If it’s off hours and you’re looking for Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Theatres, check one of the two giant front porches on his home near Loose Park.
You’re apt to find him there working on his computer late at night, having a cocktail with friends on a Saturday afternoon or screaming and hollering at a flat-screen TV on Sunday afternoons in the fall.
“You can hear Butch two blocks away during Chiefs games,” says his fiancee, Christy Cubbage.
Rigby bought his three-story home in 2007 because he liked its historical features. But he and Cubbage fell madly in love with the long, deep porches that span the front of the first and second floors. So much so that they plan to get married on the lower porch in September.
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Rigby and Cubbage aren’t the only ones who love their front porches. People do all sorts of things on them: read, eat, sip coffee and cocktails, chat with friends, play musical instruments, work on laptops, nap. They decorate them like living or family rooms with plush sofas and chairs, pillows, coffee tables, dining tables, lamps, even rugs and drapes.
Patrick O’Neill moves the plant straddling the front porch railing on his home in Crestwood so he won’t kick it off when he lies down and hangs his feet over the side of his porch swing. He and his wife, Julie, start their days with coffee on the front porch and end them there at night with wine.
“I didn’t know how wonderful it was until after we moved in and started using it,” Beth Warlick says. Five years ago, she and her husband, Steve, moved from a porchless home in Shawnee to a bungalow with a front porch in Hyde Park.
“We have had our entire family here several times, 20 to 30 people sitting all over the porch and out into the front yard,” Beth says. “The grandchildren sit out here and eat Popsicles, and there are always bottles of beer and wine out here after dinner.”
The Warlicks talk to neighbors walking by on the tree-lined sidewalks and often invite the lady next door over for drinks.
“We’ve stayed out here until midnight talking to people,” Beth says. “We just didn’t see that in the suburbs.”
An American creation
If this all sounds wildly Americana — like apple pie, baseball and John-Boy Walton — that’s because it is.
The front porch originated in America. It dates to the 18th century but began growing in popularity during the mid-1800s, just before the Civil War.
“It was not a European tradition,” says Cydney Millstein, architectural historian in Kansas City. “It’s part of American traditions such as national folk style architecture and the simple frame houses in the Tidewater South and Colonial America. The porch became a feature with the shotgun house, and that is very much a Southern tradition.
“Then it goes through every iteration of high style including Greek revival, Italianate and wrap-arounds on Victorian houses,” she adds.
Porches were intended as a place to stay cool during hot summer months. According to Millstein, Nelle Peters, an architect who designed hundreds of apartment buildings in Kansas City during the early 20th century, employed front and back porches so you could open doors to both to get a cross breeze through the apartment.
Millstein’s favorite porches are those on bungalows and craftsman homes because they’re usually deep and shaded. And because the homes are often modest, the porch is a prominent architectural feature.
“Porches were used as another room of the house,” she says. “Every activity that went on inside the house spilled over onto the porch: eating a meal, reading a book, having a conversation. Sleeping porches were very popular. And people who didn’t have porches would use Swope Park as a way to get away from the heat. They would actually sleep there.”
Demand for porches began to wane during the 1930s when automobiles started becoming omnipresent.
“People didn’t want to sit on the front porch because they (autos) sullied the fresh air,” Millstein says. “Then, with the onset of air conditioning, porches all but disappeared. People have a tendency because of many factors to hole up in their houses. The romantic aspect of the front porch has been marred by our society today.
“I truly believe that with the demise of the porch, there goes the neighborhood,” she adds. “We don’t have that communication and social interaction with the neighborhood that we used to.”
Tell that to the O’Neills. Their home’s front porch is lined up perfectly with the front porches of five other homes.
“We’ve lived here 27 years. The very first night we were here, we were young, we were scraping wallpaper and were all dirty, and we went to get a 12-pack of beer and the next thing we know, all the neighbors were on the front porch,” Pat says. “And it’s been that way ever since. The front porch has a lot to do with us knowing our neighbors and getting along with our neighbors.”
Rigby extensively renovated his home and tore down and rebuilt his front porches. After he was finished, he found old pictures of the home, which was designed by renowned architect Selby Kurfiss during the early 20th century, and realized it originally had a deep roof that covered the entire second-floor porch. So Rigby added a cover.
Now it’s divided into a TV area with plush couches, a dining/work area with a large round table and chairs and a napping area with a queen-size outdoor daybed, where Rigby has slept entire nights.
“That extra 600 feet became the best 600 feet in the house,” he says, referring to both porches.
It’s not unusual, Rigby says, to have 40 or 50 people for drinks on the lower porch. He and Cubbage invite friends to have a glass of wine there before heading to the Plaza Art Fair each year. They love sitting on the porches when it rains or when the neighbors’ children are playing.
There are 17 kids in the neighborhood, Rigby says, and they’re all invited to his porch anytime. One such kid, Evan, 9, did just that one Sunday morning, when he knocked on the front door wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms. He wanted Butch to come sit and play with him on the porch.
“They use their porch all the time, even though they have a pool in the back,” Rigby said, pointing to Evan’s house next door. “That’s the whole idea about front porches … they bring neighborhoods together.”
To get the most out of your front porch, decorate it like your favorite room, with cushioned seating, a place to put a drink, decorative lighting, plants and candles. Porch swings are nice, too.
Today you can find many such items specifically made for the outdoors, though indoor furniture can work if your porch is fully covered and deep enough.
A chest of drawers can be used to store bug spray, candles and other porch supplies in upper drawers while plants can peek from the lower drawers. A steamer trunk can serve as a coffee table. A basket of throw blankets is nice for having drinks on crisp evenings.
Here are ideas to get you started.