A conversation on the porch with Charlie Hailey

An interior shot of author Charles Hailey's porch overlooking a lake.

The inside of Charlie Hailey's porch.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Porches are designed for social connection and for observing the world around us. In this episode of From Florida, hear what Charlie Hailey, a professor in UF’s School of Architecture, learned in his meditation on porches – a space where writers find inspiration, presidents seek solace and which present us all with a perfect perch to observe life and nature.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. 

Our guest today is Charlie Hailey and we're going to be talking about his newest book, The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature. It's a very thoughtful, provocative exploration of space, places and nature and I'm excited for Charlie to share more about his work. But first an introduction.

Charlie Hailey is a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Florida. He has received numerous awards, including recognition as a teacher scholar of the year here at UF. He has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship and a Graham Foundation grant. He's a prolific writer with six books about the built environment and his research focuses on the intersection of climate, building and community and how architecture and humanity intertwine. Welcome, Charlie!

Charlie Hailey: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Nicci Brown: So, I shared a broad overview of your professional background, but it would be great if you could tell us a little more about yourself, including your affiliation with UF and your particular focus as a scholar. 

Charlie Hailey: Sure. As you mentioned, I'm a professor in the School of Architecture where I've taught for 20 years now. I'm fascinated with architecture's connections with nature. I'm also intrigued by what we can learn from the edges of what we build. And I love teaching a wide range of courses. I've taught design studio courses, architecture history and theory, research methods and what we call design-build studios, which is where we actually build what the students have designed.

Nicci Brown: Can you describe a few of these and tell us where we can find these design projects?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. Working with students out in the field, we've completed more than a dozen projects over the past seven or eight years — those design-build projects that I mentioned. We worked with a town of White Springs to build a community music pavilion about an hour north of Gainesville. And there have been a few projects here in Gainesville working with nonprofits, including The Repurpose Project and the Boys & Girls Club of Gainesville.

Nicci Brown: How do you go about that? Do you go and interview people? How does it all come together. 

Charlie Hailey: So, it's interesting because we have to put it all together in a semester. So it's usually small in scope and scale. And we start by working with members of the community and then deciding what they'd like to see and what they'd like to build. Recently, we've been working in Cedar Key building a series of projects. We actually built one out on Seahorse Key, about four miles offshore. It was a stair from the Marine Lab down to the Gulf of Mexico. We also built a few small projects out in Cemetery Point Park there and one behind the Chamber of Commerce.

Nicci Brown: I've got to imagine that's tremendously gratifying for the students to see that work come together, but also it really epitomizes that land-grant institution of community and the university working together in a very balanced relationship.

Charlie Hailey: I think so. And we really value that connection that we make with the communities and since we have a series of projects, we can actually go back and see them and also maintain them over time.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. Well, let's turn to your newest book now, The Porch, which was published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. It seems you've been thinking about porches for a long time. How did the idea for the book come together. 

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. I've always really enjoyed living and working on porches and really any of those spaces that are somewhere between the inside and the outside. And as a kid, I used to build small structures along the river that was near my house and so I think there's a little bit of that in this project. And I get really excited when the context of research becomes the method or vehicle for that work. So I love that I could study the porch by simply being there.

Nicci Brown: So, your book has a setting, the porch of your cabin. For listeners who don't know much about the area that it's in, can you describe your cabin and the area for us?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. The Homosassa River is about 70 miles south of Gainesville. It's midway between here and Tampa. It's one of the first magnitude spring-fed rivers along the Gulf Coast, just north of Weeki Wachee, and just south of Crystal River. And the spring's head is called The Fishbowl and it's always been known as a great place to fish for both freshwater and saltwater.

It's beautifully rendered by many artists, including Winslow Homer, who did a series of watercolor paintings there. And he really captured the mix of live Oaks, Sabal palms, Cedars and marsh grass and certainly the water, the quality of the water is beautiful.

Our cabin itself is boat-access only. So it's down the river about two miles. So you really feel like you're getting away from it all when you head out there. And it was built in 1950, which makes it one of the first cabins on the river, at least boat-access cabins on the river. It's about 20-by-20 feet and the front porch spans about 10-feet deep and it faces out on the river. So you can really watch the tides come in and out. You can watch the wildlife and really get a sense of the place.

Nicci Brown: You identified four core elements that demonstrate as you say, the fundamental nature of a porch to our humanity. Would you briefly share what those are and how they work to frame your thinking about porches?

