundrum here is that you hardly ever see neighbors. There aren't front porches here in "suburbia." And every house on our block has a large attached two-car garage that sticks way out in front of the house.
After a few years here, I am still feeling a bit of culture shock.
The neighborhood has many older residents, probably because living in this subdivision is relatively easy and low-maintenance. Most of these neighbors are transplants from places where they, too, probably owned older homes with porches.
So how do people here enjoy what front porches used to provide? I've seen several neighbors seated on chairs in their driveway or in the entrance of the garage with the overhead door open. Amazingly, one neighbor has set up her entire garage as a sort of front porch; she sits in there on her reclining chair watching TV and entertaining visitors. More of the neighbors have used their backyards as their desired outdoor space with pergolas, canopies, awnings and tents.
I heard somewhere that front porches have recently started making a comeback. I need to drive through some of the areas, newer than mine, and more southwest than mine, and see if that's true. I sure hope so, because, frankly, there's really nothing like a front porch.
Debra Karplus is an occupational therapist and freelance writer living in Urbana-Champaign.