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The Front Porches of Laurel Street

It's a Wonderful Life

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The Front Porches of Laurel Street

Pictured, from left, are Ben Brentin, Jack Brentin, Riley Farrar, Scott Adair and Ryan Thrasher.

A breeze brushes your hair as you rock back and forth, watching the day’s light slip from intense to pale to pink gauze.  Mockingbirds whistle, and a cardinal flies to a nearby branch as she goes about feeding chores.  Somewhere in the distance, a neighbor gently strums a guitar, and a child, keeping pace on his skates, laughs.   A couple, walking their dog, waves.  Now the scent of supper catches the breeze and mingles with the fragrance of sweet olive.  You are relaxed, and you feel peaceful and powerful at the same time.

Imagine you are there.  And all this takes place on your grandmother’s Victorian-style front porch.  Or on a deck overlooking the Guadalupe River.  Or on the movie set of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Actually, scenes such as this are played out daily in Bellaire on the spacious and deep-shaded front porches of Laurel Street, just inside Loop 610.

No less than eight houses, new and remodeled, on the 4600 block of Laurel have front porch “rooms” that hold a lot more than welcome mats and pairs of plants.  Alluring porch swings, cozy wicker chairs, comfy wooden benches, side tables and outdoor art all project a sense that neighborhood life here extends well beyond the typical tasks of going to school or work, pulling the car into the garage and tending the front lawn.  These porches, with their walks that reach out to the street, beckon passers-by to stop and linger for a chat.  They rekindle the concept of community spirit, of neighbors who know and watch out for each other, and of a universe where humans live in the midst of an amazing natural world.



First on the Block

Betsy and Gary Adair are generally credited with starting the front porch theme on Laurel, and they readily admit that the porch design of their home, built seven years ago, came first.  “We knew exactly what we wanted for a front porch – slightly elevated above the front yard, with columns and an old Southern-style charm.  We love the New Orleans Garden District look.  So we designed the house around the porch,” Betsy explains.

And they knew why they wanted a roomy front porch, one with a swing on one side and a wicker sitting area on the other.    “A big front porch is so open and inviting,”  Betsy says.

Inviting is the key word.  The Adairs, owners of Skeeter’s, are naturals at entertaining, whether a family gathering, neighborhood get-together, large cocktail party or small dinner party.  And just as they planned, French doors open on to the front porch from the dining and living rooms, enlarging the spaces and inviting guests to wander outdoors with coffee, after-dinner drinks or cigars. In fact, “we would find it hard to keep guests off the front porch,” Gary says.  “They just gravitate out there.”

As does the Adair family, which includes Katie (now away at college), 19, Nick, 16, and Scott, 9.  “We probably spend 3-4 afternoons or evenings a week on the porch,” Betsy adds.  “It’s an easy escape – no telephone, no TV.  It’s so peaceful.  We sit and watch the comings and goings of our neighbors.  And our neighbors feel more at ease to stop by for a visit.  A front porch just draws people together.”

With all that enchanting front porch activity, it is no wonder that the neighbors caught on to the idea.



Play, parties and more

Eight years after moving into a typical 1950s house on Laurel with absolutely no front porch, and one year after tearing it down, Sharon and Kent Cantrell have just moved into their beautiful, custom-designed, two-story, rock, dream house.  And, yes, a livable front porch was a “priority,” says Sharon. With the other front porches on Laurel serving as fine examples, and with a few good-natured nudges from porch-loving neighbors, the Cantrells had only one question  -- where to stop.  They opted for a grand, sweeping style that flows across the front to the French doors on the side, opening from the sitting room.

Like the Adairs, the Cantrells, who own Bellaire Watch Shop, came up with the porch design first, then developed house plans.  “We knew we wanted an outdoor sitting area to the side and a good spot to watch our kids (Luke, 5, and Julianna, 11 months) play on the drive, in the front yard or down the street,  ” Sharon says.  “And besides, I had always told myself, ‘one day I want a front porch like the neighbors.’  I mean, what’s a house without a porch?  The house was almost secondary.”

After a year’s absence during the house construction, the family is thrilled to be back in familiar territory, where neighbors come out front to catch up on news and keep watchful eyes open for anything amiss. “On this street, everyone just seems to be outside more often,” Kent adds.  “People hang out on their porches, and invite one another over.  And the next thing you know, it’s a party.”

Laurel Street will always be home to the Cantrells.  Sharon and Kent greet well-known faces while Julianna is quickly adjusting to new ones.  Luke has his playmates again. And the new front porch is about to get a work-out.



Drawing a crowd

Maggie and Dale Farrar have lived in the same house on Laurel since they got married 32 years ago.  And when the final step of their home remodeling project – the large front porch – was completed six-and-a-half years ago, they finally had the house they had always wanted.

