Pondering the Three-Season Porch, and a Tour Announcement!

Note: please read through to the event announcement at the end of this post! There will be a free walking tour on Saturday, September 18th.

Excerpt from Three Seasons: A Subjective Consideration of the Minnesota Porch, by Monica Sheets, published by Birchwood Palace Industries. In this short illustrated booklet, Sheets investigates the phenomena of the three-season porch as a key part of the social landscape of the Twin Cities’ residential neighborhoods. She examines how they invite (or, in many cases, repel) interaction between the occupants and the neighborhood around them. The excerpt below creates a field guide to identifying some of the physical aspects of these structures, and how they facilitate interaction. 

When I first walk up to a house with a three-season porch, I am often struck by a feeling of not knowing how I am supposed to interact with the space.

This sense of insecurity affects me even when visiting the houses of people I know well. My ability to feel the “gift of admittance” relies on a sense of potential interaction as much as it does on actual contact. The sense of openness or exclusion is largely independent of any communication with the inhabitants of a house—I feel it strictly from the construction of the porch itself. It seems to be a practical example of how architecture can structure social relations.

If I pick this apart intellectually, I realize it is because of a series of mixed signals that the porch is relaying. First of all, it is recognizable as a porch, and still serves the function of a mediating space, but other aspects indicate that this space may be private, and that I must be invited to enter. I can’t necessarily assign an order of importance to these signals, but they include the presence (or not) of a functioning doorbell, the type of door to the porch, the location of mailboxes or mailslots, whether the porch door is locked or unlocked, what sort of objects are on the three-season porch, the existence of signage, and the quality of the transition between the steps up to and the door into the porch.

If there is no doorbell on the outermost door to the porch, how do I announce my presence? If the porch is still clearly a separate space and not part of the house, will knocking be loud enough? Can I open the door, enter the porch, and knock on the actual front entrance? Is there a doorbell there, which would indicate an expectation that I enter the porch to communicate with the inhabitants?

Is it a screen door? A wooden door? What sort of visibility does it provide? If it is a sort of meager screen door on a light frame, I am more likely to feel like it is just part of a casual way of keeping bugs out, and it is not meant to offer resistance to humans.

This is to say, how private does the space read? If the furniture is casual and outdoorsy, then it has the informal feel and sense of admittance of a traditional open porch. If the porch is filled with personal objects of relative value, and they appear otherwise unsecured (bicycles, for example), then again, this feels like it has become a private space.

In my walks, I’ve noticed houses—often, but not always, rental properties—that have “No Trespassing” or “Private Property” signs in the windows of the three-season porch. Part of me knows that I am not the audience for these signs: they are targeted toward some sort of imagined drug seller/buyer/person experiencing homelessness who would occupy the space for longer than what might be considered genteel. But I cannot help but feel unsure about entering this space. Generally, “trespassing” means simply setting foot on the property: If I step onto the porch, then I am trespassing.

If the porch door is locked, the message is clear. Combine this with any of the above unwelcoming signals, and potential communication with the inhabitants (except maybe by leaving a note) is completely cut off.

How do the steps end? Are they level with the height of the porch, so that the visitor is announcing their presence from the same plane as the inhabitant? How much space to stand does that last step provide, and in which direction does the door to the porch open? If it’s only the size of a regular step, rather than a small porch-let, and the door opens out, then the visitor must descend even further. This is especially unwelcoming if the inhabitant must come to open the door toward the visitor, literally
pushing them further away.

[Purchase the entire illustrated booklet at Minneapolis’ own Birchwood Palace Industries.]

*** If you are interested in observing porches more closely, chatting with the author and other urban space enthusiasts, please come to the free public porch tour with Monica Sheets, co-hosted by streets.mn! It will take place on September 18th at 2:30, meeting at the Casket Arts building in Northeast Minneapolis. ***