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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2003
 

Journalist/Author Michael Dolan Turns the Light on "The American Porch"



"Many people have a strong desire to feel connected with where they live -- in their block and in their community. When I am on my porch, I can sit there and feel connected. I can wave at people and then have them wave back."

Yet connection, argues Michael Dolan, journalist, television writer/producer and author of "The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place" (Lyons Press; 2002), is just one of several needs satisfied by the porch.

There is also a strong emotional bond between people and porches, Dolan says. "Porches elicit deep emotional reactions. There is something about a porch that makes your dorsal hairs rise -- even if you have never had a porch."

Porches have aesthetic value as well -- pity the poor house that doesn't have one. "A house without a porch is like a face without eyebrows," he pronounces grimly.

Michael Dolan is a veteran writer. He has been writing for newspapers and magazines, for nearly 30 years. He has written for Outside, Slate, Washingtonian, Newsday, the New Yorker and many other outlets. Dolan is also an award-winning TV documentary scriptwriter and producer. Many of his shows and series have aired on the National Geographic Channel; he also has worked on many National Geographic Explorer segments and Discovery Channel productions.

A husband and a father, Dolan was the on-camera home-repair expert for D.C.'s edition of "P.M. Magazine," and he has written lyrics for a rock group. He has also been a community activist, organizing a variety of things from neighborhood bicycle-gliding distance competitions to a successful movement in 1981 to keep open the National Aquarium at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C.

In "The American Porch," he views the relationships and connections between human beings and their things, and then weaves story-cloth, multi-hued and many-textured, by following the thread of each interesting vignette to its intersect with some other remarkable place with a story to tell.

His book is about much more than porches. Dolan describes it aptly in the introduction as a "yard sale of history and happenstance."

"My book is really about people -- what people do, how things happen," he explains.

He recalls the moment when, practically by accident, he first turned his attention to the American porch. He and his wife had recently completed a total renovation of their 1920s Washington, D.C., bungalow in the eclectic Palisades neighborhood. The overhaul had included the porch.

"I was sitting on the porch. . There was nothing out there except the glider, on which I was sitting, cordless phone in lap. There'd just been a thunderstorm.

"The phone rang. It was Alex Heard, a friend who'd just taken a job as an editor at the New York Times Magazine. He was in charge of the front of the book, which at that time (summer 1995) consisted of a series of very brief articles.

"'Dolan,' it's Heard,' Alex said. 'I need stories. What do you want to write about?'

"Thinking of the storm that had just ended, I said, 'Lightning.'

"'Lightning, great,' Alex said. 'Gimme a hundred words on lightning. What else?'

"All I could do was continue to respond to the moment. 'Porches,' I said.

"'Porches?'" Alex said. 'What about 'em?'

"'I dunno,' I said. 'Something.'

"'All right', Alex said. 'But write the lightning thing first, okay?'"

Dolan wrote "the lightning thing," but when he tackled porches, he made two discoveries. One was that he couldn't write an article a hundred words long about the porch. The other was that he couldn't find a single volume anywhere that recounted the history of the porch. So he decided to write one.

In October 2002, "The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place" (The Lyons Press, 2002) was published. Today, just four months after initial publication, the book is in its second printing.

Dolan writes of the architecture of many different cultures and places throughout history, including the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, India and America. Throughout, he examines a panoply of other elements and experience: sociology, anthropology, arts and aesthetics, economics, environment, politics, housing as well as the renovation of his own bungalow.

Dowling maintains that the first American porch could have come from several places around the world, but concludes that West Africa is most likely its closest ancestral home.

The tribes on the African west coast or inhabiting the near interior all have a word for "porch" in their language, Dolan explains. In the 1400s, European explorers had no word for the African porch structures because there was nothing like them in Europe.

The first thing enslaved Africans were forced to do upon arrival was build homes for themselves. In the New World, until the 1700s, African slave artisans built African villages to live in - with homes elevated off the ground and an elevated exterior space on the front that functioned like a room.

The porch evolved as part of American culture after that. "By the late 19th, early 20th century, the porch was firmly embedded in the American consciousness," says Dolan. Among other reasons, in the 1920s and 30s, people spent time outside on their porches "to see who was going by."

But then things changed.

By the early 1920s, the American porch was on its way out. "People became tired of it," says Dolan. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the new suburban development boom killed the porch altogether as more space efficient, porchless Cape Cods and ramblers became the mainstream suburban home. Television and air conditioning contributed to the porch's downfall as well.

"In a community where you drive into a garage and go right into the house, you have to work hard to connect," says Dolan. "Something was lost when the porch went away."

Today, the porch is back, he says. At Seaside, the famed new urbanist town on the Florida panhandle, porches were included in the building code.

"The reviews started to come in," Dolan writes. "Seaside's visual appeal drew huzzahs, as did its atmosphere. Individual houses elicited praise.

"What put Seaside on the map were the porches. People were wild about 'em."

Quoting Seaside planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk Dolan writes, "We began to see a kind of complex inter-connected system with the wisdom of the ages in [the porch]."

Dolan thinks porches have come back into American culture because people have a desire, intensified by 9/11, to "embrace places that are more real, are non-digital -- and are not gussied up." "When you step out onto the porch, you are in that liminal space between inside and outside. You are still in your space, but you can't control everything out there. You can't control who is walking down the street. There is an infinite gradation of interaction with other people [on and around the front porch.]

"My porch provided a lens through which to examine the world."

Dolan's story of the American porch's renaissance is one of growing appreciation of community and life's simpler beauties.

Michael Dolan brings good news -- the porch is back.