Charlie Hailey: Sure, sure. One of the intriguing things that define the porch is the in-between. It's a place where we can be both inside and outside. It's about coming and going. It's about open and closed, here and there. And there are these wonderful paradoxes of the porch. So I came up with those four elements that include tilt, air, screen and blue.

And tilt is based on the slope of the porch. The idea that we can find a stability even in instability. And if you think about the way the porch works, it really assumes that it's going to get rained on so it sheds water really easily.

The second element, a porch wraps architecture in air and this is the place where public and private mix. It's where hosts meet guests.

And then screen maintains openness with enclosure. So the porch protects as it also exposes. I was fascinated to learn that the weave of screening material was studied right here at UF in the 1940s in an office called the Insect Wire Screening Bureau. And they found that 20 openings per inch is just about as dense as we can go without losing that connection with the outside. But it's also still wide enough to allow the no-see-ums, the biting gnats that we all know here in Florida, to get through.

Finally, blue talks about how we daydream on a porch. It's a place that mixes the actual and the imagined. One of the first things I did with the cabin’s porch was to paint the ceiling Robin’s egg blue. So not so much to ward off the insects that made it through the screen, but to really explore the restfulness of that blue-green color. 

Nicci Brown: You know, I think it's fair to say that through the pandemic and some of the things we've experienced recently we've gone through a collective trauma. Did that help crystallize your thinking about porches and what you find so fascinating and important about them?

Charlie Hailey: Yeah, it really did. One of the things that I found on the porch during the pandemic was it's sort of architecture that's ready-made for social distancing and it actually ended up being a really important place that connected us during the pandemic. A lot of what I had read about porches before the pandemic was about porch pirates and about the porch as this sort of oversized Amazon delivery box, but when the pandemic hit, I think it really redefined what the porch was about. Not in a nostalgic way, but actually in a very practical way of finding new ways to connect us.

Nicci Brown: And along with those ideas is another I guess, perhaps, central theme and that is porches as muse structure, a method for tuning us to a rapidly changing climate. “A porch is an ideal place to become connected to the world around us and to gauge how our environment is changing.” And I'm quoting you there again, but what perspectives have you drawn about our climate from the vantage point of your own porch? 

Charlie Hailey: Right. Well, I found that porches are essential ways to connect us with nature and also to witness the changes that are happening around us. And sometimes those are subtle and sometimes they're quite dramatic. Porches protect us from the elements, but they're also vulnerable. And they really put us on the cusp of those changes. Our cabin on the river has air conditioning, but the porch remains unconditioned. And you might say that it's even conditioned by nature. So as the temperatures rise with climate change, the porch is essentially on the move southward. You could say that the porch is moving with that changing climate and it's something like 100-feet per day, if you actually run the numbers. So by the time I finished writing the book, the porch was actually 70 miles south in Tampa. 

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about that 70 miles? It sounds pretty dramatic.

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. It's a way that I tried to illustrate and really understand how to visualize that change in climate. Because I think sometimes we feel quite distanced from what climate change really means and how we can understand it. So for me, the porch embodied that change, by sitting on the porch and feeling that temperature change, you really essentially occupy a space that is further south over time. And 100-feet per day is not something that you could sense, but over a period of 10 years, I feel like the porch offers that connection to climate so that you could really start to sense that change that's happening. 

Nicci Brown: You bring many people and their experiences into your exploration of the porch, from philosopher John Dewey, who had such an impact on education in this nation, to writers Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Agee, Carson McCullers and presidents — William Taft to Richard Nixon. In fact, you have a section on presidents and their use of porches. And I have to admit, I did not know about the White House's rooftop porch and I suspect I'm not alone. Could you share with us a story or two about the different ways presidents put that space to use.

Charlie Hailey: Yes, there was a sleeping porch on the roof of the White House, if you can believe it. In my research, I had found one photograph of what looked to be a temporary structure on the roof. The only information was a handwritten note, a caption, with the date 1916, attributing it to President Taft. So imagine the view in the photograph, just above the south portico of the White House. You can see the high balustrades and then next to the attic where the president's family slept is something that looks like a makeshift-tent with cables that anchor it back to the roof and screening around its edges. So I was intrigued by that photograph and I spent a week in the National Archives, kind of pulling my hair out and trying to find more information. And it was on the last day that I found a drawing kind of buried in the bottom of a drawer that showed that it was actually built in 1918. And so it was probably during the Wilson administration.

