Woog’s World: Front-porch philosopher’s take on Westport’s loss of community
Updated 7:59 am, Friday, June 26, 2015
Bob Custer is a wise man.
A Vietnam vet who has coached youth sports, is an officer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and, as sexton of Green’s Farms Congregational Church, handles everything from repairs to ringing the bell, he is also a student of history. He shows off the pitcher Martha Washington gave to long-serving minister Hezekiah Ripley; he reels off the names of storied parishioners (Jennings, Sherwood, Wakeman, Rippe, Adams), and he talks about the four separate church buildings as if he spent time in each of them.
But Custer’s most interesting observation has nothing to do with religious history. It’s about the changing patterns of daily life in Westport. “The ruination of neighborhoods started when people took the porch off the front of the house, and put the deck in the back,” he says.
It was one of those holy-mackerel moments. I’d never thought of decks before — other than sitting on them with friends, drinking wine and looking out over the back yard — but Custer was right. Over the past few decades, we — both leading and following the architects and builders who define the look of Westport — have taken the very public face of our homes, and moved it to a very private place.
Custer’s comment came at the same time I was examining dozens of photographs of old houses. The Westport Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit on the changing face of Westport includes a fascinating series of images taken by WPA photographers in the 1930s. A few of those houses still remain, looking much as they did 80 years ago. Some were torn down. Others have been renovated almost beyond recognition.
Many of the houses feature front porches. Some have “sleeping porches” too, screened decks or balconies that offered comfort before the advent of air conditioning.
I’ve also been intrigued by photos of Westport homes from the late 1800s. Half a century earlier than the WPA shots, they feature remarkable architecture. Built in a variety of styles, from wood and stone — and ranging in size from humble to grand — these houses evoke a long-ago era.
I am wary of romanticizing that time. Indoor plumbing was rare. Taking care of the horse-and-buggies needed to get anywhere could not have been easy. Chimneys and wood piles were functional, not decorative.
But the enormous porches — and the men, women and children who stood, sat and rocked on them — must have created a streetscape and environment that made up for some of the real hardships of long-ago life.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like, growing up in an era like that. Would neighbors simply see folks on the porch, and wander up? What conversations took place? What did they eat and drink there? Were children welcomed, tolerated or shooed away? How did families and friends interact, without television, video games, cell calls, texts, kids’ demands to be driven everywhere, and a zillion other distractions?
We have not given up our porches, of course. Many new homes have elaborate front porches. There is furniture on some of them. I’ve seen benches and chairs placed in random spots too, like right by the mailbox. But the next time I see an actual human being or two relaxing on them, will be the first.
A few of the long-ago photos that fascinate me include quaint diversions like swing sets and seesaws. How long could children play on them? What kinds of games did they invent? Were their parents ever worried they might fall off, or the rope would break, or they’d need a break for snacks and water?
Just as today’s back yard decks have morphed into spectacular, multi-layer affairs with decorator seating, five-figure grills and well-stocked bars, so too have children’s play areas changed. Yards are filled with very fancy “playhouses”; woods support well-constructed, nicely appointed “tree forts.” Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids romping in them. In fact, I seldom see kids romp anywhere at all.
Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps there are back yards filled with children romping in playhouses, climbing into tree forts, digging in sandboxes, hanging out with neighborhood kids of all ages, making up games and sleeping out at night in sagging tents.
They may be there, hidden from view. Perhaps I’m not seeing them because those back yards themselves are hidden from view. I can’t see them because they are stuck behind high, mighty, all-rocks-the-same-size-and-height stone walls. And atop those stone walls are fences, because nothing says 21st-century suburban life better than hiding everything from view.
A century or so from now — if digital photos (and the human race) survive — our great-grandchildren will look at images of today’s homes. They may like what they see. They may not. Chances are though, they won’t even see our back yard decks.