Plein Air is a Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) in Taylor, Mississippi, just outside the college town of Oxford. As with many TNDs, a central tenet of our design philosophy is the front porch. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans with houses close together where everyone gathered on their front porch or stoop after work. The adults conversed and imbibed while the kids played football or kick the can in the street until dark. That was my frame of reference for what a streetscape and neighborhood should look like. So, naturally, any development I would do was heavily influenced by that memory.
But it wasn’t until several years into the development of Plein Air that I became curious as to the why of the front porch. Why did a majority of houses in pre-World War II have them? What forces led to their demise? And how did the ethos of our neighborhoods change without the front porch?
There was no shortage of scholarship on this subject. Reams of articles and books had been written; I was the one late to the party. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with the significance of the front porch in society. This single architectural feature had a profound impact on how neighborhoods lived. Front porches fostered a greater sense of community, interaction and even kindness. I had long been a believer, but this needed to be celebrated on a larger scale. We didn’t merely need to build more houses with front porches — we needed to stand on the porch and shout that front porches matter!
Such were the origins of The Conference on the Front Porch.
Next month will be our fourth conference. It has grown from an idea into a two-day celebration and study of what the front porch stands for in American society. We didn’t want just another “porchfest" — as great as those are. (And we love to drink and dance on a porch. We do that, too.) We wanted an academic component to our gathering. So we brought in the people who had already done the deep dives into the history, demise, and resurrection of the American front porch.
Our first keynote speaker was Scott Cook, author of the seminal study done at The University of Virginia on “The Cultural Significance of the Front Porch in America.” Following Cook was Michael Dolan, author of The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place, as well as Crow Hollister, founder of the Professional Porch Sitters Union. Jay Watson, the Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies at Ole Miss, gave presentations on the significance of the front porch in many of William Faulkner’s greatest works. Mississippi poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly penned an original piece on her love affair with the front porch. Architect V. John Tee walked us through the history of the porch from early Greece until today.
Front porches in cinema. Front porches in presidential politics. The correlation between front porches and mental health. Never had so many serious porch-nerds gathered in one place at one time.
As the conference grew, we expanded into food, music, literature, and storytelling — and we looked at how the front porch factored mightily into each. Scott Baretta, possibly the world’s foremost living blues expert, gave an extraordinary talk on the importance of the front porch in the formation of the blues. (It was the devil’s music and got kicked out of the house.) John T. Edge, who runs the Southern Foodways Alliance, explored food and the front porch. The former Director of Publishing for the Library of Congress, Ralph Eubanks, gave a poignant talk on how, growing up in rural Mississippi, he would wait on his front porch with his mother for the bookmobile to come down his dirt road each week. It changed his life.
The conference features lectures and presentations in the mornings. In the afternoons, there are tours and outings to places such as Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, the Ole Miss blues archive and Mississippi’s only gin distillery. Evening festivities include block parties, dinners in the field, porch plays and music. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors serenaded attendees last year; this year The Kudzu Kings will let loose with their southern funk-a-rock.
The 2019 conference takes place September 26-27 and features another all-star lineup of speakers. Attendees will receive front porch wisdom from Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team, Audra Burch of The New York Times, NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, novelist Ace Atkins, writer and philosopher Brian Jones, legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie, artist Jason Bouldin and more. Garden & Gun Magazine has signed on as lead sponsor and editor Amanda Heckert will present from her new book on southern women.
One could easily argue that America in 2019 needs more front porch time. Thankfully, the percentage of houses in America with front porches is rising again and none too soon. The porch symbolizes community, neighborhood and conversation. When you ask people about their favorite front porch, many recall a kinder, gentler time. What is your favorite front porch, and how does it resonate with you still today?
The Conference on the Front Porch
September 26-27, 2019
About the Author
Campbell McCool is a reformed marketing executive. He sold his firm, McCool Communications, in Atlanta just before 9/11 and moved back to Mississippi where he started dabbling in development. One project led to another, all culminating in the Plein Air development. Plein Air is a 64-acre traditional neighborhood development with a 7-acre commercial district.