“The front porch was the crowning touch,” Maggie recalls.  “We’d always wanted one.  Betsy and Gary were just moving into their new house, and we were so eager to get started on our porch.  The front porch just made our house right.”

A charming 1940s bungalow with a metal roof, the Farrar home is almost impossible to imagine without some porch gathering of two or more taking advantage of the softly shaded light, the comfortable toile-cushioned rocking chairs or the quilt-draped couch that sits in a corner near the front door.

“We sit, read, talk, think,” Maggie says.  The busy co-owner of Magpie’s Gift Shop, she and son, Ryan, 11, sometimes study spelling words on the swing while waiting for morning car pool.  But the porch is also “a magnet” for noisier events from wedding and baby showers to dinner parties for adults and ice cream parties for children.  “We’ll pull a table out from the house and use the front porch as another room.   Guests of all ages – little ones, teenagers, grandparents -- love being out there,” she adds.  “The front porch always draws a crowd.”

Crowds of neighbors as well as guests.  People wave as they walk by. Some stop and talk, pulling up a chair, knowing full well the perennial open invitation to join in.  There is a palpable closeness among the Laurel Street neighbors that is refreshing and enviable. The Farrars, with their years on the street, recognize the difference.  Since front porches started appearing, the street “has a different feel from when we first moved in. It’s friendlier, more inviting.   We’ve come to know our neighbors.  It’s a very positive environment,” Maggie says.

For some on Laurel Street, the greatest enjoyment perhaps comes from those casual, spontaneous times when family members slip onto porches and sink into embracing chairs to relax after a hectic day.  “It’s our favorite place to unwind with a glass of wine,” says Dale Farrar.

And before long, as the evening unfolds, and the neighborhood pace begins to slow, the Farrars wave to the Adairs across the street on their front porch, and the neighbor children search for toads along moist, green front lawns, and a teenage girl, all dressed up in white, goes out on a date.   The aroma of steaks cooking on an outside grill floats through the air, and some lucky guy is called to supper.  Little Julianna, playing with her mom and dad on their front porch, chatters happily.   A familiar “Come on over” beckons friends and neighbors.

On Laurel Street, porch sitting has become a way of life.  Maybe this really is the movie set of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”



The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Front Porch

Front porches are pretty much an American invention.  Since early in our nation’s history, Americans have been justifiably proud of the natural beauty of our country.  Front porches originally were a means of enjoying this great gift of nature. With no air conditioning, our ancestors relied on cool breezes, a setting sun and the vast majesty of the natural world to soothe the toils of the day.   The front porch became increasingly popular in the mid-1800’s, before the Civil War, thanks to milled lumber, which provided smaller, standard lengths of wooden boards, and to a prospering society, which rewarded itself with a bit of leisure.  Sitting on the front porch telling stories, singing, reflecting on life became pastimes.   But the primary pleasure of the porch was still to project oneself into the grandness of nature.

Later, as movement of the population from agrarian folk to town folk began,  front porches and yards in towns and cities brought back a little of the natural world, while at the same time providing a means of connecting to a community at a safe and proper distance.  The front porch was a transitional area between public and private spaces, where friendly chats could be held, business conducted, traveling salesmen dealt with.

By the early part of the 20th century, almost every home in America, from grand Victorian, to Greek Revival, to Craftsman, had a front porch.  But by the late1940s, few new houses had front porches.  There are several reasons for the disappearance of the front porch.  An abundance of automobiles gave people the means to drive, not just down the street but to newly forming suburbs miles from the city center.  These suburban houses offered backyards where people put barbeque pits and had almost total privacy.  Front porch chats and storytelling, so important in an earlier era, was replaced by pastimes such as watching television in an air-conditioned house.  People stayed inside, insolated from traffic, pollution and the population, forgetting the ideals of community, neighborhoods and nature.

But over the past decade, homeowners have shown signs of resisting the division of home from the community.   They are seeking old-style neighborhoods that reclaim the feeling of neighborly care, a sense of belonging and a connection to the natural world.  Builders and architects are responding with old-fashioned house designs and “front porch” communities.  Quite simply, front porches are making a comeback.

Top Ten Movies … in which front porches play supporting roles
(in alphabetical order)
Bull Durham
Gone with the Wind
It’s a Wonderful Life
Long Hot Summer
Meet Me in St. Louis
Places in the Heart
The Rainmaker
To Kill a Mockingbird

Porch-building tips from Porch Lovers
1. Build the porch big enough to really use.  Think of how furniture will fit, and make sure there’s room for people to pass by and to sit in conversational groups.
2. Consider access from the lawn to the porch, and from the house to the porch.  How will traffic flow around your porch?  Having more than one “entrance” to the porch may be important.
3. Paint the ceiling of the porch light blue.  This is said to prevent wasps from building nests there.
4. If possible, build the porch elevated from the surrounding lawn.  The view is better.

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