And at the time sleeping porches were strongly recommended and encouraged for health. And so you can imagine presidents weren't immune to what some people called the passing fad of sleeping porches. So I loved the idea of essentially camping on the roof of a national symbol. And then when this temporary architecture was transformed into what was called the Sun Parlor and then later the Solarium on the roof, it's where presidents’ families could relax. It was where Carolyn Kennedy went to kindergarten and Eisenhower had family barbecues.

Nicci Brown: Wow, that's fascinating. You really do take us on a trip through time with your stories and you take us from ancient Greek to modern times during this meditation on porches. So how should we think about porches today? Are we getting the most out of our porches? And what's the message you'd like to leave us with about porches?

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. During the course of the research, I mentioned the connection with the pandemic and I had found that there was a small resurgence in porches, but a lot of them aren't really being built deep enough to occupy. They're more symbols cast on the front of houses and buildings. So I was really interested in talking more about how porches are exceedingly useful and actually really important places to witness climate and also to connect with people. And I recently wrote an essay for Orion Magazine making a case for the porch and how porches might help repair our connection to the world and change our perspective from one that centers on humans to one that works from nature. So I think porches remind us to pay greater attention to the edges of what we build so that we might in turn pay greater attention to nature.

Nicci Brown: Well, it sounds like a really important way to look at things and I think our listeners would very much appreciate hearing you read a section from your book. Would you do that for us?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. I'd love to. Thank you. Thank you.

A manatee's breath drifts across the porch screen. It is a sound so delicate yet insistent that I stop breathing. I count time in the rings of smooth water that drift with the river’s current toward the ocean. I listen for the next breath but this manatee is moving fast, and its footprints blend back into the burnished roll and flicker of the river that holds its own breath between tides. The manatees are on the move this January day as Florida warms after a cold snap. What we call fire weather is what most other parts of the country think of as winter, but manatees know the subtle changes of the lower subtropics. They feel the air through water like we feel it in porches. 

That was the fourth manatee I've heard in the past hour. The extraordinary can become routine, but it never gets old. Set back from the river, we don't always see them, except when we catch a black snout sending out its wake like a skidding duck or a piece of driftwood plowing the current, and except that time when a mother came into our lagoon with her calves — the littlest looked like a puppy. There's another one, louder, closer, but on a porch earshot isn't necessarily eyeshot. It rained last night, and the cedars drip like metronomes. A kingfisher calls, far enough away to mix with the gentle lapping of breeze and water on limestone. It is quiet today, but it feels like anything can happen. I hear my own breath again, waiting.

The porch where I write will soon be underwater. For seven decades it rode hurricanes and winter storms. In another seven, the sea will cover the boards where three layers of flaking paint sandpaper my bare feet. We do not complain about this reality, neither the porch’s vulnerability nor the paint’s inconstancy. In a position both privileged and ill-advised, I sit here by choice, aware of what's coming and what's at stake, saturated by a knowledge of this place and its climate — one that is constantly and dramatically changing. Here, on the porch, theory meets practice. There's the idea of a changing climate, and then there's actually witnessing its effect. Here on a porch, the unseen is inescapable, like the manatee. And the mullet who just splashed in the brackish water taut with low tide. I didn't see the fish, but I heard the dazed flump of reentry into a river saltier than it was last year, and now watch the ripples widen from this joyful leap.

In our time here, the porch’s floor has been inundated once, and nearly a second time. A fragile wrack line still clings to the porch’s concrete pile, just below the wood framing of its floor. The flecks of cedar needles, tiny bits of shell and soil, left there from this fall’s hurricane, seem trivial compared to what happened up north in Mexico Beach, but it's all part of the same thing, this living on the coast, which is really living in the coast, deeply embedded in the littoral. Not fixed in place, but held adrift between tides, floating. Like all the things that Hurricane Hermine and her seven-foot storm surge set afloat in our porch and its cabin four years ago.

When we took the boat out to the cabin the next day, the tannin-stained water was still lapping onto the porch. When my son and I stepped up onto the porch, we walked into a washing machine that had just finished its cycle, one set for heavy soil and turgid water moving this way and that. Even though no doors were ajar or windows broken, it was like someone had ransacked the place, leaving it turned in on itself. Like nature was trying to find us, trying to send a message.

When I walk out on the porch now, I instinctively check the water for signs of change. I watch and hold my breath. I am teaching myself to sit on a porch. I am learning to read what's around me. Checking for signs, I scan the water. Floating. 

Nicci Brown: The book is The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature. Charlie, it was a delight to have you as our guest today. Thank you so much. 

Charlie Hailey: Thank you. 

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll join me for our next story of innovation From Florida.

UF News December 7, 2021